Mexican-American Artist Monica Curiel Preserves Her Heritage With New Exhibit

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Every day, abstract painter Monica Curiel gets up and sets out to create — a task many non-artists would find daunting. Nevertheless, Curiel goes to her brightly lit studio at her residence and, without plans or a complete idea, she sees what her hands will make out of plaster that day.

“It brings me a sense of calm,” Curiel said. “It’s like a breath of fresh air to my every day. In a deep way, it keeps me grounded.”

Now, she is having her first solo exhibition called “Herencia” (Heritage) at Meno Home Studios. The exhibit features 17 new works that reflect what the artist treasures from her Mexican background and her upbringing with immigrant parents.

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All photography by Shelby Moeller.

Creating every day became part of Curiel’s philosophy at an early age — partly because of her parent’s strong work ethic and partly after receiving two cancer diagnoses at the age of 19. The news meant Curiel had to delay her studies and focus on her treatment and recovery. Even though the cancer treatment was working, she found herself in a dark mental place.

“After recovering from cancer the first time, my body was able to physically recover but my mental state was really struggling. I went through depression for a long time, a few years after both my diagnoses,” she said.

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It was around this time that she found art as a medium to heal her soul and find her purpose. She went back to her studies and dabbled in various creative fields – interior design, fashion design – but eventually, she found her calling in fine arts.

“I find today that art really heals my soul and it really does help me find a sense of calm,” Curiel said.

Now, cancer-free, Curiel’s work has acquired a more sculptural aspect. Having to work with her hands, the strength required to work on her bigger pieces serves as a constant reminder of how far she has come since her diagnoses eight years ago.

“When you go through something quite traumatic, it’s hard not to be aware of the differences [in your body] or have gratitude over what you have,” she said.

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Curiel works with construction materials she learned to use from her father’s trade as a laborer. Wood, plaster, a spray paint gun and grout spreader are all materials Curiel is familiar with and uses to make her abstract work more accessible.

“I think it’s important for me to kind of bridge this gap of what maybe elitist art is or higher art education — art that is not quite tangible,” Curiel said. “That’s in part why I use construction materials.”

It’s a big component of what Curiel wishes to convey with “Herencia” – the knowledge and skills her parents passed down to her through example. “It’s hard work, having a work ethic, familial ties and the sacrifice to be in the United States to pursue a better life,” she said.

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Additionally, Curiel explores her Mexican culture through her pieces. After her grandfather’s passing, Curiel spent time reminiscing on the days of her youth when she would spend time in Mexico at her grandparent’s residence.

“As I was working, I began seeing traces of my childhood memories in the billowing forms: hanging clothes to dry in the back of my grandmother’s house after bathing in the river, the dresses I sewed for my dolls, the cobija (blanket) that brought me so much comfort,” she said.

These memories are tangible in the movement she creates in her pieces. Molded from plaster, the black and white pieces create a certain undulation that could be compared to a cloth dancing in the wind, or water moving over rocks in a river. Even though the style is minimalistic, the pieces feel very much alive.

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While “Herencia” captures Curiel’s heritage to date, the exhibit is deeply personal to her for other reasons as well.

“It’s really important to help facilitate a pathway, to show other Latinas if they want to be artists or they want to go to art school but they feel it may not be worth the investment. I can maybe provide a path or an open door so that representation is there,” Curiel said.

This sense of purpose comes after fully embracing who she is and her cultural background — something she wasn’t always able to do when she was growing up.

“It’s the first collection where I speak specifically about these memories that I think for a long time didn’t talk about because I wanted to assimilate more to western culture,” she said.

It’s a pride she now portrays in her work and wishes to inspire others to do the same. “I think part of the legacy I want to have is to pave a way for my own community in the same way my parents have paved the way for my own success,” she said.

“Herencia” will be displayed at Meno Home Studios from 3–6 p.m. until April 1. To learn more about “Herencia” or Monica Curiel, visit her official website.

All photography by Shelby Moeller.