First, would you tell us a little bit about yourself? What is your background and what brought you to UMD?
I graduated with a Ph.D. in Plant Biology from the University of California, Berkeley. After a couple of years of doing a post-doc at the USDA-ARS in Beltsville, MD, I started teaching here at Maryland in 2003 as a lecturer. I was fortunate that as the post-doc position ended at the USDA, a teaching position opened up here at UMD.
What classes do you teach?
I teach a plant biology course titled “Amazing Green: The Plants that Transformed the World,” a class that fulfills the General Education science and lab requirements for non-science majors. I talk about the most important plants that humans use for food, stimulation, fibers, medicine, drugs, etc., as well as the historic, cultural, economic, health, and environmental context of these plants.
Would you tell us a little about your childhood? When did you become interested in science, and how did you decide you wanted to make it your profession?
I was born in Los Angeles, California, but at a very young age, I moved with my family to the city of Cuernavaca, in Mexico. I grew up there for about 10 years, and we all came back to L.A. when I was 15, during high school. As far as I remember, I have always loved science. I’ve always admired famous scientist through history, and around middle-school I realize that’s what I wanted to do as a profession. One character that I’ve always admired was Leonardo DaVinci, for his mastery of art, as well as for his scientific observations and engineering inventions he came up with.
How did you become interested in plants? What do you think is the most interesting thing about plants that most people don’t know?
I got interested in plants back when I was in Mexico, when I would spend hours at my grandmother’s little garden. It was small, but full of interesting and diverse plants. One thing people may not know about plants, is that many garden and household plants may be toxic. So, I was lucky that I never tasted or ate any of the plants at my grandmother’s garden, because I know now, that many of them may have been poisonous!
You created a portrait of Frida Kahlo that hangs in the first floor conference room of the Microbiology building. I think there are probably a lot of people who don’t know that you created this piece. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Sure. I created the Frida Kahlo portrait back in 2003, when I was between jobs (right before starting to work at UMD).
What inspired you to create this piece?
Two things: my fascination and admiration of Frida as an artist, activist, humanist, etc. and also my interest in American artist Chuck Close’s technique of fingerprint painting.
Can you tell us about Frida Kahlo? What do you admire about her?
Frida Kahlo was quite a character in her time. Born in Mexico in the early 20th Century, she was always adventurous and liked to push the socio-cultural boundaries of her time. Not only do I admire her surreal, personal, emotional artwork, but I also admire her humanity, empathy, and activism in many causes. In a sense, the character of Frida Kahlo embodies diversity: she was of mixed descent (from a Hungarian father and an Indigenous Oaxacan mother), she was bisexual, she was a person with disabilities (due to an accident and polio), and she was a fervent feminist and activist. She fought hard for women’s right to vote in Mexico in the 1950’s, as well as many other international issues, as well as cultural and political causes. She was definitely a woman ahead of her time, with a strong will to promote progressive changes in her world.
How did you create the Frida Kahlo portrait? What was your process?
I had done several Frida Kahlo portraits before, but one day, while visiting the National Gallery of Art in DC, I bumped into a work of art by American artist Chuck Close. It was a portrait of his mother in law, made entirely from fingerprints –but you couldn’t tell that from far away: it looked like a perfect photograph! When I saw that, I knew I had to try that technique, and what better way to start, than with a Frida portrait.
Where did you learn to do this?
It was self-taught, and I had no idea how to start. But finger painting seems such a basic technique, that most of us used when we were little kids –and also early humans used hands and fingers to create art in caves.
How long did it take you to create the portrait?
I would say a couple of months.
Has art always been a big part of your life, or is this a recent passion?
I always liked art, since I was in kindergarten! Teachers noticed I had a little talent for art, and some began to assign me art projects to decorate the classrooms and school. I always found it fun, fulfilling, and relaxing to create art.
Is art something that you work at all the time?
Yes, I always have some art project going at home. Sometimes I let it rest for some time (could be weeks, months, or even years), but eventually I make myself finish the work. The Kahlo piece is unique because it is created entirely out of thumbprints.
What other styles or media have you used when creating other pieces?
I use mostly acrylics and oils, as well as pencil and ink drawings. One other art technique that I have been recently working on, is creating portraits of famous individuals, using their own words to form the images. For example, a couple of months ago, I made a portrait of Edgar Allan Poe, using the words from his poem “The Raven.” I tend to like artwork that is a bit out of the ordinary.
Can you tell us about any of your other creations? Do you have any other pieces displayed at UMD or elsewhere?
A few years ago, I did an artwork sponsored by UMD for the 150thanniversary of its foundation. I painted a 5’ tall terrapin turtle, made out of fiberglass, and titled it “Aztec Terrapin” –with a rendering of the famous Aztec Calendar image (in black and gold) all along the turtle shell.
Do you incorporate your art into the classroom at all?
Yes, I do. One example, is when I talk about a particular plant, say, the potato, I show an early painting of Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters” –in which a family of miners are having potatoes with milk for dinner. I show it to illustrate how this plant, which originally came from the Andean region of South America, and which was initially thought of being poisonous, was eventually well accepted throughout Europe, and especially in northern, colder regions of the continent, as Van Gogh’s painting illustrates. I also show Mayan murals, portraying the importance of the corn plant in the cosmogony of these ancient Mesoamerican cultures.
Do you find any similarities between creating art and teaching? Does being an artist help you in the classroom (or vice versa)?
Yes, definitely. For both art and teaching, one needs to have creativity and imagination, but more importantly, a concept or idea that one wants to communicate to the viewer or the student. In both art and teaching, one aims to move, to touch the mind and soul of the other person, to transmit some knowledge, feeling or emotion. Although I don’t consider myself an artist, I do think that art helps me be more efficient at teaching.
Is there anything else you would like to share about your art or about yourself?