When I was about six years old, my mother took me to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was a trip that I will never forget. In fact, it was a visit that would forever change my life.
We toured the museum and saw everything from Brancusi to Picasso, but the only real memory I have of that day is the moment I saw a painting of "Fulang-Chang and I" by Frida Kahlo. In this painting, you see a very young Frida with her hair down sitting with one of her pet monkeys and surrounded by trees. I remember being in a state of awe and confusion at the same time. On one hand, I was looking at a woman whose features resembled my own, which was a new concept for me. Up until that point, I had only see 17th and 18th Century portraits of wealthy Europeans and biblical scenes. This woman was different, yet familiar at the same time. She had dark hair, dark eyes and olive skin like me, and reminded me of the many pictures I had seen of my great aunts and grandmother when they were younger.
On the other hand, she looked sad and worried. Her eyes were telling a story that my 6-year-old mind could not understand even though my heart could feel her pain. My inner city brain could not put together where she was. A rainforest? An island? I also could not make any sense of the monkey on her lap. As I stared at the painting, my mother, sensing my inner struggle, looked over at me and said, "she's Mexican." Although I'm not Mexican, I was a huge Cantinflas fan so I immediately made the connection to language and the similarities to my family.
My teachers strongly encouraged me to pursue a career in the arts, which, after seeing Frida's work hang on a museum wall, did not seem unfathomable to me. Had I never seen her paintings, I don't think I would have felt that the art world was accessible to me.
This visit started my fascination with portraiture and storytelling. Most of my drawings were sketches of women doing everyday things. I spent countless hours drawing and perfecting my skills. In high school, I was the artsy one who helped the teachers fill the walls with art throughout the year. They strongly encouraged me to pursue a career in the arts, which, after seeing Frida's work hang on a museum wall, did not seem unfathomable to me. Had I never seen her paintings, I don't think I would have felt that the art world was accessible to me.
With the support of my mother, I eventually went to art school and continued my path of portrait painting. I also studied art education and did my student teaching at the Metropolitan Museum of art, where I got to see Frida Kahlo and many other greats every single day. It was a dream come true for me. With some more schooling, student teaching and interning, I eventually became a lecturer, studio instructor and museum educator at some of the most well-known art institutions in the world teaching kids how to look at and talk about art. I met many who reminded me so much of my 6-year-old self.
Although I never worked at the MoMA, I did return one day just to see that Frida painting that changed my life. Through research and museum work, I learned a lot more about Frida's personal life like the details behind the bus accident that caused her infertility and her tumultuous marriage to Diego Rivera. Whenever I see "Fulang-Chang and I," I'm able to put all the pieces together that my young brain tried so hard to figure out. Turns out, I relate to her and her work in more ways than I ever expected.
Happy birthday Frida, and thank you for changing so many lives by sharing your own.