For Sonia Ortega, art is a grounding force and a concrete expression of abstract emotions. Raised by a professionally trained artist in her father, the artistic process was made personal only in adulthood during times of unrest and uncertainty — when an artistic outlet aided in processing complicated feelings, and provided a sacred space to do so.
Ortega’s identity as an artist was shaped by multiple factors, one of which was her childhood on the other side of the world. As a Texas native, growing up in Indonesia until the age of 18 but being of Mexican and Cuban descent, she said, “I feel like I always grew up not really fitting into one culture or the other.” The identity crisis of her culture and ethnicity, paired with societal periods of unrest due to Hurricane Harvey in 2018 and the COVID-19 pandemic, were the catalysts for leaning into art as an escape.
In the center of this Venn diagram of cultural associations sits the inspiration for her work. Largely influenced by Indonesian batik art and small repetitive dots reminiscent of those painted on frogs in Mexican souvenirs, her work represents “the struggle of fitting in as a third culture kid wanting to learn about the Cuban side or the Mexican side that I wasn’t immersed in, but also an appreciation for the Indonesian side that shaped me into who I am,” she said.
Inspiration aside, empathy drives everything Ortega does, and her artwork is no exception. Although abstract art is often left to interpretation, the emotions represented are anything but. They are real, often heavy, and putting ink and paint to paper is the method by which these emotions are processed. “I think when I absorb other people’s emotions, I want to carry that for them … and so for me, by just getting something down on paper, I’m able to make sense of what’s on my mind,” said the artist. Whether it’s freehanding abstract shapes while processing childhood experiences and adding in primary colored dots as a metaphor for our youthful years or swirls resembling breath with yellow dots as a symbol of the coronavirus, all her pieces have a similar visual presence with differing emblematic representations. Each work is freehanded using pen first with colored acrylic paint dots — made using the back of a paintbrush — filling the negative space. The consistency of mediums across her work creates uniformity, while drawing freehand ensures that each piece maintains singularity.
In what might be perceived as a rebellion against the traditional art viewing experience, Ortega prefers her work be discerned by all senses, touch included. For the artist, this work is a healing escape, and by breaking the barrier between art and viewer, gazing upon and even touching the pieces can evoke a similar, peaceful experience.
With the support and encouragement from her family, Ortega’s drawings, or “doodles” as she called them in the early days, found their way to a gallery in New York, and she is now preparing for her next exhibition at K Space Contemporary this August. This showcase gave her the confidence she needed to take her own work and artistic expression seriously, while preserving its deeply personal nature.
“Even though I’ll run myself into the ground doing art and maintaining another career, if I make it a job, it takes that escape away from me,” Ortega said. This subtle balance is necessary in order to maintain her integrity as an artist and to continue to marry her works to the deepest corners of human emotion.