NAEMI Showcases Inspiring Mentally Ill Latina Artists


Juan Martin was once an art therapist in Miami. One of his patients–and friends–was Havana-born Lucía Ballester, who has been creating are for years thanks to Martin. She never had formal training, but Ballester’s art found international acclaim, also thanks to Martin. Inspired by his students, he founded the National Art Exhibits of the Mentally Ill.

Ballester paints, makes engravings, works with ceramics, and illustrates her own poems. Her imagery of geometric shapes is often whimsical. But one thing you will never find in her art is people, who she finds are full of unpleasant surprises. Over the years Ballester’s style has matured. Her motions are precise and delicate, and scenes deceptively simple.

Collectors, curators, and common viewers are often surprised that those with mental difficulties have tremendous artistic skills. As for the artists themselves, their concern is not for cultural popularity or money, even though the attention they receive can improve their quality of life. All that matters is the art itself and the therapy it provides. Says Martin, “No one was listening to them. Art was a way to be heard.”

In some cases, NAEMI artists are unable to communicate without art. Misleidys Castillo is an autistic Cuban with hearing impediments who is unable to speak. Abandoned by her father, pencils and watercolors were her companions from a young age. She is fascinated by a particular subject of her own creation: highly stylized, multicolored male figures with thickly drawn muscles. Sometimes they are enormous and oversized. Are they strongmen? Are they inhuman, perhaps demons? Are they her way of remembering her father? We cannot know her intent, but her figures haunt everyone who sees them.

Through October 15, an exhibit titled Pictures in My Mind is hosted in the Commenoz Gallery in Biscayne, Florida. Ballester and Castillo’s work is displayed alongside many more Latin artists’ creations. Follow NAEMI’s Facebook page to hear about new artists and events.

Juan Martin works tirelessly to bring exhibitions to new locations in North America, Europe, and Latina America, as well as seek out new artists internationally. “If I see they have a hidden potential,” says Martin, “I try to encourage them because it’s likely that no one else has. They may have never heard something positive about their art or themselves.”

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