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Latino Artists: Silvia Lizama's Haunting Lens Reinvents Home Life

by Carmen Pelaez /
Artist and art professor Sylvia Lizama has created an evocative image of her childhood in a Cuban immigrant household using a negative of a picture of her family's modest living room taken when she was a little girl.Carmen Pelaeznull

MIAMI, FL -- As the art world floods Miami like therising tides, there are several local artists who stand solidly amid the passing trends. With her Cuban roots firmly planted in the lush and generous setting of South Florida, photographer Silvia Lizama is one of those artists that makes you want more, all year round.

Lizama wants to capture what most of us rarely take time to notice. With her new collection of hand-painted prints, "In the Vicinity" she does just that.

Printed on silver gelatin paper and hand painted with oils using everything from cotton swabs to toothpicks, Lizama’s prints of Floridian home fronts are mesmerizing - lions and Venus statues invite us to step into the frame without revealing too much, leaving us to wonder who exactly lives behind their gaze. In some of her previous work, Lizama lets us see into her own poignant memories of life as a member of a newly arrived refugee family.

Lion by Sylvia Lizama.Silvia Lizama

Lizama has been exhibiting nationally and internationally since 1978; she has formed part of important shows like American Voices at the Smithsonian and her work lives in prestigious collections like the Lehigh University Art Gallery Collection (LUAG). She has won major awards like the Southern Arts Federation/NEA Regional Visual Arts Fellowship Grant and the South Florida Cultural Consortium Grant -- twice.

Currently the Chair of the Department of Fine Arts at Barry University, Lizama loves educating because it was a teacher who taught her how to hand-color photographs and changed her life.

Fascinated by her new series, we sat down with Sylvia to discuss her technique, her influences and what’s next.

What inspired this particular series of work?

I find people who put a statue in front of their house extremely entertaining. Their individuality is dreaming in the front of their homes - a sense of pride, a sense of culture.

I’ve travelled all over the world only to find some of the most exotic locations were right here in South Florida. Then it became a treasure hunt. I spent two years finding these houses, going back at different times of day: morning light, low light, late afternoon or until the light illuminated the statue as best as I thought it could. I couldn’t get enough.

There is a strong sense of nostalgia for place that runs through your work. Can you speak to that a little?

After my mom died I was going through all these negatives and I found one I had never seen - it was the house that I lived in for a year in 2nd grade. My mom shot this picture of 4 chairs and a TV, which was our living room and it just boggled my mind. It captured my roots, growing up as as a refugee. Our chairs, those aluminum patio chairs we had cause it was all anybody could afford.

This negative stunned me. I always remembered her with that Kodak camera, but I realized how much my work was influenced by my life, as unintentional as it may be. It took a lifetime for me to make the connection.

Artist and art professor Sylvia Lizama has created an evocative image of her childhood in a Cuban immigrant household using a negative of a picture of her family's modest living room taken when she was a little girl.Carmen Pelaeznull

Recently I was asked to create a piece for Elsie Miranda’s project called "Memorias en Retazo," a dialogue between Cuban artists living here and in Cuba, I chose that photograph to digitally blow up and hand color and called it “Home Sweet Home.”

How does your Cuban American experience manifest itself in your work?

When we became American citizens we had to take little black and white pictures. and my mom took Prismacolor markers and hand-painted my hands and my cheeks. That was the first hand coloring I’d ever seen in my life. That was to me to become an American.

I can’t separate myself from who I am as an artist and my work. I was born in Cuba and raised in a Cuban family with all the cultural and social things that made me the person that I am and my work is just me. But I don’t see my work as being ’Latino’ in theme necessarily. I am a Cuban who made that work in North America.

Ultimately my work is intuitive and it's not about making a social statement. It's about things in my life that are exciting to me and it's about how I grew and who I am- which happens to be a Cuban-born, American artist. But now I realize those visions and those refugees experiences absolutely influence my work-but subconsciously. I never set out to be political, but they are there.

Fountain 2760, Hollywood, Florida by Silvia Lizama.Silvia Lizama

With all the technology available to photographers these days, why did you choose such a traditional approach?

When I started as photographer 37 years ago, I wanted to make the individual print, even if it was part of a series, unique and one of a kind. Now we’re in this digital age, we’re getting bombarded with pictures at every turn and we’re getting jaded. We don't see the images any more or appreciate them.

Being able to use a digital format but bringing it back to the dark room makes the images special and what makes them unique is that each print is hand painted. It all adds to the fictional quality of the image but hopefully makes real the world I witness.

Prints from "In the Vicinity" are on display at ArtMedia US In Wynwood, Miami through Feb. 5, 2016, and the complete series will be on view under the title “Lions, Fountains and Statues” at Andy Gato Gallery, Barry University from Feb 19 through Apr 23, 2016

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