Some people know their passion from a very young age, while others discover it along life’s path. Public artist Cecilia Lueza is most definitely of the first variety. Her passion for art has been the burning light guiding her life since she was a child growing up in Argentina. Art eventually led her to the United States.
“The only thing I always knew was that I wanted to be an artist,” said Lueza. “That was my dream and my goal in life.”
Lueza now resides in Florida and was recently selected to paint a mural on the west facade of the E. Pat Larkins Community Center in Pompano Beach, as part of the VisualEYES mural series honoring Broward County’s centennial anniversary, which took place on Oct. 1, 2015.
The project, which was initiated by the Broward Cultural Division last year, features a group of ten South Floridian artists who were chosen to create a public mural in each of the nine County Commission districts, as well as one at Port Everglades. Lueza’s mural on the E. Pat Larkins Community Center is scheduled to be completed this month.
In planning the mural, Lueza was required to conduct four community engagement workshops with Pompano Beach residents and city officials. Utilizing their collective feedback, Lueza was able to design a mural she hopes reflects the city’s identity.
In these engagement sessions, Lueza discovered the majority of people wanted a mural that would tell a meaningful story, be striking and full of color.
“It was interesting to see how people react to the idea of a mural, and what they think about their city, their community, their history,” said Lueza. “It seems like people who live in Pompano really love their city, and they want it to be beautiful, they want it to be unique, which is great, and I’m ready to make it more beautiful.”
Another source of inspiration for the mural was a book, “Pompano Beach: A History of Pioneers and Progress,” that was given to Lueza by the Pompano Beach Historical Society. Filled with over 100 photographs of the city throughout time, the book provided her with an understanding of the people and events that shaped Pompano Beach into the community it is today.
The artist, who describes her style as somewhere “between abstraction and figuration,” is known for her use of vibrant colors and bold patterns.
Throughout her career, Lueza has explored a wide range of artistic media, from traditional forms such as painting and sculpture in wood, metal, polyurethane, and ceramic, to installation and multimedia art. Murals, however, is what Lueza enjoys creating the most.
“There’s a magic element about murals, where you can really transform a wall, a whole building, and create a different perception and elevate people’s spirits,” Lueza said. “When it’s done right, it can be amazing.”
So what makes a mural succeed? Lueza said it requires choosing a theme that’s the most appropriate for the building and surrounding area. If the muralist is telling a story, they must find a way to translate the story into something large scale, without too much detail.
“You have to think about the area and the people who live there,” said Lueza. “That’s where the concept of community comes in, because it’s not something you’re doing for yourself; it’s something you love to do, but you’re doing it for others, and sharing it with others.”
Sharing her art with others, and the joy that comes with the process, is something Lueza began long ago. She started her artistic journey in her hometown of Posadas, a city perched on a bluff above the Paraná River in northeast Argentina. Like most children, she liked to draw, but at around age 10, she wanted to try something more three dimensional. She found a natural resource that proved to be the perfect medium: clay.
Living in a region abundant with natural red clay, she would go to her family’s garden and grab handfuls of the red earth, mix it with some water, and use tools to shape it into small objects.
“It was amazing,” Lueza recalled.
She baked the objects in the sun until they became very hard, then painted them using water color or acrylic paint. When these mini-artworks were complete, she gave them to her family and friends.
“I would copy things from books on clay making, or other things I saw. I remember loving to make these small dolls. They were like cones, with a head at the top,” said Lueza. “Maybe that was my first attempt at sculpture.”
She also remembers making representations of doves. Even now, birds are a recurrent theme in her artwork, and a source of inspiration.
“I love their beauty and the freedom they have,” said Lueza.
Seeing Lueza’s artistic interest and talent at a young age, her mother enrolled her in art classes at a local museum. After high school, Lueza moved to Buenos Aires to study at the National University of La Plata, where she earned her master’s degree in painting from the Faculty of Fine Arts in 1994.
She remained in Buenos Aires, intent on earning a living as an artist, but the opportunities to fulfill that ambition proved scarce. So she started an art paper and wrote about the city’s arts scene. Late at night, she would paint.
In her job as a writer, she interviewed other artists in Buenos Aires, including established artists with long careers, which she said was tremendously beneficial. They were an example of what she wanted to strive for as an artist; They were always traveling to different places for the many projects they were working on, and they were committed to their craft.
On the other side of the spectrum, she also interviewed struggling artists who had to work jobs in offices or in retail in order to make ends meet.
“I would see these people who were really very talented and very dedicated to their passion, but still couldn’t make a living doing what they love,” said Lueza. “In Argentina, there’s an elite group of artists that are very successful, but for the majority of artists, it’s very difficult. There aren’t enough programs to support artists, and public art projects are very rare.”
In 1998, Lueza landed her first solo show in Buenos Aires. Soon after, she met some Latin American artists from Miami who were in town for an art fair. When they told her how much they enjoyed living in Miami, she decided it was time to try something new, and to take a leap of faith.
She went to Miami, and stayed for several months to test the waters, then went back to Buenos Aires. In late 1999, Lueza returned to Florida. She became a foreign correspondent in Miami for an art magazine based out of Spain. As a journalist, she had access to a vast array of art. While she had only intended on staying in Miami for a few years, Lueza made a host of new friends and met her future husband. She grew Florida roots and became the assistant to renowned Argentinian artist Pérez Celis, who she considers a mentor and at the time had a studio in Miami.
“He was one of the artists that I treasure the most because he was very humble and kind,” she said of Celis, who died in 2008.
“It was a huge inspiration to observe him working from very early in the morning until late in the evening, putting all his passion into his art,” said Lueza. “He showed me that you need to work tirelessly, and to dedicate most of your life to your work if you want to be successful.”
As a multimedia artist, Celis also inspired her to “go beyond the canvas.”
“At the time, I never imagined that I could do sculpture, murals, studio work and installations like he did, but it happened,” Lueza said. “Little by little, I started making my way as a professional artist. I started exhibiting here and there, and selling my work. It was a slow process, but it’s finally paying off.”
Her work has been exhibited in group and solo shows in cities throughout the world, including New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Miami, Tampa, Palm Beach, Mexico City, San Juan, Madrid and Paris. It is also part of numerous public and private collections.
She participates in two or three gallery or museum exhibits a year, but public art has been Lueza’s main focus since 2002, when she did her first public sculpture installation in the U.S. Now she completes about eight public art projects in different cities each year.
“I love public art, and I think it’s one of the great things that I found here in this country,” said Lueza. “The appreciation for public art, and the support, and the opportunities for public artists like me, that’s something very great.”
In addition to murals and large-scale sculptures, her public artwork includes painting intersections. She completed three on Las Olas Boulevard in downtown Fort Lauderdale in 2014 for the city’s Connecting the Blocks Painted Intersection Project. Along with a team of community volunteers, Lueza brought the intersections to life with vibrant color and bold geometric patterns. The goal of the street mural was to use art to alert motorists that the intersection is a place frequented by pedestrians and bicyclists.
This past September, Lueza painted an intersection on Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, as part of the city’s 2016 SHINE Mural Festival. Her 39,000 square-foot, street-level mural transformed the intersection with dazzling patterns of color.
“When I paint intersections, I have to create something that can complement the urban landscape of the surrounding area,” she said. “I have to envision something that’s more architectural, more geometric.”
Earlier this year, she completed a set of two wall sculptures for the cruise ship Royal Caribbean Ovation of the Seas. Royal Caribbean International partnered with a London-based art agency to assemble a permanent collection of contemporary pieces by artists from around the world for the ship’s halls, stairways, restaurants and staterooms.
Each of the wall sculptures Lueza contributed depicts the profile of a woman who, instead of having a fleshly body, has one made of dozens of birds, each different, cascading down from her shoulders. The birds transition from black to vivid color.
“Usually, art on cruise ships doesn’t stand out, but this particular cruise ship is one of the first to invest a lot of time and effort to have a really unique contemporary art collection,” said Lueza.
Her current works-in-progress include a mural she was commissioned to paint in a historic section of Marion, Iowa. As part of the city’s project to transform a matrix of alleyways from underutilized spaces to engaging places with public art and cultural activities, Lueza has designed a mural for the wall of an outdoor stage that will serve as a focal point for creative expression.
Inspired by the concepts of innocence, history and community, the mural, entitled “Midnight Wonder,” depicts a girl holding a small box from which a flock of native Iowa birds soar their way to freedom, the black background creating a striking contrast to the colorful birds in flight.
“When it comes to my public art pieces,” Lueza said, “I want them to be playful, energetic and dynamic, and to inspire people to feel that way.”
Another upcoming project is a large horizontal sundial that Lueza has designed for Camino á Lago Park in Peoria, Arizona. The sundial will have a circular mosaic tile base representing a desert landscape at sunset, and a metal pointer in the form of a hummingbird that seems to sip from a native flower emerging from the desert. The mosaic, comprised of approximately 150,000 Italian tiles made from recycled glass, will have a diameter of 18 feet; the hummingbird, made of polished, heavy-gage aluminum plate, will be almost eight feet tall and 12 feet wide.
In many ways Lueza has accomplished her dream. Like the artists she admired and interviewed in Buenos Aires, she now travels from place to place creating vibrant public art pieces in a range of mixed media.
“I decided to really make an effort and stay here, even when that meant leaving behind my parents, my siblings, my friends, everything I knew,” said Lueza. “But I always knew that art was my passion, and I was very committed to make it work.”
And living your passion isn’t always a straight and easy path.
“You have to have faith, and keep going no matter what, because sooner or later something good is going to happen,” Lueza said. “And of course, you have to be surrounded by people who believe in you and support you. I have my family, which is very important.”
Today Lueza lives between Miami and St. Petersburg, Florida with her husband and 9-year-old daughter. Her husband is her “number one supporter,” and helps with the technical aspects of her public artwork, while her daughter is her “mini-assistant,” with artistic inclinations of her own.
One of the goals she still has as an artist is to one day create a public artwork in her hometown in Argentina.
“That’s one of my dreams, to do something big and amazing there,” she said. “It’s a place that really needs a lot of love when it comes to art and beautification.”
Lueza also wants to continue to grow as a public artist, doing permanent, timeless works that will be enjoyed for many generations.
As for the mural she’s painting in Pompano Beach, her goal is to convey the city in a way that is both beautiful and meaningful. In October, Lueza had designed two potential drafts of the mural: one depicting the pioneering women of Pompano Beach, the other focused on an envisioned future for the quickly-developing city. The final design will be selected by a city committee. The mural is scheduled to be completed by the end of November.
“I hope the community will be very happy with it,” she said.