Human Connection via Nature: Two Family Portrait  and Story Series

60" x 48", Acrylic on canvas, 2019 Available

"Abuelita"

My Abuelita immigrated to New York from Managua after Nicaragua’s civil war. She has been head of household since my Abuelo passed while my mother was still a child in Nicaragua. The way my Abuela has held her family together and struggled to bring about a better life for them represents my idea of success. 

 

I chose to paint my Abuela because of the admiration I have for her. I see in her the same giving nature and love that my mother has, and while I hope to continue our story of unconditional love I do admit that we still have work to do. I recall the comments I received from a relative when I took the photo of my Abuela: “No tomes la foto así porque la nariz'' (“Don’t take the photo that way because of her nose”). It was that comment that solidified my decision to use this photo for my painting. We always had a dislike for our wide or curved nose - perhaps a dislike we’ve had in our family since colonization. My relative loves my Abuela and didn’t mean to hurt her, and in truth my Abuela wasn’t hurt. What I had witnessed was yet another unspoken mutual agreement and acceptance that our noses aren’t up to Eurocentric beauty standards. In fact, we’ve done this to each other for as long as I can remember and is just one example of the denial of our indigeneity. The fact is that while I fight them, I also carry these standards. My struggle and hope is to break this curse and not pass it down to my own children.

 

Despite the Star of David necklace she wore the day I took her photograph, my Abuela isn’t Jewish. To me, the necklace represents where she is today and the influences that she’s had as a New Yorker. I try to be careful not to romanticize my idea of being Central American as just a singular identity, but rather I try to highlight its real complexities through migration and our new home in the North. The background of her portrait is a cross section of a pitaya (dragon fruit), which is native to Central America.  It is symbolic of her own fruitfulness through our large family, the seeds representing future generations and in them the stories I wish to pass down to my own children and to the generations yet to come. I’ve recently noticed the common occurrence of spots in nature, and have represented this to tie ourselves to it. The seeds complement her freckles, which I’m proud to have inherited. The Guardabarranco bird is blended with my Abuela’s shoulder. I have also included a hummingbird, which is found throughout the Americas. Birds, like humans, are migratory. They also embody a spirit that although not visible, connects us all. 

60" x 48", Acrylic on canvas, 2020 Available

"Uncle Mike"

My very first ancestor in the Americas from my father’s side immigrated from England in early colonial times. I contrast the privilege I have of knowing my father’s family tree beyond colonization with how I don’t have this from my Nicaraguan mother’s side of the family. I sometimes think about how that time period altered our families forever; on one hand as the oppressed and the other as the oppressor. 

 

The bird on my uncle Mike’s shoulder is a native Eurasian/ North African Kingfisher. My uncle has lived near the Florida Everglades for many years, and since I grew up in Miami I still recall our Floridian Kingfisher. The fact that one branch of these birds are native to North America while the other is native to Eurasia/ North Africa makes me reflect upon how they both originally evolved from the same species thousands of years ago. 

 

My father passed when I was four years old. We would often bring home reptiles when he would take my older brother and me to the Everglades or out into the mangroves at Key Biscayne for canoe trips. I have one memory of him putting a turtle in our apartment complex’s pool in Miami and how hilarious it was to see everyone flee as the turtle sped under water! My love of nature was instilled in me from these experiences with my father.

 

The figure in the background of the painting is of a Diamondback Terrapin. While my uncle grew up in a very conservative Catholic family, he is now a mental health counselor, makes erotic art, and is a nudist. He is also one of my biggest supporters as an artist from my father’s side. I admire his push against censorship, his openness in self, in nature, and his lack of judgement. I wanted his portrait to face the viewer, as if to say “look at me and accept me as I am”. Hidden amongst the spots of the terrapin is erotic art - a reference to my uncle’s artwork and his openness in sexuality. The bird on the top left is a Starling. It has more of a shadow figure and is not necessarily facing the light. The Starling was intentionally brought over to New York from Eurasia and are now considered an invasive species that have since become a nuisance. The background spots all together, including the terrapin’s silhouette, resemble the impressive formations that these birds make when flying in flocks. Again, birds are migratory like humans are and they embody this invisible spirit that connects us all.

©2020 by J DeSantis Art.

Baltimore, MD