Every life has turning points. For Rosa Renteria Jimenez it was her grandfather’s death. He died last October, a few months after she visited him in Mexico.
His passing gave her the courage to put everything she had into becoming a professional artist. A new path also meant confronting depression she suffered over the years. “The realization came…after my grandpa passed,” said Jimenez, 25. “Life is short, and I really wasn’t happy in my job anymore. I didn’t want to be there.”
She pursued art with fervor — quitting her teaching job and renting a studio space at Charlotte Art League in March.
“I got a studio because if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it completely,” she said. “I don’t want to say I’m going to do it and not put any investment into it. I wanted to do things 100% or not do them at all.”
After graduating from UNC Greensboro in 2016 with a bachelor of arts in English and Spanish, Jimenez started teaching English as a second language at Southwest Middle School.
She had stopped painting, something she loved. She blamed her busy schedule, but painting had always been a way to express her sadness and she worried that starting up again would invite sadness back.
“In the back of my mind, the real reason I stopped was all I remembered when I created art was sadness,” she said. “I didn’t want to be depressed again. I felt like art had something to do with it. I didn’t really understand it, but that was my thought.”
Fighting her fears, Jimenez purchased art supplies and set a goal to paint four pictures during her three weeks in Mexico with her grandpa. She created “Beautiful Beginnings,” her first watercolor.
“I painted it while he was watching me,” she said. “That painting is of my grandpa’s kitchen. Originally that was his home, where his whole family of eight lived. It was one room, made of rocks. Now it’s the kitchen. I love that kitchen because every time I went to Mexico with my mom, we would sit there and talk for long hours (around) the table and my grandma was making food. It was a happy place for me.”
Jimenez was born in Michoacán, on Mexico’s western coast. She grew up in a rural farming town.
As a young girl, she remembers her father working half the year in California and Pennsylvania, sending money home to her mother then returning to work construction the rest of the year. “All we had were the basics, like beans and tortillas,” she said. “I never noticed that we didn’t have enough food. We lived in a home that my dad built with my mom with a lot of struggle. We didn’t have windows. It wasn’t finished, and we lived in it. The bathroom was outside, like an outhouse.”
When Jimenez was 8 she and her mom, dad and younger sister fled the country abruptly. Her father had a dispute with a friend and believed their lives were in danger.
The family drove three days in a blue Bronco, stopping only once to sleep in a motel. Her family lived in a house with friends in Charlotte for six months before moving to an apartment. She attended Highland Renaissance Academy.
The adjustment proved tough on Jimenez. “After a few weeks, I understood, ‘I don’t like America, I don’t understand what they’re saying, I don’t like the school,’” Jimenez said.
She asked to return to Mexico and live with her aunt. Instead, her mother suggested she start drawing to get her mind off everything. Jimenez had seen her mother sketching scenes of the countryside and farm animals.
“She knew I was struggling,” Jimenez said. “At first I started copying things from coloring books. I would color and color.”
In third grade, she filled 10 one-subject notebooks with copied drawings. She showed them to kids at school to gain their attention and make friends. She felt bad lying about the art, so she began creating her own.
‘I was still aching’
As Jimenez’s English improved, her life became easier.
She fell in love with reading and became an A/B student. She attended Northwest School of the Arts in eighth grade but transferred to Rocky River High School in 2008 when funding for magnet school transportation was cut. It was another hard transition and she became depressed.
“I never had therapy or medicine,” she said. “In Hispanic culture, depression is taboo: ‘You’re not depressed. You’re just making it up. Snap out of it.’ But I couldn’t. It wasn’t that my life was horrible. It was seeing my parents’ misery. Moving from Mexico was 10 times harder on them.”
During her first two years at UNCG, she painted dark pieces with skulls and death. One mosaic with vines and thorns centered around her parents and their homes in Mexico and Charlotte. At that point, her family had achieved the American dream: jobs, home ownership and education, but the past still haunted Jimenez. “I was still aching.”
It wasn’t until her sophomore year that she says the depression receded. She joined a campus ministry, attended Bible study and began to develop her faith. “I started to go to those Bible studies because I was desperate,” Jimenez said.
A retreat at Camp Thunderbird at Lake Wylie changed her perspective. She asked God to help her parents, and she returned to Mexico to get baptized.
Jimenez doesn’t credit art for taking away her depression; it helped her cope through times when she was sad and lonely. A self-portrait she painted during college, “Redemption I,” was in Charlotte Art League’s virtual exhibit in May. It’s one of three in the series: This one represents the sadness she felt as a kid and the decision not to burden her parents with her feelings.
“The art kept me sane for all those years,” she said. “It allowed me to put all the negative stuff on the paper without my having to tell my parents I was depressed. It was my only outlet to be honest. You can’t tell Mexican parents, ‘I need help.’”
‘Beauty from brokenness’
Determined to face her anxieties about art, in August 2019 Jimenez attended an open studio night at C3 Lab where she met artist Eva Crawford and once they started talking, Crawford realized they shared a few commonalities: art, faith and teaching. She introduced Jimenez to ArtsCharlotte, a faith-based organization for artists.
“I always thought artists paint sad things because that’s what they feel in their heart,” Jimenez said. “I never had met artists that painted pretty things, peaceful things, happy things.”
Jimenez participated in a “show and tell” program at ArtsCharlotte, presenting the watercolors she’d painted while in Mexico.
“You can tell something had ignited in her and got her into painting,” Crawford said. “The work she was doing was quite lovely. I think her cultural perspective and use of ink and watercolor was compelling and delightful.”
Jimenez submitted “Beautiful Beginnings” to ArtsCharlotte’s open call for its “Beauty from Brokenness” exhibit, which has shown at ArtsCharlotte, New City Church’s South Park campus and Myers Park United Methodist Church.
A new start
Jimenez is a collaborating visual artist with Until All Things Arts & Media, co-founded by Vania Claiborne. Until provides a platform for artists to exhibit their work.
Claiborne met Jimenez for the first time at UNCG’s campus ministry group, though they had both attended Northwest School of the Arts at the same time. Jimenez’s three-piece “Redemption” series and “Galilee View” are available to see on Until’s site. “She is finding her way and navigating what she enjoys,” Claiborne said. “It’s cool as a viewer to see what’s interesting her in the moment.”
Jimenez has been working at home since COVID-19 stay-at-home orders took effect. She spends time with her family in the morning and paints in the afternoon. She’s experimenting with new techniques and styles — even playful heart doodles have become art.
She paints homes and portraits, hoping to tell the stories behind the people. Her most recent series is “On Solid Ground” — paintings of homes on rocks or mountains — a reminder to be stable no matter what’s going on.
“I like to paint with a lot of color because that really reminds me of Mexico,” Jimenez said. “All the houses are a million colors. I like to paint scenes that make people feel at peace.”
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
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