Richmond artist’s portraits challenge perceptions

Richmond resident Rebeca Garcia-Gonzalez is the painter behind the popular exhibition, "Portraits of Puerto Rican Resilience." (All photos by Mike Kinney)

By Mike Kinney

Longtime Richmond resident and artist Rebeca Garcia-Gonzalez can paint stunning portraits in just four hours — or less.

It’s a talent that is in part a courtesy to her subjects, but also a project with a purpose.

For one, Garcia-Gonzalez says she doesn’t want her subjects to have to sit for too long.

“It makes them nervous,” she said. “So I always reassure them by telling them when you sit for me it will be four hours or less [with breaks]… I have to live up to that promise.”

The other, even more important reason Garcia-Gonzalez returned to portraits, is to shine a light on people typically invisible to mainstream society, as well as those who may be misunderstood.

She’s been doing such portraits since the start of the Great Recession, and her latest project —  Portraits of Puerto Rican Resilience — is gaining attention while challenging perceptions.

The series, in part, aims to capture the essence of a wide variety of Puerto Ricans in the wake of the devastating Hurricane Maria of September 2017.

“As a visual artist I asked myself what could I do to bring attention to the plight of the Puerto Rican people having survived this disaster and having lost everything,” said Garcia-Gonzalez, who grew up in a working-class family in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Art at the University of Puerto Rico.

“Since I have been painting portraits rather quickly, I conceived of the idea of doing a series of paintings of Puerto Ricans living on the Island,” she said.

Her idea was to challenge the perception of victimhood in the mainstream media.

“I started painting portraits as a way to increase the visibility of groups of people underrepresented in formal portraiture, but also to change the prevailing narrative on these groups,” Garcia-Gonzalez said. “In the case of Puerto Ricans post-Maria, I kept seeing images of helplessness and victimhood in the media, when I knew different.”

The painter went on a six-week post-Maria trip to Puerto Rico, where she drove to the homes of volunteer “sitters” in order to paint their portraits (in under four hours, of course). She also captured portraits of second and third generation Puerto Ricans living in the U.S.

She said she asked her portrait subjects, per usual, to pick their own clothes and poses, and “they took the opportunity to challenge old expectations and identities.”

The result is a brilliant series making the exhibition rounds. The exhibit is next set to be shown at the East Bay Municipal Utilities District Corporate office-375 11th St., Oakland, from Sept. 12 to Oct 16.

She hopes her work will spread the message of resilience that is apparent among Puerto Ricans.

“That was the most important message they wanted me to give here in the mainland,” Garcia-Gonzalez said.

Garcia-Gonzalez also paints oils and acrylics, is a muralist, draws and also does printmaking.

She moved to the U.S. in 1985 and earned two degrees in education. She served as a public school teacher for 10 years before art called her back.