Painting for the past: Leslie Sotomayor studies to understand ethnic roots through research, art

Recently returning college students may bemoan their workload, but they have nothing on superhero nontraditional student and artist Leslie Sotomayor. Her new exhibit, “Restos de una Vida Anterior: Anhelo de (re)escribir Sobre el Agua (Remnants of a Former Life: Longing to (re)Write on Water,” is the result of her combined, exhaustive studies at Penn State in an effort to understand her ethnic heritage.

The 30-year-old New Jersey native is an undergraduate in painting/drawing, the recipient of the competitive Penn State McNair Program Scholarship, a more than full-time student and a single mother of three children. The dedicated young scholar is majoring in women’s studies, African studies and fine arts, and minoring in Latino and Latin American studies. The main area of her research focuses on the era of migration into Cuba — the 1860s to the 1940s — as if to trace her own maternal family’s footsteps.

Her exhibit is of mixed-media works and is based on Sotomayor’s desire to reconnect with her family’s rich history to better understand it, and relate to it herself, as a modern-day representative of it.

“The exhibit title has many layers for me,” Sotomayor said. “It means making connections with my past, my heritage and ancestry that once lived and touch my life today. It means being in touch with my roots, because I long to. It means acknowledging that in order for me to be the person I am today, there is a past to recognize.”

Although she makes an effort to trace and understand her cultural roots (her mother is from Cuba, her father from Puerto Rico), Sotomayor’s works are far from the traditional Latin or Middle Eastern styles. Missing are the bright colors and geometric and mosaic styles of artists famous in Latin America, Puerto Rico and the Arab nations. Her pieces are all splashes and streaks of dark blues, browns and rusts on warped and torn canvases. Her works create a depth to the canvas that reflects her nostalgia and interest in investigating the migratory journey of her family as they voyaged from New York to Cuba and Puerto Rico to Lebanon and Syria.

“I enjoy acrylics and dyes the best — although I occasionally work in some oil paints, and anything I can get my hands on. I enjoy textiles, especially the idea of re-using materials, cloth (like bedsheets, fabrics,” she said. “My mediums and painting processes are not ‘traditional’ in that they are cruder and very emotionally driven. The basis to much of my work ... are maps that I use as guides — maps of regions where my mother was born, where her family is today.”

She added that this method of mapping likely is her way of cataloging her ancestry.

“With using natural dyes and stains, I hope to speak to this idea of remnants, or the ‘staining’ or residue left behind. The natural hues of some of the pieces talks to this search ... as migratory, a journey, but also extends beyond that, as I am thinking of psychological borders — the emotional state that is present, even generations later, in the psyche,” she said.

Like the ancestors who traveled the world looking for a better, more fulfilling life, Sotomayor said her art and studies are an extension of this concept.

“The person I am today has much to do with the people who have come before me,” she said. “This art exhibit is very vulnerable of the person I am. It is my thirst, my longing of searching — of longing for connections. In many ways to my inner self, but also my mother’s birth land of Cuba.”

In an ironic twist, Sotomayor said that while she places utmost importance on family and the livelihood of her three children, she acknowledges that her studies and art take up much of her time.

“I am intentional about trying my best to balance my time with all of this and my children. It has, so far, come at a great price, because I have literally lost my marriage to it and have little family support,” she said.

“I am passionate about my life, how it extends to my children’s lives and the work I do. ... I feel strongly about living an authentic life, and I believe that is the best role model for my children.”