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The Fire Within: Sandra Reyes

I ask Sandra Reyes, “When did you start to paint?” There is a prolonged pause that suggests she’s heard a different question, like when did you start breathing? She brings the pause to an end with a commanding, “Ever since I can remember.” Her early memories are peppered with stories of painting on every possible surface.  Cardboard was a favorite. As a child she would run out of the house after a rainfall to play with mud, using earth colors to paint.

Years later at the University of Puerto Rico a professor was dismissive of her talent. When I asked what was said, she responds by saying, “To him, I was completely invisible. His behavior towards the work was discouraging and emotionally devastating. And yet I never stopped thinking of myself as an artist. And that fire within kept burning…”

She arrived in Vieques in the 80s and had to work a number of odd jobs to survive. Still she painted like mad. Today she reflects that “all of those paintings were my therapy, my escape.” When I mentioned how much I love her first painting on canvas, an old man sitting on a chair, a dog by his side, she takes great joy in describing not only the painting, but relating that the painting represents a defining moment in her life. With its completion she went through a door and never turned back.

Her children, Michael, Kiani and Alexandra, who she lovingly refers to as her tribe, fueled her inspiration. As has Vieques, a place Reyes sees as truly magical, where anything is possible. That magic is a constant. She remembers being in debt and without cash reserves while raising three young children when Doug and Marikay McHoul, owners of the guesthouse, La Lanchita, fell in love with one of her paintings. “I had not a nickel in my pocket and they bought one of my paintings at that very moment!” A few days later they came back and bought multiple paintings to decorate each room of their guesthouse. Years later the McHouls hired Sandra to paint a mermaid mural by the swimming pool. And then, when the elevated parking area of La Lanchita produced some wall space, the McHouls thought of it as a canvas for a public mural and knew Sandra was the artist for the job.  “Marikay had very specific requirements,” Reyes remembers. “She wanted it to be about Vieques, and she wanted it to have a sense of place and history.” The commission took over six months to complete, and the result, Sandra says, was “shaped by the Viequenses who stopped by on a daily basis to see the work and reminisce about their lives and their past. Old people would stop by and begin to cry. They felt their stories had been forgotten, and in the mural they saw the stories of their grandparents and their families, or of the places where they had been born and lived. Stories of the plaza, love stories, parties and celebrations, stories that form the Vieques diaspora.”

Sandra knows the work of the great muralists like Diego Rivera, and loves the power of public art and how it can transform a community. One of her dreams is to turn Vieques into the next Wynwood, a neighborhood in Miami whose walls have become the largest display of public art in the world, attracting some of the world’s best muralists and millions of visitors. Sandra wants young people to paint and express their passion and artistry. She maintains that in Vieques “we have wall space! I want that fire that burns inside every child artist to never die. The mural in front of La Lanchita is just a first step. I’m confident painting can and will transform Vieques.”

Photographing Sandra and her World  / Kelly thompson

I have been lucky to visit Sandra Reyes’ home on more than one occasion, but today I am here to photograph her. Stepping into her house feels like losing footing in river rapids and being swept into a whirlpool of creativity. The pathways flow through the house, determined by stacked canvases, sculptures, and easels holding works in progress. The kitchen table is covered with piles of books three feet high. Paintings fill every available wall space and are propped against each other on the floor. Each room is a gallery or studio with necessities like a kitchen thrown in the mix.  In the garage, pottery, glass, old tiles for mosaics and paint cover every surface available. There’s constant motion and re-arrangement and yet Sandra’s presence brings calm confidence. There is nothing chaotic about how she works. Every painting has a story. A painting from a sonogram of a baby that hasn’t been born yet is tacked to the corner of a canvas. The soft baby sleeping in the swirls of fluid rests directly across from the ghostly, unfinished sketch of an elderly woman, drawn into her rocking chair and waiting for color. Sandra stands solidly between the two portraits, commenting on the wonderful cycle of life, and I feel fortunate to be here.

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