Walter Cifuentes García has always expressed himself through art, whether drawing as a child in Guatemala or now exhibiting paintings at a museum downtown.
"It's something that's always been on my mind — to be an artist. I really like to draw so that I can express the joy I have inside me, as well as the sorrow," Cifuentes said in Spanish. "But when you want something, you have to be persistent. To be somebody in this life, you have to work."
It wasn't until seven years ago that Cifuentes, now in his late 20s, was able to pursue art professionally — and even then he's made sacrifices to do so while also working in construction full-time and supporting a family, often coming home from a long day's work to create art, or using time he could be resting on a weekend to focus on his art.
That hard work has paid off. Cifuentes is one of six artists in residence at The Leonardo, an art museum in downtown Salt Lake. The artists in residence program, which is a collaboration between The Leonardo and Artes de México en Utah, features Latino and Hispanic artists.
Some are emerging artists, like Cifuentes, who, without any formal art training, says nature has been his best teacher. It's an education that's evident in his work, which explores humanity and landscapes through countless mediums, including oil paintings, sculptures and cement on a canvas. Also visible in his work is the influence of his native Guatemala, which Cifuentes said he incorporates using bright colors.
"My country is very colorful; it has a lot of colors. This is something that also inspires me: my people, my culture and those colors," he said in Spanish.
The program's other emerging artists are Salt Lake Community College student Ivan Ortega, who draws inspiration from Mexican folk art and isn't afraid to experiment with less traditional mediums like spray paint and digital art; and 18-year-old American Cuevas, who is continuing a family tradition of creating wooden masks from Zacatecas, Mexico, as well as Alebrijes — a Mexican folk art form that depicts brightly colored, whimsical creatures that are believed to be spiritual guides.
The program also includes well-established artists, such as Vicente J.C. Martínez Romo, whose decadeslong, multidisciplinary career has spanned multiple exhibits and teaching positions in Mexico. Or Vicky Lowe, who has taught art and Spanish for 18 years and used art to explore her identity as an immigrant and as the daughter of a Tseltal Mayan mother and an Anglo archeologist father. Or Jorge Rodriguez, who has played a critical role in promoting the appreciation of Latino cultures and contributions in Park City.
That range of mediums, experience and backgrounds is one of the best parts of the program, said Leonardo Creative Program Manager Hannah Nielsen.
"I love that we have six such unique artists. They're all very different from each other. They're all coming in with very different points of view," Nielsen said. "It's really exciting both for the patrons and also for us working here to know that we're going to have this new setup every month."
Each month, one of the artists exhibits their work on the second floor of The Leonardo. Patrons are invited every Saturday and Sunday to interact with the artists and create some art of their own.
The year-long program is split in half, with each artist getting to exhibit their work twice. The second half kicked off last month, so only Ortega and Cifuentes have exhibited twice, but Nielsen said the museum has seen immense artistic growth from them both and expects to see much of the same as the program continues. Cifuentes' partner, Crystal Masaquaptewa, has had a front-row seat to that growth.
"I've noticed a big difference. He's become more professional; he's become more able to talk with people. And his art shows it. You can tell that he's become happier because he's getting his stuff seen," she said. "I've noticed that his art has become happier, more brilliant in the colors, bigger — and I feel like that's where his heart is."
Andrea Silva, Artes de México marketing and communications manager, said the program isn't just beneficial for the artists; it's also an opportunity for Utahns to see Latino representation in the arts.
"Art is extremely important in any community, regardless of color, gender, nationality, etc," Silva said in Spanish. "So bringing art to the community is one of the first motivations of this program."
Silva emphasized that although Latinos may be able to see some of their own identities reflected in the artists' work, anyone can connect and interact with the program.
"Even though the artists all use the same space — if you have the opportunity to come see each one, you see that the space is completely transformed with the style of each artists," she said in Spanish. "So I think that there's something for all kinds of people, likes and ages."