A Family’s Portrait

Art helped my father come to America and fulfill his dreams; with him as my guide, I aim to do the same.

by Stephanie Cuevas

One of my earliest memories is of my father sitting me down at our kitchen table with canvases, paint, and brushes. He taught me how to blend colors and use different materials like acrylic paint and watercolors. Whenever we felt inspired, we set out all our materials and painted what our hearts desired.

My favorite painting is one we did together when I was 6 or 7, of a mountain scene with a lake and a cabin. He spent hours showing me how to blend big trees with budding pink flowers. We painted a colorful grassy meadow with a rushing blue lake and signed our names at the bottom. The painting hangs in our living room and is a constant reminder of how far we have both come with our art.

A Dash Toward Freedom

My father grew up in a small pueblo in the Dominican Republic. Despite not having many materials available, he created art with whatever he had. My father saved his money to buy paints and colored pencils to sketch on the walls around his home. He also drew giant chalk murals on the streets of landscapes and animals. He gained a strong reputation among many locals and they asked him to paint portraits, murals, and other artistic projects.

When he was 14, there was a local art contest. First prize was a free trip to Disney World in Florida. After being encouraged by many people in his town, he entered the contest; he submitted a drawing depicting his religious beliefs. It was of a drug addict on the floor reaching out to God for help. I am amazed how at such a young age, my father handled such serious topics and expressed them through art.

Almost a year later, he learned that he had won first prize! He would be flown to the United States with a chaperone. My father realized that he could find more opportunities in the U.S., so he came up with a secret plan to remain in Florida with an aunt.

About an hour before his flight back to the Dominican Republic, when his escort was distracted at a gift shop, my father dashed out of the store and ran through the Hollywood Studios Theme Park and out the main entrance.

He stayed with his aunt in Florida for a while before finishing high school in New York with another aunt. My father’s bravery and strength is something that I aspire to. He tells me this story a lot and I never get tired of hearing it. Eventually, my father was able to obtain his citizenship and is working on getting his master’s degree so he can become an art teacher.

Stephanie Cuevas

Big Shoes to Fill

Now, my father paints portraits, animals, and landscapes of his home country. Looking at his paintings makes me feel close to my roots even though the last time I was in the Dominican Republic with my father, I was a child.

As I got older, he continued to give me lessons, teaching me different brush strokes and how to take care of my art supplies. He taught me to find beauty in everything and everyone around me. I grew to love drawing people, as I could highlight the physical features that make everyone unique and beautiful. I began playing with color, form, and mixed media.

My art was a precious thing I kept to myself. It was my way of expressing myself with no judgment. It wasn’t until I began looking carefully into my father’s paintings and the work of popular artists on Instagram that I started to be more critical of my work.

I started to worry that I could never live up to my father’s talent. My simple, two-dimensional drawings fell flat compared to his realistic landscapes. Going through my sketchbooks and portfolios, I found fault in all my drawings. Whether the proportions were off or the techniques strange, I became insecure. Art was my favorite thing in the world but I started to believe I wasn’t good at it. Instead of working toward improving, I gave up and stopped drawing. I didn’t talk about my decision to anyone, especially my father. I didn’t want to let him down.

Stephanie Cuevas

Growing as an Artist

In 8th grade, my perspective about my art started to change, thanks to more influence from my dad.

I was applying to high schools, and in my research, I found a small school that specializes in art called Fordham Arts. My father encouraged me to audition to be a visual arts major.

He had noticed that I had been drawing and painting less and told me, “Mija, you should audition for the school. I wish I’d had an opportunity to study art like this when I was a kid.”

So over the next few months, I worked on my portfolio. I drew a landscape of Puerto Rico using oil pastels, a still life of vegetables, comic strips, and more. Looking back at my pictures, I sometimes cringe at the way I drew them. I can see how much I have improved since then.

The school must have seen potential in my drawings because I got in!

It was eye-opening to attend a high school that specializes in the arts. I branched out from painting. I took art history classes and learned about perspective and observational drawing, but also I have grown as an artist and learned to embrace my individuality and my talent.

I have become more open about sharing my artwork and receiving constructive criticism, which raises my self-esteem about my art. My paintings have been featured on the cover of the official school planner and in various art galleries. I’ve made close friends and found a guide in my art teacher, who pushes me to do better every day, just like my dad does.

In March 2020, I was going to participate in my first art auction, selling a mosaic. Sadly, this event was canceled due to the pandemic. During the last few months of my sophomore year, we resorted to online learning, but I made the best of the situation. Every day I video chatted with art teachers and classmates to discuss new projects, and they influenced me to where I’m now exploring digital art on Photoshop to create Pop art portraits.

I’m once again confident and proud of my art. I found inspiration in my family, friends, and most importantly myself. While sketching a figure or painting on a canvas, I think back to paintings my father and I made together. I imagine us visiting the cabin on the lake and exploring the nature around it. I can’t travel there yet, but in my little Bronx home I’m able to further my art and find new opportunities.

Discussion Questions

1. How does Stephanie’s relationship with her father impact her art?
2. Stephanie says art is her way of “expressing [herself] with no judgment.” What is your way of expressing yourself without judgment?
3. What does it take to keep being creative, even during the times when we are critical of ourselves and our work?
4. In what ways can you see Stephanie’s growth from the beginning of the story to the end? How can you tell she’s grown?

I have become more open about sharing my artwork and receiving constructive criticism, which raises my self-esteem about my art.
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