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She’s focused on the eyes. Dominican-American artist Silvia Lopez Chavez is working on a 36×48-inch painting that honors nurses and she’s seeking to capture the kindness of health care’s heroes. Due to the pandemic, the hospital staffers are covered in full protective gear that camouflages their faces, hiding smiles or other friendly facial expressions from patients. And even though body language can communicate a message, “I want to make sure I get the eyes right,” Lopez Chavez explains over Zoom a few days before wrapping up the piece.
“They are the emotional connection to us, the viewer.”
That meticulous attention to detail could be part of the reason why the long-time designer, painter, and muralist has been tapped to develop work all around the Boston area. One of her pieces, “deLIGHT,” with its bright purple, blue, and fuchsia shapes, currently wraps around the wall in one of the main corridors in the Prudential Center beneath a hanging sculpture by Cicely Carew, another artist of color. “Rise,” her bold mural for last year’s “Sea Walls Boston,” shows a woman who appears to float in the ocean surrounded by colorful plants and creatures. And the textured “Interconnected,” installation at Boston Children’s Museum that was on view from November 16, 2019 to March 9, 2020 centers on the environment.
Lopez Chavez explores social, environmental, and cultural connections through her work. She experiments with mediums, colors, forms, and more. In her studio work, she combines “traditional methods of drawing and painting with experimental techniques in printmaking and collage,” according to her artist statement.
For her latest painting, part of Boston Globe Media’s “Salute to Nurses” tribute, Lopez Chavez says she “went straight to the source.”
The multidisciplinary artist has friends who are nurses and wanted to showcase these local heroes. Over the years, she’s heard their stories, hardships, and joys, she explains, and asked a couple of those friends to model for the painting to get started on the piece.
One of her friends, Nelida (Neli) Salas, made the photoshoot. According to Lopez Chavez, Salas hails from the mountainous region of Ancash in Peru and is a trilingual nurse who speaks English, Spanish, and her native language, Quechua. Salas has been a nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital for 13 years, Lopez Chavez says.
Salas believes it’s her life’s calling to be a nurse, Lopez Chavez shares. And this painting is for Neli and others like her, she says. To develop the piece, Lopez Chavez uses acrylic paint on a large canvas substrate.
Colors can emphasize a feeling or thought, Lopez Chavez says. In her work, the colors are typically bright. But in this case, she wanted to tie in hospital life. So, there are blues and greens in the palette that nod to uniforms or scrubs. To make it pop, there are “unexpected warm tones,” for contrast, she says.
Like Neli, Lopez Chavez is committed to her own life’s calling: creating art. She’s been honing her craft since she was a child, and her first mural was behind the couch in her family’s living room. Though she got yelled at for her Crayola creation, Lopez Chavez never stopped. At 9-years old, she finished her first oil painting of a sailboat on the beach, a scene that she’s witnessed many times growing up on an island, she says. That painting still hangs in her mom’s living room.
Lopez Chavez came to Boston to continue her studies at MassArt and was determined to be a career artist.
“I had no other choice but to become what I said I would become,” says Lopez Chavez. “It was a big sacrifice to leave my family behind, adapt to a new culture, and a new world as an immigrant.”
But she’s been fortunate.
She’s worked as a gallery guard at the Museum of Fine Arts while studying at MassArt. Upon graduation, they hired her in the design department part-time and later full-time, where she stayed for 10 years. Eventually, she left that job to teach. She slowly transitioned out of teaching to create more artwork and has been a full-time artist for about five years.
Lopez Chavez has spent those years transforming spaces. She uses multiple mediums in a multi-layered process, both digital and analog, to create work, she says.
Even though the process of creating art can be challenging at times, Lopez Chavez isn’t easily daunted. If measurements are wrong, or a line isn’t as clean as she’d like it, she pushes through, paints over mistakes. Sometimes, she will go back to a source when possible if she’s missed something.
Difficulties usually come “from the original feeling of that person when I did the sketch or the photograph, and I couldn’t capture that exact emotion,” Lopez Chavez says.
Lopez Chavez, who was an artist-in-residence at Boston Children’s Hospital, is curious about connection. She observed the multiple relationships nurses manage with staff, families, and patients.
She realized that nurses “are the ones who hold patients and their families together.”
“They typically have the most information from personal things such as likes and dislikes, … medication and other layers of care, she says.
The “Salute to Nurses” painting features floating dots or particles that represent the coronavirus floating in the air.
There are also “two small graphic elements … chevron arrows and the paper plane which represents moving forward, and the idea of travel, migration,” Lopez Chavez says.
But what’s most resonant is how the nurses are standing. They’re back to back, supporting each other, keeping each other from falling beneath the weight of responsibility.
That feeling of upliftment is what Lopez Chavez hopes audiences feel when they engage with her work. Through her art, she aims to celebrate, educate, denounce when necessary, and bring awareness to issues she says. But no matter what, Lopez Chavez aspires to “bring a little joy.”
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In a year that has asked more of both nurses and parents, these women deserve special recognition.
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Whether fighting COVID-19, delivering babies, or tending to the homebound, Massachusetts nurses never stopped caring.
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