Miss Gayner was the kind of young art teacher who would stop at your desk and lean over to make suggestions in how to improve an art technique, even if her students were a bunch of unimpressed 7th graders staring at the clock eager for the lunch bell to ring.
Though I tried not to show it, I lived for Miss Gayner’s art classes. I was trying not to show my love for her class mostly because I was beginning to understand the strange American middle school student archetype of the teacher’s pet. But like many well meaning teachers, Ms. Gayner saw right thru this fake lack of art interest on my part.
“I think you’d like her art,” Ms. Gayner once told me as she slid a print of Frida Kahlo’s Las Dos Fridas across the small desk I was sharing with three other kids. “Isn’t she amazing?”
I couldn’t possibly fully comprehend the artwork of Frida Kahlo at the tender age of 13. But I definitely felt something. There was beauty. Pain. Color. Emotions. Ugliness. All these things were such a beautiful discovery for a chubby gay boy who had come to terms to the fact that the U.S. was his new home. Tho the complexity was too much for me to grasp, staring at this iconic piece of work did something to me. Frida would become my future point of reference whenever someone asked me why I kept making art.
And it wasn’t just the teachers who saw my artistic potential. I was always the kid in the back of the classroom who would draw strange caricatures of the teachers and the kids next to me would lean over and say “Damn foo, you really good! Let’s have lunch together!” It was my first experience of being able to communicate through art without actually saying much. Of course at that time I wasn’t necessarily analyzing how art was becoming my vehicle of communicating messages. I was just desperate to make friends who wouldn’t make fun of my bad English.
Like many teenagers entering this complicated time in our lives, there was a lot of angst inside of me. Immigrant angst to be more specific. I didn’t want to be in this country. I barely understood the language. The other kids who didn’t care much for my drawings were bullying me for being a recent arrival. I missed my friends back in Ensenada. We’d been in the country for almost a year, and I still refused to call Long Beach my home.
But sitting in Ms. Gayner’s art class was my happy place. The aroma of clay, acrylic paint and Crayola markers in that room felt comforting. Walking into her classroom and letting my creativity bloom gave me a sense of control.
My immigrant angst didn’t involved going into my room and slamming the door behind me yelling at my mother and telling her I didn’t like her. First of all, I didn’t have a room. Second of all, try yelling at a Mexican mother when you’re 13 years old and see how that goes. No, my immigrant angst would show up on my drawings. There was a lot of dark colors. A lot of images of myself crying. Yelling. Running away to fake worlds I would make up in my head and put into a piece of paper.
Nowadays, it has become a cliche for many brown artists to reference Friday Kahlo as someone an artistic influence. But she was and will always be my artistic root. The original queen of selfies, as the Latinx millennials have taken to call her, continues to spill into my work. Much like writing your own bio, the act of creating self portraits might feel a bit egotistical at first. But you see, my story and my art is the only thing I feel I have some control over lately. And I have Frida to thank for because she told me so.