Thirty minutes remained on the last day of the Decatur Book Festival when I saw her art prints, packed tightly in crates under at a booth in the outdoor plaza. I was immediately drawn to these paintings, which were untitled and unsigned. Like wildflowers, they seemed to have sprung up from the concrete streets of Decatur, waiting for me to pick them and display at home.
Abstract is perhaps the most appropriate word to describe Claudia Restrepo’s art. It employs an amalgam of methods. Her techniques vary from pour paint to marble, to painting with her own blood, to creating sculptures out of trash. But now that I’ve met the artist, now that I know her story, I cannot help but say that her work is best described as an organic abstraction. Where some clearly depict scenes of wildlife and nature, other works seem to have arisen from the paint and canvas, and having reacted to carbon dioxide, water and sunlight, have flourished into a living organism.
Describing her creative process, Claudia shared that when she tries a new technique, she tosses out the instructions and blindly trusts her intuition. “I keep exploring different techniques; sometimes I get materials but I don’t look at the instructions so I can develop my own style, learning that material. I don’t want to be contaminated by one idea,” she laughed at how she sounded. “And after I look at instructions.”
Her cappuccino eyes twinkle when she talks about her work. Claudia’s artistic intuition seems to have sprung from the rainforests of South America where she spent years studying plant-life and learning from the indigenous tribes she met. Her work seems to encapsulate the emotion and excitement behind these unique experiences, and the purity of it strikes me as, well, magical.
“When the shit is spread equally to everybody, then we all get along.”— Claudia Restrepo
Seated in the aromatic sanctuary of a Starbucks in Decatur, GA., Claudia shared with me the one positive about growing up in the time of Pablo Escobar. It made people get the hell along and be thankful for what opportunities they had.
“Medellín is a pretty nice city. But when I was growing up as a teenager, it was Pablo Escobar time. That was all cra-azy.”
Her brow furrowed just thinking of the notorious “King of Cocaine,” now popularized by the media as much as he is vilified. Claudia recalls times when the mafia would appear in her school as well as occasions when an unsolicited suitor, a member of the cartel, would pull her out of class to talk. All she could do was converse politely until he allowed her to return to the classroom. But she never encouraged the attention.
“Pablo, he was really poisoning the mind of the teenagers,” Claudia continued. “He was giving guns to everyone — you would see kids with guns because of Pablo Escobar.” At the same time, the mayor of the city began introducing educational youth programs to counteract the drug lord’s influence. Claudia and other kids in the neighborhood were offered classes to earn college credit and study professional skills.
“I did candle. I did clothes design. I did glass. I did macramé . . . but there is that attitude that no one really wants to pay you as an artist, so it was always hobby.” And that’s how Claudia got her start as an artist. And as an adult, she taught art to at-risk youth in community centers.
The Shit Deepens:
Over the next decades, Claudia would marry, have children, divorce and remarry. By the way she describes her second marriage, it was something out of a fairytale. “We were a really, really happy couple. He was my love — my real love. My half orange. My other wind. And we really had so much fun. Really beautiful histories . . .” Claudia said.
The two had many adventures together. They planned to travel constantly, and their means of transportation was a bicycle. The couple would take long cycling trips across the mountains surrounding Medellín. Claudia became a strong cyclist as they traveled the high altitudes of the city, exploring forests and enjoying each other’s company as they pitched their tents in unmarked spots throughout the region.
And then, one day, they decided to stay in a camping spot, instead of pitching a tent off the beaten trail. The two slept soundly in their tent when they were attacked suddenly in the night.
“It was a really bad situation, so I am alive because it wasn’t my time — I believe he saved me,” Claudia said. Ten years removed, Claudia still has difficulty reliving that terrible day. “They came, they shot him quickly, and he died the next day.” She has no idea why their attackers did what they did. Nothing was stolen, and she denies the likelihood that the murder was premeditated. Shit like that just happened, and no one knows why, seems to be her observation of the matter.
“The only bad memory I have about him is when he died. When he was in the ambulance, he was telling me how much he loved me. It’s beautiful, but it hurts more.”
A Search for Well-being:
Up to that point, Claudia had lived a very active lifestyle, and so her kids had gone to live with their dad. As she dealt with the depression following the death of her spouse, her children were one of the few things that kept her going.
To fill her days, Claudia began volunteering at a local community center, and she gravitated to the cancer support group which gathered there. One thing led to another, and she became acquainted connected with a group called AMIBIO (Asociación de Médicos e Investigadores en Bionergética), a progressive coalition of doctors, researchers and non-religious spiritualists who were studying the body’s potential to cure itself.
“There are a lot of cases where people really heal themselves,” Claudia said. Around that time, Claudia learned that she had developed cancer in her uterus and was diagnosed with a thyroid problem. She could have started treatment and accepted a scholarship to study psychology at “Universidad de San Buena Ventura”. But instead, she decided to run away from it all.
“I did not know exactly what it was I just wanted to do, but I had to be somewhere that got me out of the world. I don’t know if I wanted to die or something. I didn’t know how to deal with all the emotions I had. So, I went to Brazil to one island, Florianopolis.”
After a seven-hour ride on a commercial plane, Claudia found herself in a place that natives called the “Magic Island.” “I did not know that at the time,” Claudia admitted. “So many people would go to that island, and they would get miracles. And the natives, they sing about the magic of the island in their anthem song. So, I learned that when I was there.”
In the next two years, Claudia lived life to the fullest. She spent her days walking beaches and swimming in the ocean. At night, she would enjoy live music and sip beer in the company of her new friends.
After one month, it was time to redeem her return flight to Medellín. But Claudia decided to stay in Brazil; so enthralled was she in the culture, that she was determined to learn Portuguese before leaving. This she accomplished by befriending the locals, attending parties and listening to music.
She recalls the people on the Magic Island fondly. “The people I meet over there that was so amazing, and the people there, they treat me so nice, so good. I just was myself!”
During her time in Brazil, Claudia only did work that she enjoyed. She worked as a tour guide, made cold porcelain artwork, and she met and collaborated with other creatives on certain projects. But her mission during those two years was to have a good time and rediscover happiness. “I had savings, so I went just vacations for two years,” Claudia admits. She made new friends daily and would stay for weeks in the homes of strangers who treated her with respect and never asked her to pay a cent.
All the while, Claudia practiced techniques she learned from AMIBIO on herself, but she did not seek treatment for her cancer. One day, she agreed to go on a trip into the jungle with a group of friends. Under the open sky, the group sang songs of the forest and consumed the Ayahuasca plant under the guidance of a shaman.
It was a beautiful, wholly spiritual experience, Claudia recalls. “I put all the intention to healing my cancer, and during the ritual, we were singing healing nature songs. Songs say, ‘The hummingbird is calling me. The forest is calling me.’ It was magical, and the nature! You really felt the nature,” Claudia said.
Not long after, Claudia returned to Medellín feeling new and restored, and as she soon learned, the magic in the forest may have worked after all. “So, when I come back to Columbia, I take the test, and I was healed of everything!”
Claudia believes her healing was possible because she had discovered the magic of Florianopolis, and through that time of physical and emotional healing, learned how to deal with the passing of her husband.
Living in the Jungle and the Quest for Knowledge:
“So, I decided I want to study with a shaman. I don’t want to study college — I wanted to study the popular wisdom,” Claudia said.
When she returned to Columbia, Claudia began working odd jobs to earn cash. But her wanderlust was far from satisfied, and when a Brazilian friend living in Spain called and said she was coming to visit, Claudia suggested they explore the jungles of Chocó by the Pacific Ocean and the beaches along those coasts.
And so, the two women set out for Chocó, a region inhabited by a community of former slaves who had settled along the beaches. The natives there had learned to live in harmony with nature, and they taught Claudia to fish and how to hunt without upsetting the natural balance.
“They are such nice people — the best people. They really shared everything with me,” said Claudia. “They don’t hunt like crazy, though; they just do enough for eating. They don’t do just to kill animals. They protect the place so much,” Claudia recalled.
The two stayed eight months, and the people of Chocó taught Claudia about their way of life, their duty to protect their environment and their methods of foresting for food. They showed which plants were safe to eat and shared their medicinal purposes, as well.
Claudia clearly remembers the first time she discovered the “Borojó” — commonly known as an aphrodisiac to those in the region where it grows. But Claudia compares the plant’s vitality-boosting properties to an energy drink, the natural equivalent of a Red Bull.
Claudia also made jewelry at the time, and it amused her friend greatly to see Claudia wear those ornaments out in the jungle. When her friend fell in love and decided to settle down, Claudia committed to her passion for learning about plants. “So, I decided I want to study with a shaman. I don’t want to study college — I wanted to study the popular wisdom,” Claudia said.
Santa Marta and the Reserve:
Full of purpose, Claudia continued on her own, trekking through jungles, making jewelry and trying to learn all she could from the beautiful strangers she met. Eventually, she was invited by a group of cinematographers to participate in their project in Santa Marta, a city in Columbia’s Northern province that sits on the Caribbean Sea.
Her friends had rented a place in the small town of Bonda, once colonized by the Spanish explorers. She helped when she could with her friends’ project, but mostly, Claudia would visit the beaches and the jungles, hoping to learn more about the plant varieties in that region.
Claudia would walk her friend’s dog up a mountain as a daily habit. And when she was hungry, Claudia would eat mangos, which were so abundant in the area, she didn’t know what to do with them all. “In Santa Marta is a lot of mango. Mango everywhere, like crazy. Closer to the mountains, there are mangos on the floor.” I harvested them with my knife, and I ate mango like crazy!” The rest she would make into paper, though a special formula she invented. “I was exploring everything, just being creative. I wasn’t really trying to sell nothing, just was discovering everything.”
And one day, when she climbed the slope, she stumbled upon a nature reserve, secluded in the jungles at the mountain’s peak. To Claudia, it was like she had died and gone to heaven.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my God! This is what I was looking for! There were so many living things! So, I entered, and the people were awesome, awesome. And I was in love with this place, the garden there were maybe like 600-1000 plants. I don’t even know. I don’t remember how many, but it was a big garden with all the plants.”
The reserve was owned by a German biologist who had named the place after a local tree, “Caoba.” The owner of the reserve has a budding relationship with the local “Kogui” tribe, and they introduced them to Claudia. The Kogui shared with her their ancestral knowledge of the plants and how to live in harmony with the environment. And they showed her the Coca Leaf, which the tribe used to connect with nature and gain a sixth sense.
Claudia discovered the Coca Leaf was a powerful medicine and helped heal her body and balanced its PH. As for the plant’s more supernatural properties, she noticed it gave her energy to continue hiking for hours, improved eyesight and mental agility.
“I was walking fourteen hours by myself with machete. My boots and my machete and small shorts, and that was my kit. I was just having fun, I did the jewelry, but I was more focused on studying plants and cooking with plants.”
Eventually, Claudia would become a full-time volunteer at Caoba, and on her days off, she trekked through the jungles to see new towns and places. On one of those trips, she discovered a beach called Palomino where the indigenous Koguis made payments to nature. The indigenous people over there, they were very dark. They say they are the ‘big brothers.’”
Claudia says the best coffee in the world grows in that region. She believes that can be attributed to the altitudes of a mountain so high, it can only be seen in the early morning before clouds obscure the pique. And secondly, she believes the Kogui’s prayers and effort to show appreciation to nature improve the plants, as well. “We have studies that show if you say certain things to the plants, the plants grow up different. Studies prove that,” Claudia said.
Creativity, Expression and Returning to Medellín:
Although her phone and camera had been stolen in her travels, Claudia had managed to keep a portfolio for her jewelry which she showcased on her hand-made paper.
One of the towns she visited, Camarones on La Guarija peninsula by the Caribbean Sea, was primarily inhabited by flamingoes. As she explored the area, Claudia met a young girl in a wheelchair, and she decided to gift her entire jewelry collection. Claudia left the girl with one more thing — the skill of jewelry making, which she taught the girl personally. After that day, Claudia didn’t make jewelry again for years.
To replace her old hobby, Claudia picked up painting, something she hadn’t done in years.
It was shortly after Claudia had returned to Caoba as a full-time volunteer. Another artist had come to the reserve, and he encouraged Claudia to pick up the brush. She did. She hasn’t stopped painting since then.
Claudia’s adventures in the jungles could surely fill a book, so rich and diverse were her experiences. But for now, it is sufficient to say that she drank from life’s cup fully and always had an attitude that she could do anything she set her mind to. When she returned to Medellín, Claudia continued painting and sold all her art. With that money, she looked into buying a ticket to go to the Caribbean Islands to learn English. Her purpose for going was to learn English so she could return to the reserve in Santa Marta and help the owner run the place.
But when challenged to see if she would be granted a visa to enter the U.S., Claudia instead found herself on a flight to Miami.
“A friend say, ‘Why you don’t go to U.S.A., and say I don’t have a visa. My freind say, ‘They won’t give you the visa.’ When people tell me I cannot do something, I get crazy. I say to my friend, ‘I can get visa if I want it.’”
Immigrating to the U.S., Disillusionment:
Claudia had done what her friends said she couldn’t. She was granted a visa and bought found a cheap flight headed to Miami, FL. But it wasn’t the kind of beach Claudia had expected. In Miami, she was met with a cityscape, crowds and a job waiting tables. It wasn’t her kind of work, so the owner put Claudia in the kitchen preparing food.
“I tell them I study chef but always for a few people. I am not that fast. Not that type. I cook stuff careful with love and flowers. But no, no! So, they put me to the dishes. And it was so hard because it was fast, fast, fast. I just wanted to keep painting. So, I started studying the language. I did not want that kind of job, so I focused on study and not spend my money.”
Hoping she’d find more opportunity, Claudia moved to Atlanta where she had a few distant cousins, and they allowed her to stay three weeks. She made the move in the winter when the trees were bare, and it seemed nature was lifeless. “I was like, ‘What is this place? Everything is gray!’”
And the season reflected her apparently bleak possibilities. Times were not easy, and between what money she made selling her art, teaching Spanish and Salsa lessons and working part-time at a bakery, Claudia only made enough money to survive. “I was out in the community to show my art. I volunteered in the community, but the people was pretty abusive because I did not know the language, and they kind of manipulated me, “Claudia said. “I learned big lessons, as well. I learned what is fake because I did not know what is fake before, because in Columbia and Brazil if someone don’t like you, you know they don’t like you.”
In the months that followed, Claudia grew only more disappointed with the country. The worst of it was on the anniversary of her husband’s death. She couldn’t help but relive his death as she went about her duties training a new employee at the bakery she worked at. And then her co-worker attacked her — pummeled her to the floor. “He hurt me so bad. No one saw anything. I was yelling like crazy. He thought because I was an immigrant, I would not say nothing, but I say, ‘Fuck you!’”
She reported the assault, and the man went to jail. But by that point, Claudia was ready to go back to Columbia. She was done with the ‘Land of Opportunity.’
Rediscovering the Magic:
Before she had the chance to begin the journey she had planned to drive through Central America and into Columbia, the universe granted Claudia a wish.
It was a few weeks after the incident at the bakery, and Claudia had changed her address. On a whim, she decided to check out the local mall in her new neighborhood. She came across a store where an artist named Gregory sold paintings and books he illustrated for children. What Gregory didn’t know was that Claudia has wished to meet someone, an artist, with whom she could laugh and share her passion. It was a beautiful moment for the two.
She didn’t feel ready for a relationship at first, but over time, Claudia grew to trust and respect him. The two married a few years later. Together, they travel the country, showing their art in galleries, festivals and shows. Her work has been exhibited in Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and elsewhere. “They love my art in Virginia. I show my art everywhere,” Claudia said.
And her husband, Claudia admits, has opened her eyes to the beauty the country has to offer. “He brings me to travel with him and introduced me to people, and they were so different. Not everyone was [fake] like that. He made me change my perception. At first, I was really disappointed about this country and the people. Now I understand here, things are hard.”
Claudia has finally allowed her late husband rest in peace and she’s starting to see the magic once more. Spring is one of the things she loves most about Atlanta; to her it seems like everything is new during spring — orgasmic, even. She hopes her art will bring people to a greater appreciation for their natural surroundings and help them take issue with the state of pollution it’s in.
“I look at this country and see the way things are, and I get a lot of shock about how much trash there is, so I volunteered in schools when I first arrived in Atlanta, teaching about recycling to kids about plastic bags. I did different courses about what animals are thinking, and why turtle eat plastic bag and show them what happens with all the trash. The kids were really into it.”
Trash sculptures. Landscapes. Oil and drip. Claudia Restrepo does it all. Her art continues to change and grow as she delves into different topics and learns more about social issues in the country.
“I paint about things I see. I did a pedophile collection; people don’t buy that. But when people see it, I hope that they have emotion,” Claudia said. “That’s what I want, to get people to have emotion and connect with the things that are happening. And I’m painting a lot of women because she is the mother of creation. It’s symbolic, not a human woman specifically.”
“I paint about things I see. [When] people see [my work], I hope that they have emotion. That’s what I want, to get people to have emotion and connect with the things that are happening.”
“And I’m painting a lot of women because she is the mother of creation. It’s symbolic, not a humam woman specifically.”– Claudia Restrepo
Her work continues to focus on nature and demonstrate the interconnectivity of humans. For what are communities, but one big living organism? If one part is sick, is not the whole?
It’s really the only word to describe Claudia’s work.
. . .
See more of her work at @NatureFineArtClaudiaRestrepo, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.