Working on a painting of my mother's hand, Summer 2016

Working on a painting of my mother's hand, Summer 2016

I didn't always know I wanted to be an artist.  In fact, until I was 18 I didn't even realize "artist" was an actual profession.  I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago in a neighborhood called La Villita (Little Village), a community predominantly composed of working class Mexican immigrants.  My parents arrived in Chicago in 1977 after spending 12 years in California working as crop pickers and on factory assembly lines.  

Little Village was and is a typical inner city neighborhood with inner city concerns: gangs, crime, overcrowding, a compromised public school system and, at least in my memory, an overarching feeling of bleakness.  But something very fortunate took place here--- my mother, who had no formal schooling herself, instilled in me a love for reading.  And it was through books that I began to realize there was a world beyond the invisible walls of our troubled neighborhood.

Looking back now, I know that this is where the proverbial seed was planted.  Coming across poetry in schoolbooks gave me my first experiences with beauty and introduced me to the universal themes of our collective human experience.  In a very literal sense, poetry untethered me from the limits of my surroundings.  And this is when I realized that beauty mattered deeply--- not only as a salve from ugliness, but as an introduction to a deeper conversation with ourselves, the world around us, and the vast uncertainty within and beyond those borders. 

I would go on to take a required art class in my 3rd year of high school.  I was not a natural talent, but I enjoyed it enough to take another class my senior year.  By now I had decided that I wanted to become a psychologist, so when my art teacher asked me if I had considered any art schools, I was confused by the mere idea of schools solely dedicated to art.  "Nope, I'm going into psychology," I responded with confidence.  So imagine my surprise when only a few months later, I was sitting in a Psych101 lecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago and I was overcome with a sudden urge to run.

I remember hurriedly taking notes in a crowded lecture hall one morning when a rapid wave of anxiety washed over me.  Following immediately after, as strange as this sounds, I felt a loud "NO" reverberate throughout my body.  The message was so urgent I couldn't ignore it.  I dropped out of college the next day, completely unsure of what to do next.  The next five months were a blur.  I sat alone in my bedroom, unable to even think of an alternate plan.  Finally, one day, a sketchbook and pencil ended up in my hands somehow.  And after just a few clumsy marks on the paper, I felt a profound sense of relief.  I decided to listen.

I scheduled a walk-through at the American Academy of Art shortly thereafter.  I remember walking nervously down the halls, peering into drawing rooms and feeling not quite sure if I belonged.  Finally, we reached the Oil Painting 1 class on our last stop.  I had never painted before, but the smell of the room and the sight of paint stains all over the floors felt warm and inviting. My guide ended the tour by carefully pulling out an in-progress painting from a drying rack for me to see.  I could hardly believe such alchemy---colors, shapes and lines coalesced to somehow form an exquisite, almost-breathing face.  It was magic.  My heart quickened as I was overcome by this same sense of joyful discovery that had first broadened and deepened my world in childhood.  And once again, I decided to listen.