'We all miss our loved ones, but it’s a way of making it not so final'

'We all miss our loved ones, but it’s a way of making it not so final' »Play Video
Fuentes at work in her home studio. (Photo by Stacey Katlain)

COBURG, Ore. -- One look around her eclectic backyard studio will reveal Analee Fuentes’ various inspirations.

An oversized paper-mâché Día de Los Muertos-style head of famous Mexican painter Frida Kahlo hangs in the rafters.

The upbeat Afro-Cuban sounds of Machito play in the background. Collections of small reptile bones lie next to plastic lizard toys and baroque paintings of iguanas and swirling fish.

Next to a sombrero-wearing, classroom-style skeleton replica is a small table adorned with numerous photographs: a black and white portrait of a large Hispanic family, a profile of an older man with extensive colorful tattoos, and one of a friendly looking grey cat.

Beneath the photographs, a candle is lit beside a small ceramic mug containing the ashes of Fuentes’ mother.

“This is my shrine,” Fuentes says as she points out the multiple family members she pays homage to. “When I come in here I say, ‘Hi mom! We’re going to paint!’”

As she paints, she senses her mother’s guidance. “I feel her spirit there. I think everybody has a mentor in the studio and she’s definitely mine.”

Fuentes, a Mexican-American artist, masterfully blends her culture and love of nature into paintings that celebrate life’s many forms. Her most recent works, oil paintings of fish, iguanas, and lizards, are explorations of her fondness of bold colors and scaly reptiles. These paintings reflect a harmonious marriage between her Southwest roots and her Northwest environment.

She remembers being surrounded by brilliant blue skies, striking birds of paradise flowers, and vivid woven serapes during her childhood in Barrio Logan, San Diego. As a young girl, her home was always crawling with pet snakes, iguanas, and even an Old World chameleon.

“Mexican culture has an icon called a Nahual, and it means a spirit animal that guides you throughout your life,” she says. “For me it was reptiles.”

She focuses on a specific cross section of an animal, usually the belly of the fish or the eye of the reptile, to emphasize its many vivid colors and textures. She cites Georgia O’Keefe’s ability to magnify details in small flowers as an inspiration to show people aspects of nature that can be easily overlooked.

Also an avid outdoorswoman, she says, “Periodically you catch this fish and you reel it in and it’s like, ‘Wow! Look at that! How could that be a part of this environment and why isn’t everybody looking at that?’”

Over 15 years, her fish and reptile series has evolved to more realistic depictions. Hesitant at first, she now enjoys using metallic paint to capture the glistening effect of the scales.

As the seasons change, her scaled subjects begin to migrate from her mind and a different cultural icon takes hold. In her more personal and self-expressive work, Fuentes explores the Mexican concept of death in her Day of the Dead depictions. She summarizes her attitude towards death with a quote by the famous Mexican poet Octavio Paz: “Most Mexicans take death and they play with it.”

“It’s not like in Mexican culture death is a joke,” she says. “We all miss our loved ones, but it’s a way of making it not so final.”

She plays with the idea of death by placing her own spin on famous western American art, including the “Mona Lisa” and “American Gothic.” Her paintings “Bona Lisa” and “Muertos Góticos” switch out the original painted subjects of the respective paintings with skeletal characters. The artist also has many autobiographical Day of the Dead depictions, including her painting “Duality,” which features her self-portrait with a half human and half skeleton face.

“It’s a reminder of just a mortality and that you really need to make the best out of every moment and every day,” she says.

Through her buoyant perspective and bold aesthetics, Analee Fuentes brings every subject she paints, living or deceased, to life.

The JAM Workshop — Journalism Arts Multimedia — is a brand new class taught at the University of Oregon’s School Of Journalism and Communication. Conceived by Prof. Tom Wheeler, the JAM Workshop brings together student writers, photographers and videographers to profile local artists — musicians, painters, dancers, sculptors, art photographers, and more.

Watch for Oregon JAM features at 7:30 p.m. PDT weeknights in July on KVAL.com