Manuela Guillén is a freelance painter, muralist, and digital illustrator currently living in North Philadelphia. Born in Miami to Cuban and Salvadorian immigrant parents, Manuela has always had a love for art. She has collaborated with local, national, and global art organizations such as PangeaSeed, Fung Collaboratives, 48 Blocks, and the Atlantic City Arts Commission. Her murals can be found in both the U.S. and Mexico. Inspired by plants, tropical colors, and her cultural upbringing, Manuela aims to bring awareness to art education, sociopolitical and environmental issues. As a Spanish Art teacher, Manuela hopes to inspire her students to be creative as she continues to bring communities closer together through art. Read more about how Manuela is empowering the local Philly community with her artivism below.
What motivated you to start creating your art?
I’ve always been painting & drawing, but it was more of a meditative & healing thing for me. In a lot of ways, it helped me deal with hardships I was going through. I was never really open about my past before, but when I started going to Stockton University, I began to share my story. Art has always helped me express myself without having to use actual words.
Did you go to school for graphic design/take any classes, or is this just sheer natural talent?
I’ve always been a painter, but more recently I started using graphics because I wanted to make a coloring book as a tribute to the immigrant community as well as for women generally. Doing the book by hand wasn’t going so well, so a friend suggested that I start making graphics on the computer. I used to live in Miami and when I lived there, I was so proud of my culture & being Latina. Then I moved to New Jersey, and I felt kind of ostracized. No one spoke my language & my culture wasn’t celebrated. I felt like I had to conform and assimilate myself to a new culture that just wasn’t very accepting. It took me a long time to feel proud about my culture & and so with my art and that coloring book, I want other women to feel beautiful and represented.
What message/feeling would you like people to walk away from your work with?
Empowered. Beautiful. Represented. I use my art as a medium to facilitate discussions among 1st and 2nd generation immigrants so they have a platform to discuss their culture and identify with it. I want people to feel like they have a voice addressing the ongoing struggle between immigrants and the U.S. government. My family has struggled with documentation for years. I use art as a way to start the discussion for people who are not like me, but are willing to understand & listen to the struggles of the Latinx community and want to help.
Where do you take your inspiration from?
I think the majority of my inspiration comes from my background, culture, and stories from my friends & family. I get a lot of inspiration from exotic plants - to me, they’re very symbolic. I think they represent growth & diversity because they’re imported from foreign countries like Mexico, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, etc. Plants just remind me of super cultural, exotic places. Because I lived in Dominican Republic, Mexico, & Miami, those are all things I grew up around and are familiar to me.
There are also artists I have a lot of admiration for like Zosen from Spain who paints abstract shapes. Magda Love an Argentinian artist who uses dots and outlines to convey movement (this is especially helpful for me because I use flat colors and I want my work to breathe and feel alive). Even Victoria Villasana from Mexico. Victoria does a lot of street art and uses realism mixed with yarn. She does these crazy beautiful patterns and shapes using the yarn. I also like Nosego who is a local Philadelphia artist who experiments with nature and surrealism. These artists inspire me to endlessly grow my work and try to use new styles to bring my work to life.
Where do you see yourself and your art in 10 years?
Okay, so I think this is the hardest question. I’m not sure if I’ll continue teaching, but I do see myself in North Philly. I love the kids & I see my younger self in them. I teach spanish with art. I teach them to feel proud of their culture and not to let themselves stray away from what makes them them, just to fit in with the majority. I would like to rent a warehouse to help the youth grow, learn and thrive. Some of the kids go to mandatory tutoring after school & they’ll stop in my class after right before they go home because they just want to draw for 5 minutes, so I see the passion and how it really helps them escape hardships of their home life or other struggles they may have throughout the day. I want to be that person in the Latinx & Philly community who can give them the new resources that they otherwise wouldn’t have in school or at home.
How would you describe your work to a blind person?
I would use an old painting I did, Izote Chac Mool. In that painting, I told a story about my mom living in El Salvador as a child. She was trying to save up enough money to buy a little bottle of pink nail polish, so she was selling water to tourists in the city. It took her months. When she was finally able to buy it, she showed her brothers and they broke it because they didn’t want her to get used to a life of luxury. They didn’t want her to put a big value on “things”. So I did a painting with El Salvador’s national flower, and then I broke a bottle of nail polish and splattered it all over it. I think that would help them understand my story and my art and actually feel it.
Who is your idol & if they asked you to create a one of a kind piece for them, describe what that would look like?
Diane Guerrero from Orange is the New Black. She’s a very strong voice for the immigrant & feminist community. In her book, “In The Country We Love,” she talks about how her parents were deported when she was 14. She speaks about how her latinx community really came together and helped her out. I would like to create a painting for her. I think that people think that we need I.C.E., but what we really need is more community programs & people looking out for each other in our community. Collectivism is a big part of Latinx culture - you know your neighbors, your neighbors know you, and you’re there for each other like family. She always says if it wasn’t for her community, she wouldn’t be where she is today. I would definitely incorporate plants from different countries in her painting to represent togetherness.
What are you trying to accomplish with your art? Do you feel like it has already made an impact? If so, please explain what that impact is.
I want to make a big impact with the Latinx community in the U.S. and all over. I would like my work to make people with privilege think twice about how they treat or talk to people living in the U.S. that may have been born somewhere else. I would like people to see each other as friends not enemies. I feel like my work has gotten a lot of attention recently and a lot of others identify with my art. I’ve been showcasing & collaborating at different organizations: Juntos, When We All Vote, Pangea Seed, We All Grow Latina; and I feel grateful to be able to use my art to create change.
Other than yourself, who do you make your art for?
I make my art mainly for the Latinx community & women, but I also hope to grab the attention of people who may not experience those similar hardships. I want people look at my art with an open mind and hope they try to understand. I focus on first & second generation immigrants mainly. El Elote Man is a humorous piece for a younger crowd. Then I have pieces like the mine ruins with the Lincoln Memorial & Build Bridges Not Walls, that have a more serious and political tone. I want my art to really light a fire in the latinx community and everyone else that sees my work. I want my community to feel empowered, represented, and ultimately, find a way to express their cultural & spiritual journey as children of immigrants.