As artist Ana María’s otherworldly murals began to take shape over red-brick walls in downtown Fort Smith in September of 2015, the Puerto Rican artist began to fall for the quiet, yet welcoming, community. Over the past several years, her work had taken her all over the world, her signature humanoid creatures—transfixing fantastical creatures with expertly blended brushstrokes charged with emotion—appearing on a massive scale over the skylines of London, Kiev and Las Vegas. And now? Now, she was in the small southern city of Fort Smith, Arkansas, where the international artist collective JustKids (in partnership with local place-making nonprofit 64.6 Downtown) was hosting a number of international street artists to transform the downtown’s crumbling facades as part of an annual mural festival known as The Unexpected.
But while Fort Smith shared very little with those other places she’d worked, there was something familiar about it. Eventually, she realized it was because it felt like the small agricultural town of Barranquitas where she’d grown up. In a word, it felt like home. The connection she forged with the former frontier town was so strong she eventually moved there from Houston, where she’d kept an apartment for the previous five years while working as an artist. Following a six-week artist residency offered by The Unexpected from April through May of 2016, which sparked the founding an art school called La Colmena (that is, the “bee hive”) at a building known as the Universal Chapel, an abandoned house that was reinvented into a collage of exploding geometric color by Spanish street artist Okuda San Miguel for last fall’s Unexpected. As classes got underway, we caught up with the artist to find out more behind her fusion of biology and art, why Fort Smith spoke to her as a place where she could really put down roots and about growing up in a rural part of paradise.
I love the intersection between art and biology in your work. Let’s go back to the earliest memories of when you first brought those two worlds together. Think on your earliest illustrations, creatures that fascinated you—what drew you to them and compelled you to create the humanoids you’ve become known for?
I used to draw a lot of human faces when I was in college. Most of the faces were half human and half machine. As I studied animals in our laboratory classes I had the need of reproducing those impressions that remained in my memory from those laboratories and started sketching random things. After graduating, I worked as a field agronomist for a poultry production company. For a year, I examined farms and dissected animals daily. Back then, I was spending time alone in a house close to the beach, and prepared a studio room to start painting once again after stopping for a while as I dealt with the grief of losing a friend. I rediscovered my freedom in painting. I started worrying less about the content of the piece and more about the execution. As a result, I ended up painting animals with human features like sad animals completely out of proportion, rabbits, birds and all kinds of eyes.
It became my therapy to let my hand move freely over a canvas and I got used to the kind of art that my mind was creating. With time, I gave it more detail, took it more seriously. The creatures started to reflect the emotions I was feeling, because I spent more time working on them and learning more about painting, to the point where I learned to talk less and painted more. It is hard for me to explain my works or their meaning. All I can say is that I paint because I need to.
Tell me more about growing up in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico.
Barranquitas is a small town in the center of the island. Just like every other small town, people know each other. They all know your family. Everyone shares good and bad moments with you. It took my father seven years to build the house we lived in during our adolescence. We lived in between big mountains and next to the river. My family is big. My grandparents had 11 children, so I have many aunts, uncles and over 30 cousins only on my dad’s side. My grandparents taught their children and future generations how to cultivate the land, raise animals and live from their products. We had our own water supply and produced a big part of our food.
I played on the farms and went up and down the mountains all during my childhood. We were used to seeing farm animals around and helped our parents work the lands. As we grew up, we started having different interests and while some of us went to college to study engineering, sciences or agronomy, others pursued entrepreneurial careers. We were free kids, we weren’t afraid of anything—excellent students with innocent hearts.
Describe the starting point for the murals you painted in The Unexpected—the initial idea that began it all.
I am a very introverted person and it’s sometimes hard for me to interact with people. When I go to places like Fort Smith and feel so welcome, I feel like I never have the right words to express my gratitude. The disability of not being able to communicate effectively with simple words can make me feel like an alien. I wanted to create a better impression of myself by showing them two different creatures, representing earth and sea, interacting with each other, accepting their differences and starting a friendship. I guess it was my way of working with my confidence, opening my arms to all the amazing people I had the pleasure to meet.
Describe the undertaking of making such a large mural. What’s the starting point? How do you create such fine details on a large scale? What is the hardest aspect of painting such a large piece?
I always start with a sketch. I can transfer it to a big wall using the grid technique or a projector if the time is limited. Having the proper equipment also helps a lot because using a boom lift will allow you to look at the whole image and come back closer to work on details in less time. The hardest part is always the beginning but also the end. The beginning because tracing the lines takes a lot of time and precision; the end because you never really feel like it’s finished.
The idea is still the same even when transferring it to a bigger scale. What changes the image is when it transitions from a drawing to a painting. It is more detailed and has colors, so I will never know how it will look until it’s “finished.”
What was your initial impression of Fort Smith when you first came to the town to participate as a muralist for The Unexpected?
I arrived during the night. My initial impression of Fort Smith was that it was a solitary place. The next morning we met with the festival coordinators. When we started working on our murals I saw people walking by, and then more, and then they brought their dogs, and gifts to us, and the students came to say hi, and the guys on their motorcycles stopped by to say hi and ask what was going on. That’s when I realized how beautiful Fort Smith was, just the way it is and everyone was just so nice. I walked around downtown and explored every single shop.
You fell in love with Fort Smith so much you decided to move there. Why?
I wanted a quiet place. It was so welcoming. And there were opportunities to integrate with the community. I recently moved away from Houston, where I lived for five years. I became a city hermit in my apartment all the time. I was ready for something more peaceful. I’m a vintage lover and Fort Smith is great for that. I love a lot of things about it. I felt connected immediately when I came for The Unexpected. I grew up by the ocean and missed the green when I lived in Houston. Now I have a little house with a backyard full of trees and birds.
What sparked you to open an art school in Fort Smith?
After doing an artist residency with The Unexpected, I felt like I had something else to offer to the community. I had some experience teaching before and thought about offering classes to small groups. I got offered The Universal Chapel’s building, and with the help of a great group of people, I created La Colmena.
How will the art school operate? Who will it serve?
La Colmena offers classes to small groups of kids, young adults and adults. We started with basic drawing but will add painting and possibly sculpture to the program. The students range in age from 8 years old to 80 with classes spanning two and a half to three hours for four- to six-week courses of small classes no larger than six. I love it because I don’t see it as a job. I’m new to teaching and learning a lot and really enjoying connecting to the community this way. I really wanted to be a part of this community and help grow an artistic community here in Fort Smith.
The next cycle of classes at La Colmena begin April 4; another session will start 6 weeks later. Visit facebook.com/lacolmenafs for more information.