Latin painter splashes canvas with passion

There's a blank, 4-by-6-foot canvas stage right, and a painter wearing a brown beret posed in front of it holding a large, flat brush. His T-shirt and pants are spattered with paint. His eyes are obscured by his hat, but still he betrays his grinning anticipation. He bends and dips into blue and weaves with the music, like the flickering of the candles under the purple hue of stage lights. His brush swipes the canvas, transforming the strum and soar of acoustic guitars, metamorphosing the rhythmic hiss of maracas and the pop and snap of bongos into the shapeless textures of stirring shadows. Songs transition, fade and rise as the painter gashes the textures with black vertical lines. Shoulders emerge, jaw lines, foreheads. A spurt of yellow from a squeeze bottle. A knife spreads saffron flesh into form, drafting life into the abstract image of a guitar player and his two congeros. The last note resonates. The last brush stroke is embellished. The crowd applauds. "How much is it? I want buy it," fans yell from their seats. The painter smiles, contented his art has touched his audience.

Mixed-media artist Gustavo Llenas has been a familiar and colorful figure in the local art and experimental music scene since he immigrated from the Dominican Republic in 1996. He adapted fairly quickly and has sold numerous paintings to collectors and shown at every major gallery in town, including the Orlando Museum of Art. His next show there is the museum's "1st Thursdays" series' debut, Art of Love, Love of Art, on Thursday, Feb. 3.

"I'm happy to be in the show," says Llenas from his home studio as he shares his frustrations over the lack of venues in Orlando for local artists, which has been making him think a lot lately about moving back to the Dominican Republic. "There, art is everywhere. There are galleries in every town, not little galleries like here, but as big as museums."

He sees this event as a positive sign and hopes it will stimulate the budding progress of a true artists' community.

Llenas has other challenges on his mind these days. At times his easel stands empty. The reason is squirming on his lap: a cuddly, cooing, 4-month-old baby girl. He hasn't abandoned the beret controlling a headful of wild curls, and his clothes are still covered with paint. But instead of a brush, he's holding a bottle, and there's a diaper draped over his shoulder. "Before, my painting was the most important thing in my life. The baby made it go one level lower," says Llenas.

Just before heading to the United States, one of his roommates, a young woman from Hungary, gave him a good-luck charm that she felt had sustained her through her own fears of coming to a strange country where she didn't speak the language. It was a small, dark-brown leather suitcase.

"She knew I was going to a different culture and told me it helped her grandmother run to Hungary from Germany when Hitler was killing the Jews. She believed it has the power to help you change your life. She told me, ‘Whatever you put in there becomes special,'" he says almost reverently as he snaps open the brass latches to reveal his brushes and paints.

"`My paintings` help me discover ideas, beliefs. ... I go for the emotion of the lines, or for the shadows, or the shape. I don't know why I put blue over there or red over here, but when I finish the painting, it answers some problem or question."

Much of his work depends heavily on the tension created by the human form. "The human is a close creation of God ... more complicated. `He` can be a lover, a freak. I create a character with his own hopes and dreams," says Llenas.

Llenas' own hopes and dreams are on hold as he shuffles his schedule and his efforts, working as an interior mural designer in between bottles and naps, to make ends meet. But not to worry, he explains. The artist sees this hiatus as a fertile time that will fuel his future work with even more passion. For the time being, he says, "My heart is a little busy with my daughter."


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