Fernando Orellana

My parents immigrated to Miami from El Salvador in 1979, escaping the civil war. We were lucky because my parents had the means to leave when we did. We ended up in a condo complex that was filled with either retired folks or Salvadoran immigrant families. I remember all the Spanish-speaking brown kids running around putting a smile on the old folks' faces who did not understand one word the kids were saying. 

In the 80’s my parents lost everything and went bankrupt. My parents split and suddenly we were barely scraping by. I actually feel like falling into hard times awakened a part of me that I wouldn’t have discovered if I kept living a comfortable life. 

That and all the art that surrounded us. We brought a ton of art with us from El Salvador - beautiful original art. My dad was a civil engineer and a painter and my mom had started training to be an architect. I found my passion in art as well, and I am so thankful because it has opened so many doors. My portfolio was my ticket to building a better life. Art saved me from falling into the trap of getting into gangs and trouble. Art kept me focused on something that wasn’t the street. There are not many Latinos who go from first generation immigrant to tenured faculty. I worked hard to get to where I am today. 

I see how community can form in my studio — amongst students who are interested in art and become inspired by one another. They form a community to make a better life and to educate themselves. It is like a family that trusts each other and are working toward a common good. 

I miss being immersed in working on the mural. I got to observe life from that spot - some people who went by each day - the woman with her golden retriever, the man listening to his music. The mom who came with her daughter to bring me cookies. I got to watch reactions to the mural - kids on the back of bikes, swiveling their heads trying to see as they passed. It is a challenge as an artist to make a child-like work but keep it interesting to adults. If you look closely, you can see there is some ambiguity in the imagery, some references to life and death, and some influence of Mayan art. 

I first visited the Cherry Street Bridge to check out the space and immediately there was an aura to the location. It is enormous and the cars overhead make a hypnotic sound. Two days later, I traveled to Florence, Italy and spent lots of time in cathedrals with huge pillars and cantilevers, and naves down the middle. I was designing the mural doodling outside the Duomo and thinking about the similarities between cathedrals and the space under that bridge. That was the inspiration for the mural’s title: Cathedral. 

Fernando Orellana is Associate Professor of Visual and Digital Arts at Union College, as well as the artist who created “Cathedral,” located on the Rail Trail in Delmar. You can see more of his work at: https://fernandoorellana.com/