Of all the artists I love and admire, Frida Kahlo may very well be right at the top of the list. The first time I saw one of her paintings was around the age of six. My mother and I took the train to Manhattan from the Bronx to see the modern art greats at MoMA. I remember learning about the father of Cubism Picasso and the pioneer of modernism Brancusi. But nothing took my breath away like Frida Kahlo. I was mesmerized by the look in her eyes and her communication of sadness. I was a little girl so I could not quite understand the complexities of her work but I saw the depth in her eyes. I knew there was something she wanted to reveal to her viewers … But I couldn’t grasp what it was (yet).
I recall feeling a connection to her. She kind of, sort of … looked like me! That was a huge deal. Up until that point, my exposure to art was filled with European aristocrats and blue-eyed biblical figures. Frida had dark, wavy hair similar to mine with thick eye brows (pre-tweezer years), dark brown eyes and olive skin. I also noticed that her work was not “fancy”, as I would say. You can see the layers of paints and the strokes from her hand. It felt very hand-made and authentic. As I stared at the paintings, my mother looked over at me and said “she’s Mexican.” At that moment, I made the cultural and language connection. She was, in fact, a lot like me.
Here are three ways Frida Kahlo taught me about love, life and pursuing your dreams.
The art world was accessible to me
Since the age of three, I always had some sort of crayon or marker in my hand. I preferred art over dolls or any other toy. I spent countless hours drawing the world around me (whether it was good or bad), women doing everyday things and portraits. In school, I helped the teachers decorate the school with art (cut-outs, drawings, etc). In fact, it was my 10th grade art teacher who encouraged me to study art. Not entirely sure how to go about a career in the arts, I enrolled into a 2-year Catholic college after high school and pursued commercial art and advertising because I thought it would be more “secure”. However, after exhibiting one of my pieces at a school art show, one of my painting teachers encouraged me to study at an art school in the city. I took his advice and went to the School of Visual Arts. It was a very exciting time. Pursuing art was not the norm for kids in my neighborhood .. or even my family. No one in my little Bronx community thought about art, much less cared about a job in the field. Anything art related was not considered a “real” job. My family, although encouraging, saw it as a hobby. The older generation thought my little “dibujitos” were nice, but a job? No way. My mother stood 100% by me, and knew that I needed to spread my wings and give it shot because … Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?
I strongly feel that my early exposure to Frida, a powerful Latina artist, is why I felt that a career in the arts was just as accessible to me as any other career in another field. I majored in Illustration and Art Education, and started my venture in the arts. My student teaching requirements led me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I worked with Latino children who reminded me so much of my 6 year old self. That was it. That is what I wanted to do. I wanted to show kids the beauty that is modern art. And that’s just what I did for close to 17 years. During that time, I studied Modern Art at Columbia University, lectured at other museums during the evening and exhibited my paintings in several shows.
One of the things that bothered me about my illustration courses in college was the lack of diversity in the images I was asked to create. I did not relate to any of them. With Frida living in my subconscious (along with a recent visit to Ecuador), I started painting what I felt passionate about and no longer cared about grades. I started with a series of women from Otavalo, EC. I’m half Ecuadorian, and felt such a deep spiritual connection the history of this country and the people. You could not tell me that I was not an Incan in a past life. In fact, when I was in grad school, I took a course on Meso-American art because I just knew that I lived in Andes centuries ago. I was obsessed with the Chimú culture in particular. Obsessed. I wore coral beads, turquoise, ponchos and was just all about that life. Hey, if Frida could do it .. Why couldn’t I? Fortunately, my teacher at the time (who wore mismatched socks and never brushed his hair because he hated rules) liked my tenacity and gave me an A in the course.
The painting on the right won my teacher over for an assignment completely unrelated.
Anything you can do, I can do better
Ah, my motto when it comes to men. Now, don’t get me wrong. Men are great. I’m not anti-men. Feminist? Yes. A man hater? Not at all. But I never – ever – felt less than a man or as though my job or contribution wasn’t as important. As a woman, you should never allow a man to oppress you in anyway (work, personal life, anywhere). You shouldn’t allow anyone to do that, period. But if you’ve been down the tough relationship road (or are in one) recognize it as the fuel and path to empowerment and strength.
Think about it. Do we celebrate Diego’s birthday like we do with Frida? He was a groundbreaking and monumental figure in the art world, there’s no denying that. However, he was also at the core of much Frida’s inner struggle and pain. But like any strong woman, she used that pain and made something beautiful from it. She shared her story and as a result left a legacy behind that has impacted the world. His affairs certainly gave her a lot to draw from, literally. I learned that no matter what … We are built to overcome and come out stronger in the end if we learn from the journey.
Happy birthday Frida, and thank you for sharing your life with us. In honor of her upcoming birthday, I share more about my love for all things Frida in this article – The Day Frida Kahlo Changed My Life.
“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.” ― Frida Kahlo