In her South Miami studio, Ana Trelles Portuondo is being watched. Her figural portraits—mostly female—gaze at her with an intensity of her own creation, as though hinting at sacred stories masked beneath layers of paint and collage. “I believe the eyes are the expression of your soul,” the artist says. “Capturing that expression is, for me, everything.”
To her, however, diligently producing a proportional, classical portrait is not enough. Trelles Portuondo goes one step further, modifying background, fabrics and clothing into a more abstract expressionist style using unassuming materials and bold colors in a nonrestrictive manner. “Realism is something people love, but I don’t think just drawing something realistically is artistic,” she says. “You have to add more passion and personal influence.”
For this artist, that unique touch stems from her deep-seeded roots in Cuban culture. Born on the Caribbean island, her family relocated to Miami when she was 8 months old. What Trelles Portuondo lacked in memories from her birth country was made up for in the imagination she nurtured from listening to conversations about Cuba her immigrant parents, aunts and uncles shared around the dinner table. “We thrived with storytelling,” she recalls. “That’s all they had: their stories.”
The artist went on to garner degrees from Florida International University and a 20-year career as a beloved art teacher in the public school system. Yet she always created works for herself on the side, discovering a facility in drawing faces. “I was able to capture the expression on everyone, whether it was my father or my husband,” Trelles Portuondo observes. “I loved that, and it intrigued me. I wanted to bring out their identity.” When she retired from teaching seven years ago, she embraced a new full-time job as an artist on her own terms.
Portraits remain the artist’s clout, maintaining a strong grasp on characters no matter the series, whether saints, architects or, most recently, Afro-Caribbean women. Inspired by the rituals of the Santeria religion, this collection is based on photos of real women from Cuba and Africa she merges to create a powerful image. “I’ve even done men and transformed them into women,” Trelles Portuondo laughs. “I love showing and bringing out their beauty and strength.”
She begins by sketching the face, enlarging it on gesso canvas using a grid system. The artist then collages materials such as burlap and handmade fiber paper to introduce texture in certain areas. Corrugated cardboard could depict an African neck ring; the face could be canvas over canvas. It’s an important step Trelles Portuondo views as a way of connecting with and honoring Cuban artists who lack access to expensive supplies. “Recycling things is a tribute to this poor homeland of ours,” she says. “They use what they can to express beauty.”
The work transforms from there into an explosion of color. After outlining facial details and linework with a watered-down black acrylic, the artist uses her palette to convey energies: red expresses passion, love and intensity; green exudes growth and healing; cool and calm blue is her favorite.
She is often working on two or three pieces at once in her workspace, a curvy structure made of corrugated metal ordered from Canada. “A lot of people use them for farm buildings and storage,” Trelles Portuondo explains. “I thought: Why can’t it be a studio?” She installed an air-conditioning unit but left the inside exposed to view the channeled walls. On the outside, she planted an aggressive flowering vine; in a year, it was covered in greenery. In this space, she continues to offer private art instruction. And creative talents seem to run in the family: Her four children “are very artistic,” her two brothers are architects and her husband of 36 years is noted architect Rafael Portuondo—whose father was also an architect.
Although she has not returned to Cuba, Trelles Portuondo has a longing to visit. Yet through their life’s work, she and her husband, who also emigrated from the island, are sharing their love for their homeland with their family’s next generation. “My parents did it through story,” the artist says. “I’m doing it through art. My husband is doing it through architecture. To bring it to us is beautiful. What we created with that is more beautiful.”