Maria Barrera Brings a World of Experience to Her Painting

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You can find art all over town — not just on gallery walls. In this series, we'll be looking at some of the local artists who serve up their work in coffeehouses and other non-gallery businesses around town.

Maria Barrera wrapped up her debut Colorado exhibition at La Cour Art Bar on March 3, when she and her husband, Samuel Prudden, sold out of every piece they’d hung.

That’s no small feat in an art-saturated market. But then again, Barrera knows a thing or two about staying afloat in rough waters.  The painter was born in Uruguay; her mother is Spanish and her father is from El Salvador. “There was a civil war going on in El Salvador, so we’ve lived all over – except there,” says Barrera.

She ended up in Italy when she was in high school, and did some of her secondary and post-secondary coursework there. Although she wasn’t studying art formally, she absorbed a lot of knowledge living amongst the works of brilliant painters and sculptors who'd influenced major movements worldwide.
“I was living in Italy, and I decided I wanted to make a difference in the world,” Barrera recalls. So in 2010 she moved to El Salvador to teach high school philosophy and art history. “I wanted to go back and help rebuild the country somehow. I didn’t know it would be so hard,” she says. 

In El Salvador, Barrera found something she'd least expected: She met her future husband, artist Samuel Prudden, a Colorado native who’d gone overseas during his service with the Peace Corps. The two met on the beach through mutual friends, and were married in the courthouse in Aspen a year later. Then the whirlwind really took off.

“We went back to El Salvador while Sam finished his time in the Peace Corps, and then we came to Denver,” Barrera says. “It was very rough at first. It was hard to find jobs; I was very new to the country.”

When Prudden was accepted into a master’s program at Columbia University in 2014, the couple relocated to New York; a year later, they moved to Honduras, where Barrera taught AP psychology and philosophy at a local high school. Their stay there only lasted about ten months, though. “We couldn’t take it for longer,” Barrera admits. “It’s the murder capital of the world, and it was very different than what we were used to.”

So five months ago Barrera and her husband moved back to Denver, and this time they didn’t have a problem finding work. “You’ll be surprised — I’m teaching first grade,” Barrera says, noting that she was ready for a change. “I needed to get the kids earlier, so I could actually be an influence in their lives.” 

The artist works in one of the district’s lowest-income schools, teaching entirely in Spanish to a mostly Hispanic population. “It’s very intense, but very rewarding,” she says.

Barrera doesn’t shy away from intensity in her life — or in her art. “I started sculpture and painting when I was young, and painting has always been a social protest for me,” she explains. She saw a lot during her decades of travel, and dives deep into the subjects of poverty, desperation and inequality.

The artist’s specialty is portraiture. “I do a lot of self-portraits, which are very different depending on what stage of life I’m in,” Barrera says. She’s also done portraits of family members — including her husband, of course.
“I have several portraits of Sam,” she says. “Painting with my love changed my point of view. He’s very positive and believes in humanity — and that really opened up not just my mind, but my heart and therefore my hand.”

Barrera says she's "inspired by old masters" from her time in Italy, and also inspired by encounters with strangers today. “When I’m walking my dog in Wash Park," she explains, "there are people who are really nice, or maybe there’s a very intense vibe — and they just strike me, and I have to go home and paint them.” Most of her subjects are painted from memory. “It’s more the emotion, and the feeling that they make me experience,” she says.

Those emotions often come on quickly, and Barrera paints them fast. “I can paint one piece in two hours, and then not paint for a week,” she says. “For me it is pure emotion, or pure inspiration. 

“I love texture, so most of my paintings have a lot of texture,” continues Barrera. “There’s a lot of detail in my paintings, and everything is calculated. Even though you see a drip, it’s not a mistake. It’s calculated.”

Color is typically dictated by “the vibe of the person I’m painting,” she adds. “I have very dark paintings and some very light paintings. I’m painting exactly what I feel about the person at that moment.”
Barrera has been showing her work worldwide for about a decade, and is currently trying to get her name out in Colorado. Barrera doesn’t have a website yet; if you’re interested in learning more about her work, you can contact her by e-mail at mariaarossell@gmail.com. 

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