The ENVIRONMENTAL ARTIST
BY DONNA CRARY
Cristina de la Vega paints landscapes that capture the stunning, stark beauty of nature. Whether it’s a picturesque scene of a high bluff overlooking the Indian River, a pasture dotted with scrub and palmetto trees under an endless sky, or a back river portrait of the St. Lucie snaking through lush green vegetation — each of her paintings arrests your attention and makes you feel as though you are there.
“I paint wild places — the natural world as untouched as I can find,” she says. “I want the viewer to feel as if they are in the landscape, a part of nature.”
A resident of Stuart, de la Vega’s artwork has received local and statewide acclaim. In 2009, she was recognized by the State of Florida as the Hispanic Artist of the Year. She was also selected as an artist-in-residence at Everglades National Park. Her work has been displayed at the capitol and the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee, as well as in art galleries throughout South Florida.
De la Vega was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1954, a time when Fidel Castro was beginning to stir up political unrest. She remembers developing an interest for art while attending grade school in her earlier years.
“I went to a small Catholic girls’ school in Havana,” she says. “It was during the end of the revolution and the situation was pretty scary. The nuns at the school were living under tremendous strain. It was a hard time. The art nun let me spend most of the days in the art room. I loved it, but my math skills have certainly suffered!”
By 1961, Castro’s government had taken over the schools and was sending children to communist indoctrination camps. Although de la Vega’s family had deep roots in Cuba going back to colonial times, they felt they had no other choice but to leave their homeland.
They learned about Operation Peter Pan, a covert program that arranged for more than 14,000 unaccompanied minors to seek refuge in the United States from Cuba. Organized by the Catholic Welfare Bureau, the idea was for parents to eventually be given a visa so they could be reunited with their children in the United States.
Her parents, Paco de la Vega and Maria Rivero, signed de la Vega, 6, and her younger sister, 5, up for the program. In May 1961, the two girls boarded a ferry to sail to the Port of Palm Beach to start a new life in a new country.
“When my sister and I left Cuba, our parents drove us to the port through parts of Havana that we’d never seen before,” she recalls. “We knew we were leaving without our parents and we were very scared. My mother, like always, was trying to make the best of a horrible situation, urging us to have fun and enjoy the adventure.”
As it turned out, there were some guardian angels on board who watched over the de la Vega sisters during their trip.
“There were a whole group of nuns, maybe 40 to 50, who were going to a convent in Jensen Beach,” she recalls. “So my mom asked them if they would take care of her girls until we reached Palm Beach. They said sure, and they watched over us.”
De la Vega remembers the ferry trip as an adventure. Upon arrival, she and her sister were met by relatives who lived in North Miami Beach. Two months later they were reunited with their parents and the family moved to Belle Glade, where her father found work at a sugar mill.
The future artist lived in Belle Glade for much of her childhood and then relocated to West Palm Beach to attend a Catholic high school. She says that art was a big part of her life while growing up.
“I always loved making art,” she says. “I grew up in a family that was very interested in culture — any art form, really. So, it was normal for me to be interested in art. Although life in exile in a small town in the Everglades was a little limiting.”
While attending high school, de la Vega took art classes at the Norton Museum of Art. She later attended Florida State University where she studied painting and received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. While at FSU, she met her future husband, Kenny Strong. In 1978, the couple moved to Stuart where they raised their three children.
De la Vega credits Neil Welliver, noted landscape artist, for having the most significant influence on her artwork. Welliver married one of her good friends, and he also headed up the art department at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Fine Art. Getting to know Welliver and other landscape artists helped de la Vega see art in a whole different way. They encouraged her to focus her work on capturing endangered places.
“I painted large abstract works all through art school,” she explains. “Toward the end, I was casting about what I was essentially interested in and had meaning for me. What did I have to say? At the same time, I was becoming more involved in environmental issues and realized that landscape painting was the right course for me. I think being an artist means you have something to say, an idea to convey. I want there to be more than a visual experience.”
Over the years, de la Vega has taught art classes and she continues to be involved as an artist in her community. Being an artist has been a lifelong passion where she creates breathtaking portraits reminding us to savor and preserve the beauty in nature.
“I don’t think I could have done anything else in my life,” she reflects. “This is who I am. I’m suited to this life. It is difficult, demanding, and unpredictable. I think I am every inch an artist. It has been a very fulfilling life.”
CRISTINA DE LA VEGA
Lives in: Stuart
Family: Husband, Kenny Strong; children, Peter, Alejandro and Marisa
Education: Bachelor of Fine Arts from Florida State University
Hobbies: Art, cooking, reading and gardening
Who inspires me: “Mother Teresa. People who do amazing things and who do great good.”