This is an ongoing series about the women behind the art on Frida Vibes. You can read them all here.
Denise Cortes wearing her Frida Split in Two Shirt
I remember when I first found Denise Cortes’ Frida portraits on Instagram, a whole series of colorful, soulful representations of Frida Kahlo. I spent time with each one of them looking at the layers, the colors, the patterns, the eyes. At the time I had just quit the second consecutive stressful, all-consuming job. I felt like during those years, everything about me and who I really was in the world had taken a back seat. Now, being seriously burned out, I was looking to get back to things I just enjoyed for no productive reason. Art was one of those things and now I was starting to give myself permission to really explore and spend time with it, just because I liked it.
Purple Flowers by Denise Cortes
If you spend more than a few seconds with Denise’s Frida portraits, it’s clear they aren’t just copies of photographs of Frida Kahlo and they’re also not fan art interpretation of something that’s already been done. To me, they are careful representations of a woman who’s found the freedom to start paying attention to herself, to her pain, to all the parts that were neglected after taking care of everything and everyone.
Art had always been a part of Denise’s life but at some point it had to take a backseat to being a mother while making a living writing. Six years ago, after raising 6 kids, Denise started painting again. Life’s ups and downs led her to art again and to Frida as a muse. In her Frida portraits, Denise took a face that was familiar and used it as a vehicle for new feelings. Through those portraits, Denise developed her own artistic style clearly recognizable and valuable. Her work feels original, like something you’ve never seen before, but also somehow familiar and comfortable.
I recently met Denise in person for the first time after a long time of working together. We walked around Riverside, California, where she’s proudly building her community and working on her art. I met her daughters too, who, like their mom, are quietly discerning and have their own unique presence and spark. “I feel like my daughters represent the best parts of me” Denise says, “the dark parts too, the ones that need healing. This is why I fight so hard to accomplish what I do -- I want them to live the life they dream about.”
It was through working with Denise and finally meeting her in person that I realized the parallels in our very different experiences as women and maybe why I instantly connected with her Frida portraits. I think we're both familiar with the pressures the world projects on to women. And we're both navigating how to open more spaces that feel free and true to ourselves. The way she does that so beautifully in her work gives me so much hope.
Denise and I talk more about her work, her community and Frida below.
Tatiana Figueiredo: What’s your first memory of making art?
Denise Cortes: I was in some sort of preschool or daycare situation in East L.A with my little brother and our cousins. They let us out to play on the playground and I was immediately presented with two options: tricycles or a perfect row of easels set up with paint and brushes. My little brother and cousins raced to the tricycles and I walked straight to the easels. Like, there was no question in my mind that the easels were what I wanted. There is a picture of me at this place standing there in plaid bellbottoms, holding a paintbrush. I always say it was my destiny.
TF: How was art a part of your life and career as you got older?
DC: I didn’t go to art school because of the cost so I studied art at a university in L.A. Digital art was just taking off and everyone wanted to major in graphic design. I took a few classes and decided that I really hated it. That’s when I decided to major in illustration and design. It felt like the perfect marriage of fine art and design. I worked in L.A as a painter for a visual merchandising company before I got married and started having children. I’ve been self-employed ever since.
TF: You mentioned you started doing art again about 6 years ago. Why had you stopped and what drew you back into it?
DC: The demands of motherhood made me put art and painting on the back burner -- it just wasn’t my season. I comforted myself with the thought that my season would come again, when my babies were older and more self-sufficient. In the meantime, I became a writer. I wrote stories about my family on my blog and began creating content for brands online. While I was writing, I started making more things to share on my blog. I made crafts and diy projects to satisfy my need to be creative. I wrote art lesson plans for teachers. I taught art classes, too. The shift to create art happened organically.
TF: Tell us more about your daughters!
DC: Maya (15) and Xiomara (14) are the youngest in a family of seven siblings-- they have 5 older brothers! I waited a really long time for my daughters to come Earth side and I’m so glad I was chosen to be their mama. They’re really witty, creative, open-minded and tough. They skate, play soccer and love music and simply beautiful. I feel like my daughters represent the best parts of me. The dark parts too, the ones that need healing. This is why I fight so hard to accomplish what I do -- I want them to live the life they dream about.
Denise with her daughters in downtown Riverside
TF: What do you hope your daughters learn from the life you’re living as an artist?
DC: I hope they learn that their role as women is sacred, that they are strong and capable, that they should never be afraid to take up space and they have the freedom to live their lives and raise their family the way they envision.
TF: Tell us about being an artist in Riverside! Do you have a community locally?
DC: I left L.A in the 90’s and moved an hour inland to raise my family in Riverside. My life was filled with raising six children for the past twenty years. It wasn’t until 2017 that I decided to be intentional about meeting people in my community and finding other like-minded creatives. Since then, I’ve become part of a thriving downtown art scene particularly an all-womxn based collective called Inland Mujeres. We vibe off one another creatively and we build each other up. After so many years of being isolated by motherhood, this discovery of sisterhood has been a breath of fresh air.
TF: What inspired the Frida pieces you made?
DC: My love for Frida has been a constant since I was 18 years old. But it was a really difficult time in my life that drew me to her as an artist. I could understand Frida’s suffering now, on a whole new level. If Frida could endure health issues, heartbreak, infidelity, infertility, sexism etc. and still create some of the most powerful work of our time -- that resiliency inspired me.
TF: Can you say more about the difficult time in your life that drew you into Frida as an artist?
DC: Life of a stay at home/work from home mom of six kids was wearing me thin and my marriage of 15 years was crumbling. Everything I had faith in was on shaky ground and I was forced to deal with the shadow parts of myself. I turned to art to heal me, to cope with emotions I didn’t know what to do with, to make sense of my life. Frida was a huge part of that. It wasn’t until I experienced the darkest hours of my being that I fully understood where my passion for Frida originated. I am deeply affected by Frida's pain and her quiet strength through it all. As I painted every day -- many, many times through tears in my eyes -- I had this single thought: If Frida could make it through, so could I.
Denise’s work is available at Frida Vibes exclusively on throw pillows, shirts, sweatshirts, mugs and more items to come! Every purchase made of her work helps her spend more time working on her art. See all Denise's work on sale here.