Insta Inspiration: Portrait of a Working Japanese Woman

Insta Inspiration: Portrait of a Working Japanese Woman

Whoever said that Instagram is only a place to post poolside selfies and photos of deliciously greasy In-and-out burgers hasn’t discovered the creative potential of this application.

While I, too, post selfies and pictures of papaya and chile smoothies I make on my @vulnerabletraveler account, I’ve connected with other travelers I otherwise wouldn’t have met through it. Instagram helps me connect with others and with myself, since the photos I post are so personal to me and reflect the roller coaster ride that is Peace Corps Nicaragua.

I also use instagram to be more creative in a non-creative environment. While I teach art classes and enjoy sketching alongside my students, there isn’t much of an artistic community in my city. While there are remnants of murals along the city walls, there are no galleries or art museums—only private studios. I can, however, connect with other people who share my interests online, whether they’re artists or not. Since I use hashtags like #travel, my posts make the feeds people from anywhere in the world can peruse.

One of my followers, @zorrathexplorer, found me and liked and commented on my photos. I looked through the photos of a two-week trip she’d taken with her ex-girlfriend to Japan, and an unassuming photo stopped me in my tracks. It was of an older Japanese woman, sitting by a metal grill in an Okonomiyaki restaurant in Hiroshima.

Her confident yet resigned pose left me spellbound. She rested one arm on her lap and her other elbow rested on top of the table. Something about the way she didn’t feel compelled to smile gave the photo a raw feeling. Her vermillion apron juxtaposed playfully with the drab, nearly mechanical background. The photo had not the quality of a dream, but of the memory of a dream. It was foreign yet familiar.

I hadn’t painted anything in three months (the last being a portrait of my mother), but within three seconds, I knew I had to paint this woman. I expressed this interest in the comments, and Ally emailed me the original. We also chatted about her travels, and she gave me the story behind the photo, explaining that she’d taken it on her iphone 4.

This was one of the most detailed paintings I’d ever done. I’d done portraits of Nicaraguans before, and I tend to focus more on the shades and shapes I see rather than the details in my subjects. For my Japanese painting, the squares and straight edges of the kitchen’s tables, frames, and coffee machine called for me to use a ruler. It was fitting to be accurate and precise in a painting set in Japan. When I visited Tokyo and Kyoto in 2013, I marveled at how organized everything seemed. I didn’t see a single piece of garbage on the floor, and the metro ran impeccably smoothly. My painting brought this appreciation to life.

Three weeks of painting later, I wasn’t quite satisfied with the result. On a trip to the Solentiname Islands’ artist colonies, I showed the portrait to Maria Guevara, a painter and owner of the Hotel Celentiname and asked for her feedback. She liked how my portrait depicted the woman at rest in her surroundings. “The only thing I’d change is that I’d make the background darker so that she pops out more. Does that make sense?” When I looked at Maria’s landscape paintings, I noticed that the areas behind the houses she created were very dark, and this effect gave the houses a three dimensional effect.

Japanese Woman Painting
“This particular restaurant was on like the fourth floor of a building with an arcade on the first floor and it only had four seats total. These two ladies made the pancake, which I wish I still had a photo of and just sort of gestured a bunch at us to see what we wanted in it… I am salivating even now thinking about it. If you have never traveled to Japan I highly recommend it. I can’t wait to get back there!” -Ally.

Now this painting is sitting in my kitchen. This unapologetic working woman reminds me not only of Japan, but of how social media has connected me with others and with my sense of creativity.

This article is featured in June’s creativity issue of Wanderlust life magazine.


A Painters’ Paradise: Solentiname, Nicaragua

A Painters’ Paradise: Solentiname, Nicaragua

The Solentiname Islands in Nicaragua’s Rio San Juan department don’t usually make it on most travelers’ itineraries. The Solentiname archipelago lies at the southeastern corner of the massive Lake Nicaragua, and the islanders experienced a liberation theology movement led by the priest and poet, Ernesto Cardenal. Ernesto built a church on Mancarron Island and inspired the locals to create landscape paintings and artisanry that are so endemic to the islands.

After having been in Nicaragua for nearly two years, I hadn’t even visited this area because of how far away Solentiname was. The seemingly inconsistent boat schedules also deterred me. I was dying to visit a place with fellow painters because times are rough where I am. It’s been hard to find other artists who I could share my work with. Luckily, my time to visit came when my boss asked me to observe Stacey, another TEFL volunteer living in the region.


I woke up at 5 AM on a Sunday morning without drinking water as I’m used to doing. I needed to dehydrate myself for the seven hour bus ride. The Rio San Juan department is so far away that it borders Costa Rica, but Nicaraguans proudly call the 119-mile river of the same name theirs. Stickers boasting “The San Juan River is ours!” are pasted on buses here.

I took a taxi to Managua’s Mayoreo terminal, then I hopped on the bus at 5:30. It cost 150 cordobas, which at the time was about $5.30. Since it was Sunday, not many people were traveling, so I could have easily gotten a seat right before the bus left at 6 AM. Vicente Fernandez, a famous Mexican singer, crooned over the speakers in the bus.

Vendors boarded the bus. A woman in a crisp, white polo and white sneakers glided through the aisle, saying “rosquillas, rosquillas” (baked corn cakes that taste like salty cardboard, but they’re great when you’re hungry). She had only three bags left in her hand and I’m sure she sold them quickly. A man came in and offered apples shrink-wrapped onto Styrofoam plates.

The engine rumbled to a start, and my nervous excitement kicked in as I felt the slight tremor under my feet. I’d finally go somewhere new! The Rio San Juan, Nueva Segovia, and the RAAN (which is off-limits for Peace Corps volunteers) are the only departments I hadn’t been to.

I’m glad I packed National Geographic magazines and my Moon guidebook to Nicaragua. As the bus cruised along, I was transported to the world of Kinshasa, Congo’s chaotic, creative capital. I read about the city’s relentlessly passionate artists, like Chéri Chérin, who paint next to lanterns at night because most of the city’s power goes out at night. While I get annoyed that the water runs out for days on end here, I still have a consistent supply of electricity.

San Carlos

San Carlos is a tiny, clean port town with not much else other than restaurants, bars, and a fortress. I decided that I didn’t feel like I needed more time to explore the town, so I boarded a boat to Solentiname. I paid $10 for the Transol ride. Every day at 3 PM, boats leave San Carlos for Solentiname. The cheaper boats cost about $3.50, but they only run on Tuesdays and Fridays. I thought it would be worth the investment, and I’d have two days in Solentiname anyway.

Route to San Carlos
The bus ride from Managua (top left) to San Carlos (bottom right) takes 7 hours and costs 150 cordobas.

I called Hostal Vanessa on San Fernando (or Elvis Chavarría) Island, Solentiname’s second biggest island. José, or Chepe, reserved my private room with a bathroom ($12). I was lucky he answered my call since cell service is so spotty out there. He happened to be on the biggest island, Mancarron, when I’d called.

San Fernando Island, Solentiname

My motorboat pulled out of the dock into Lake Nicaragua, which was at an all-time low because of the insanely dry summer. I saw a man walking in the middle of the lake, and I couldn’t believe it at first. The lake is Central America’s largest, but it’s definitely not the deepest. As I put on my lifejacket, I looked out at the never-ending water and could see Solentiname in the distance. It felt like I was in ocean.

After about an hour, the boat dropped me off at San Fernando, where Chepe was waiting for me. He even helpeded me onto the dock! The islands were so small and I must have been one of only a handful of tourists. He knew exactly who I was just from our phone conversation. Chepe showed me to my room, and I asked him if Ernesto Cardenal were around, but he said that he was in Managua. I might be able to meet him at the Casa de los Tres Mundos Art Gallery. Ernesto only visits the islands about four times a year.

As we spoke, one word came to mind: solitude.

Not the miserable kind of loneliness, but the solitude of hearing only birds chirping and the slightest rumble of the boats chugging along. There was no smog, no ambulances wailing, and no motorcycles screeching to a halt. All of these things characterize my city. While I love being in a city, it felt incredibly calm here.

There was a hammock right outside my room, and I knew we would be getting to know each other soon. I asked Chepe if it were safe for a woman to walk around, and he said that there have never been reports of rape or violence against foreigners. Since there aren’t many people on the islands, there’s much less anonymity and a sense of safety that I didn’t know I’d miss so much.

As soon as I showed Chepe my paintings, he showed me around the island to visit his friends and family members who also paint. Almost everyone is an artist here. His wife showed me her artwork. My favorite was the painting of the islands at sunset, with the water dyed a bright orange.

Chepe and I walked along the narrow path to Albergue Celentiname (, a hotel overlooking the water that is owned by Doña Maria Guevara, a painter who fled to Costa Rica for two years to work with the likes of Gioconda Belli to feed the flames of the revolution. She returned in 1979, when the populist movement ousted The Dictator, Somoza.

Doña Maria, painter and owner of Albergue Celentiname, gave me much appreciated feedback on my paintings.

Maria wore a bright pink dress and sat in a chair-like hammock. Chepe introduced me to her, and we talked about painting, the revolution, and gender roles. “Women are responsible for educating men, since men come from women,” she said. I didn’t necessarily agree with everything she said, but I respected her. We shared the warm, humid air between us and I was fascinated by her story.

“I haven’t even left yet, and I know I want to come back! I knew that I had to come here to meet you,” I said to her. She thanked me and said that it was lovely meeting me as well.

For dinner, I went to one of the few if not the only restaurant on the island, and paid 140 cordobas (around $5) for a simple plate of tostones (friend, smashed plantains), rice, chicken, and avocado. That plate on the mainland would cost half as much, but because of the time and money it takes to ship goods out here, everything costs more. The chicken was the best I’d had in the country—the meat wasn’t overly cooked, and it was marinated in citrus. The crown jewel was the locally-grown avocado, though. The massive, green wedges tasted like butter.

The nighttime was insanely hot. Since many hotels and homes are solar-powered, the electricity only ran at night in my room. I was so tired that I went to bed at 7 and my fan shut off by 4 AM because the solar energy ran out. I was nervous to sleep with the window open because I was alone, and there was a simple screen covering it, so I shut myself in and delt with the heat. I got my towel and handkerchief wet and lay them over my nacked body to cool down even the slightest bit.

In the morning, I found out that Chepe had left the island to help build a school on Mancarron. He’d told me the day before that he’d show me where I could get cell service, but since he was gone, I found a replacement.

Then, I came back to Maria’s to show her my paintings from my ipad. Both of her scarlet macaws were sitting on the floor, eating their food from bowls. They looked like dogs. Maria scrolled through my acrylic portraits, and she liked them because they don’t involve just the faces of the people I paint—the portraits are about the movement of the people, whether they are cooking, washing, or playing with cats. I asked her for advice, and she suggested that I make the background behind my main subject darker so that the subject could pop out more.

Maria and I spent the entire morning together. She told me about the very first painting she ever did, which was of a tree, and how she couldn’t stop thinking about it until she painted it. Ernesto then took it to sell it in Managua for $400, and she was crushed despite the hefty earnings she’d unintentionally made. “That painting was mine, and there was nothing else that existed for me at the time. I haven’t seen the painting since.” We snacked on some granola bars I’d packed as she told me her stories.

She brought out her binoculars to watch the different species of herons, egrets, and songbirds flutter by and crash onto the branches. Although it was insanely hot, humid, and dry, I could imagine how green and vivid the islands must look in the rainy season. The air was so hot that I didn’t want to move, so Maria told me to lay down in a hammock and relax. Like me, I could tell that she likes to stay busy. She went in and out of the kitchen to prepare some beans for her guests.

Maria lay down in her hammock and we swayed to and fro, listening to Celine Dion classics and “A Whole New World” from the Aladdin soundtrack on repeat.

I felt more at peace than I’d felt in a while. Spending an entire morning with a stranger and laying in their hammock isn’t something I would have done in the states, but here it is normal. I like this kind of normal.

After lunch at the same restaurant, I made my way back the one path to the artisanry museum, the Museo Archipiélago de Solentiname ($1), which unfortunately was closed for Labor Day. I did, however, stumble upon an artisanal workshop, where I bought the most well-made earrings I’ve seen here. The woman with the key to the shop, Marielos, saw me coming up the stairs and introduced herself. She then opened the doors, and I couldn’t believe the amount of painted birds, fish, and turtles there were, either laying on the tables or hanging from the mobiles. I bought meticulously painted tucan, parrot, and fish-shaped earrings made of light driftwood.

As I tried each of the earrings on, I got to know Marielos, who flipped through the paintings I had stored in my ipad. She asked me if I’d heard from Mateo, a former Peace Corps Volunteer who’d spent three years on the islands, and left in 2000. “He used to stay in touch with us, but then he got married and stopped talking to us. I wonder if something happened to him when the twin towers collapsed.” I tried comforting her, telling her that not everyone is very good at keeping in touch.

The meticulously painted balsa wood crafts on San Fernando.

By 4 PM, I returned yet again to Maria’s hotel so that I could catch a boat ride to Mancarron for 150 cordobas. It was ten minutes away. One of the men who worked for her, Daniel, took myself and a Costa Rican couple. We walked along the path through town, and I saw the colorful stained-glass windows of the church that was locked shut. We stopped through different houses, gazing at the wood carvings and paintings of the local flora and fauna. Some people owned parrots, and a green parrot looked down at my group, softly whispering “hola.” It was nice seeing a different island, but I was happy I was staying on San Fernando.

That night, I paid Estelbina, Chepe’s wife, the $24 for both nights at Hostal Vanessa, and since Chepe would be running the boat to San Carlos in the morning, I paid for the 90 cordoba fare for that, too.

Chepe had told me that the boat stops by at 5:30 AM, but Estelbina’s sister advised me to be ready by five. The spotty schedules made me nervous, so I woke up at 4:45 (after having slept with the window open) and I was at the dock early. By 5:15, the boat pulled in. I jumped in and we were out of the port by 5:20. It’s a good thing I’d gotten ready early.

The boat sailed slowly over the water. I peered out at the different islands, and tried to guess at which one was Zapotillo, which once housed an orphanage and a pedophile Evangelist priest who was eventually chased into Costa Rica. Costa Rica was so close that if it weren’t so hazy, I would’ve been able to see the Arenal Volcano to the south.

Boys sat on the top of the boat, their feet dangling from the edge. The ride to San Carlos took nearly three hours. I felt as if I could’ve walked the entire distance myself, but that wasn’t the point. Things are slower in Rio San Juan.

I was filled with so much happiness that I’d finally found a community of painters with whom I could share my art. I’d love to return to Solentiname during the rainy season so that I no longer need to imagine the potential of its beauty.

Is there anything you’d like to know about Solentiname? Share in the comments and I’ll get back to you!

Why I Need Art in my Life

I’m writing this at 3:20 am. It’s been one of those nights where I wake up in the middle in the night with an urge to express myself. I’ve had these kinds of nights all my life, except in Boston, where my college and teaching life required every ounce of sleep I could get. I’m sure you’ve had one of those nights, too, where you just wake up and don’t know what to do with myself. When I came to Nicaragua, I began to understand what these nights mean for me. They are times when my mind feels as if it can’t wait until morning to express itself. So, I write. Or paint.

Why am I choosing to blog about painting before the sun comes up? Because in Nicaragua, I’ve realized that painting is one of the few things that makes me happy. It’s taken me almost a year into my service to claim happiness as something I deserve purely for myself. Last month, after I’d gone through a breakup and sought out mental health days, Martha, my doctor, asked me what made me happy. I said: “I’ve been here for 9 months, and I have so much free time, but I still don’t know what makes me happy. Making other people happy makes me happy”. I’ve realized this is how many other social justice workers find happiness-by helping others. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if it’s our only source of happiness, we are losing out on life. In order to make others happy, we need to take care of ourselves first.

I’ve always enjoyed drawing. When I was five, my parents bought me the most beautiful “How to Draw Disney Characters” books from the Disney Store. They even came with their own pencils. I treasured those shiny, oversized books. My mom started out showing me how to draw. I can still remember how perfectly she drew Mickey Mouse’s round face and ears. I wanted to draw like that. So, I kept practicing. I wondered why someone would draw the ¾ view of Mickey Mouse’s head turned to the side. It looked harder, so I started drawing that view as well. My goal in life was to draw just as well as my mom had drawn Mickey Mouse’s head.

Me, at age 3. I wanted to draw Mickey as well as my mom could. Photo by the author.
Me, at age 3. I wanted to draw Mickey as well as my mom could. Photo by the author.

Soon enough, I was churning out near exact replicas of Minnie Mouse, Pluto, and Donald Duck. I was eager to show my drawings to everyone I could so that they could catch a glimpse of the joys and frustrations I’d experienced from drawing. My dad was the most critical of my drawings. He always congratulated me first, then advised me to check the proportions and shading of that Dog’s ear I’d drawn, or the Genie’s belly that should be darker because it’s turned away from the light. Of course, when you’re a kid, it’s hard for you to appreciate constructive criticism. It shows someone actually wants you to improve. Instead of working to draw Mickey like my mom had done, I was now working to satisfy my dad, hoping that one day, he would tell me that my drawing was perfect, and that my work was done. I’m glad he never said that to me.

When I was 10, I discovered Lee Hammond’s “How to Draw” books. I can’t believe I still remember her name, but that goes to show how important those books were for me. I remember flipping through her books with my dad, showing him how perfectly she shaded a squirrel’s fluffy tail. How did she make shading look so effortless, I wondered? We quickly found out her secret: tortillions. These are simple stumps of paper, rolled into cones at the ends, that she used to shade the hardest of pencils strokes and blurr them into reality. I needed to draw the squirrel the way she did, with it’s fluffy, perfectly shaded tail. Lee revealed yet another monumental secret to her ways: using a kneaded eraser. In order to make white hair strokes look more real, you could mold an eraser into a thin shape and use wispy strokes to create negative space. I hadn’t realized that by erasing a drawing, you could add to it. It took two or three tries, but eventually, I recreated the squirrel, almost as perfect as hers. That squirrel is probably in my nightstand somewhere in my room, buried underneath old Pokémon cards and a graphing calculator. Back then, the squirrel won first place in my section at the annual Grant County Fair, and put a whopping $13 in my pocket. I was so proud!

Now that I think of when I first began painting, I think of all of the oil-based paint-by-numbers of horses that I’d do. There was something strangely soothing about staying in the lines, making sure that my brush strokes were calm and contained, but that even if I did mess up, I needn’t worry, because you can paint over oils. I remember listening to my Dad explain that “the good thing about oil paint is that if you make a mistake, you can paint over it”. I was more than happy to fix my mistakes, if that meant making him happy.

Only now when write this do I realize that I used art as a way to please my dad. I was homeschooled from age 8-11, and I can’t think of all the times I felt inadequate. I never seemed to understand math nearly as quickly as he wanted me to. Fractions scared me. Long division was always a mental marathon. My brother studied books on web site design and was finding the surface area of cones, while I was still struggling to add fractions. He was 2 years older than me, after all, and ended up studying Astrophysics at Cornell. I studied French and Women’s Studies at a Wellesley and ended up tutoring and teaching math two years out of college. It’s funny how things work out. I didn’t know things would work out this way, so in the meantime, the only leg up I had on my brother was that I could draw. If my lack of mathematical understanding couldn’t please my dad, then my drawings could.

The point of writing about art was to show that it makes just me happy, but it’s interesting to think of the point at which art became something for myself, and not for my dad. During my teens, I barely drew at all. I was more concerned with adjusting to public school life after having my brother be my only friend for 3 years during out homeschooling. I thought that through art, I could please potential friends, so I ended up drawing Disney characters for my classmates. I would even ask them when they needed them by. I remember one classmate sucking on a lollipop, with a puzzled look on her face, then matter-of-factly saying “by Wednesday”. I turned them in diligently, hoping to make new friends this way.

Drawings didn’t help me make friends. Instead, I quickly immersed myself in the negativity of teenage drama, dating, and insecurity, hoping that with that $60 Abercrombie sweater, I could be normal. Normal is such a distorted concept when you’re in middle school, especially when you’re a white-looking Mexican girl with braces who has to explain to everyone that she’s lived in the same town as you since she was 3, but that she was homeschooled. Thankfully, I integrated through sports. I played volleyball and basketball, and ended up making more friends that way.

Once high school began, my parents divorced and my dad moved back to Mexico. By then, art wasn’t a part of my life-I just saw it as something I did to pass the time. I was more focused on playing tennis, eating pizza sticks, and acquiring my permanent residency so that I could finally visit Mexico. You would never suspect it from my appearance and last name (Johnson Stoever), but I was an undocumented immigrant until age 15. I’ve only been a U.S. citizen since 2011. I need to write a book about that.

In college, art had no real significance for me either. I distracted myself from the stresses of grade deflation by rowing with the crew team, going to the gym, and learning to dance to bachata at Ryles. I saw the art students as these foreign, intellectual women who I envied for having continued their passion, while I had left art on the backburner. I felt more useful learning Italian, welcoming the first generation Latin@ students to the pseudo-ivy leagues, and wondering which white person came up with the alternative to the “brownie”: a “blondie”. The only art class I took was a 2D design course. We had students from the Olin school of Engineering in our class, The things they knew about cropping and negative space intimidated me. People in Boston took art seriously.

The only time I impressed my classmates was during our typography section. I could meticulously copy any font that I saw perfectly, while the Olin students slaved away at creating stencils to trace. For my final project, I presented a painting I’d done of the countries that mattered to me and the phrases I associated with them. The endearing greeting “cou cou”! hovered above France. I researched font styles and replicated them. One Olin student shook his head in disbelief at my perfect, free-handed letters, saying “I don’t understand how you do that so well, without a stencil or anything!”. I beamed inside. For once, I had beat the Northeastern, elitist, academic environment that had kicked my ass for 4 years.

It wasn’t until a year and a half later that I painted anything. After a trip to the art galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with my mom, I was inspired to paint again. I loved how the artists transformed simple, burnt orange adobe houses into colorful structures. I understood why painters flocked to that chilly desert. The lighting from the vast blue sky lit everything up in a particular way, just as the light shines here in Nicaragua. I remember bursting into to the Blick Art store near the Boston Symphony building on a freezing January day, scouting out an acrylic paint set that I could finally put to use. I sat in my freezing, poorly insulated apartment in Roxbury with the light streaming in, as if to remind me of the light that had inspired me to paint. I painted two adobe houses on canvas and mailed them to my mom. A few months later, I painted a VW beetle driving into the distance and sent it to my Aunt Monica in San Antonio. That year as a teacher was exhausting for me, but I felt so at peace and in my element when I painted.

Now, I’m in Nicaragua, and I’ve painted three portraits. I’m no longer replicating art work, but painting the Nicaraguans I meet. My first portrait was of my friend Doña Abigail, who paints piggy banks in the park. I couldn’t get over how majestic she looked in the photo I’d taken of her, holding her brush to her Piggy Bank. I had thought about painting her for a while, but I was nervous to paint a human. I’d never painted a portrait before. Sure enough, I proved to myself that I could do it. I realized that I had my own style. As long as the eyes were just right, I told myself, the painting would come together. I gave Abigail the painting. Her reaction? “I’m scared. I don’t know what to say! Wow”. She ended up keeping the painting in a bag next to her on her bench, eagerly showing it to her many friends who would pass by for the next couple of days.

Abigail, my first portrait. Photo by the author.
Abigail, my first portrait. Photo by the author.

The next portrait was of my friend Doris’ daughter, Elena, for her birthday. This painting was a bit more challenging for me, but only because I felt pressured to make it look great for her special day. Also, her face was slightly tilted, which was a challenged that I overcame by consistently trying to see the picture in quadrants and to focus on the shapes and shades. I’ve trained myself to paint shades and shapes, instead of telling myself things like “ok, this is a nose. Paint a nose”. I’ve realized how subjective painting can be. After this painting, my mom urged me to keep painting because I have a unique style. I love using the bright, vibrant colors I’m immersed in each day, whether I’m walking to buy rice and beans or looking at a palm tree from my backyard. It’s still funny for me to think that I actually live in a place with palm trees.

Elena, my second portrait. Photo by the author.

So, now does painting make me happy? Yes. It takes me to the present and keeps me there. Being present is such an important part of the day. Ever since reading The Power of Now, I’ve realized how much I used to worry about the past and future. Painting grounds me in the now. For mental health’s sake, everyone needs one thing that grounds them in the now. When we’re present, we worry less about other things or other people outside our control. When I concentrate on painting, I feel as if I’m in control. While I like to get things done right, painting reminds me me that it’s okay to make mistakes. I’ve adopted acrylics instead of oils because like oils, you can paint over your mistakes. Unlike oils, acrylics dry faster. You can also dilute them with water to create a watercolor effect. I like to have a blend of light, watered down strokes of the background with the precise strokes required to paint the eyes.

You may have noticed that while I have claimed painting as something for myself, I still give away all of my work. Logistically, it makes sense. I don’t want to worry about packing all of my paintings when I move. I’m a nomad. I’m always thinking of keeping only what I need. What I need is the experience of painting, not so much the result. Yes, I still paint to make other people happy, but now it’s more so that they can share in my joy and frustrations. Sharing these key human emotions was the most important reason for showing people my first drawings of Mickey Mouse in the first place.

What place has art had in your life?

Faces of Nicaragua: Abigail

Abigail is one of my best friends in Nicaragua. Although she is in her 40’s, we connect on the most basic things: when we share a mango together, when we laugh at the silly things drunk old men say to her, like “You are doing such great work!” and when she responds “well yes, I’m not getting drunk!”.  She is an artisan who worked with the Pro Mujer microfinance organization. Every day I can, I visit her park bench, where she sells piggy banks.

Abigail's vibrant piggy banks. Dario Park, Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
Abigail’s vibrant piggy banks. Dario Park, Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

I took her picture, and immediately was inspired to paint her. I had grown up drawing animals and painted simple architecture.

I had never painted a person before, because of how discouraged I felt drawing people as a child. Dogs’ eyes and noses were a piece of cake, but people’s? Forget about it. 

That fear stayed with me for a while.

Abigail. Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

I brought some acrylic paints back with me from Boston, and decided to get right to it. I felt vulnerable, because I didn’t know where to start. I had let the fear of failure block me from doing so many things.

Then, something told me to just paint.

I started with the most important part: the eyes. I slowly worked my way around the eyes, adding more and more shading. It was as if something inside of me had been finally dying for me to paint a portrait.

Painting outside provided great lighting.
Painting outdoors provided great lighting.

The portrait itself took about 4 days of on-and-off work, but I really liked how many colors I was able to use to turn a dark picture into a vibrant representation of Abigail. I didn’t even do a pencil sketch before this painting, which is something I’ve had to do in my other portraits. I captured her steady gaze and strong cheekbones. While she is a strong figure, this balances with the daintiness with which she handles the piggy bank. Here is the final product!

My first acrylic portrait, Abigail. Matagalpa, Nicaragua. April 2015. Art by the author.

The next day, put the painting in a blue folder I bought at a cyber café and walked back down to the park. Sure enough, Abigail sat underneath her umbrella to protect herself from the sun. I showed up with a mischievous smile, and showed her the painting.

“I’m scared! I don’t know what to say!” She said, laughing. This is how most people have reacted when I give them my portraits. They are so taken aback that their reaction is to laugh! For the next three days, I would see the blue folder hanging in a plastic bag next to Abigail’s bench. She said that she would open the folder and show her friends her painting.

I’m grateful that she showed me I could paint portraits, and that this would be the first of many!

When have you ever discovered potential you thought you’d never have?

The Intersection of Art and Vulnerability in a Portrait

Saviera. Matagalpa, Nicaragua, September, 2015.
Saviera. Matagalpa, Nicaragua, September, 2015. Acrylic.

Some pieces are harder than others to create. This one was the most difficult because of the lighting. I took a picture of Saviera, the daughter of one of my high school’s secretaries, in March. She always has a smile on her face, and bounces around from room to room with a mischievous smile, as if she’s up to something. I wanted to capture that look and give it my own spin.

I’ve taken time to figure out what it means for me to give my paintings my own spin. After having spoken to Andrea, I’ve figured out a theme for my art.

There’s beauty in vulnerability.

In both my art and my writing, I’m interested in exposing that vulnerability isn’t weakness. Traveling has made me an incredibly vulnerable person, since I’m constantly being thrust into new situations. It’s this vulnerability that makes me accept the challenges that come my way, pushing me to ask “What can I learn? What do I have control over?”

Accepting vulnerability all about seeking out optimism in challenging circumstances, and showing that there’s beauty in exposing oneself. When we expose ourselves, we show the world that we don’t fear rejection.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned from painting Saviera is that I shouldn’t fear rejection, either. This painting has taken me months to complete, because I wanted it to be “perfect”. This was the first piece I’d done where I completely scratched he first draft and threw it away. The lighting of the original picture was so hard for me to capture, especially since I enjoy using vivid colors in my work. Eventually, I accepted it for what it was: not a realistic replica, but a representation of how I saw her.

How is Saviera vulnerable?

The picture clearly illustrates the situation of the Nicaraguan public school system: this room has no working lights, and there are old, decrepit desks strewn about. Despite it all, Saviera still looks delighted to be alive.

She captures the Nicaraguan spirit of optimism despite everyday challenges that come with being in Latin America’s most impoverished nation. You’d never guess it from seeing the glimmer in her eye, though.

The original photo of Saviera at the Gabriela Mistral Public School in Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
The original photo of Saviera at the Gabriela Mistral Public School in Matagalpa, Nicaragua.