HAMMOND — A 20th-century artist whose works reflected her tortured but resilient life provided the backdrop for a festival Thursday at Purdue University Northwest.
PNW’s first Kahlo Karnival recalled the life and artwork of Frida Kahlo, a Mexican artist who died in 1954 at age 47. The activities were part of the school’s Building Community Through the Arts program, held in conjunction with Women’s History Month.
Anne Gregory, dean of PNW’s College of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences, explained that her office worked with student organizations to design the program.
“We wanted to recognize a very strong Mexican woman,” Gregory said. “She’s a feminist, an artist, a revolutionary. She redefined what it meant to be a woman and artist in her time.”
The program featured a painting class, flower crown crafts, live entertainment and Mexican cuisine.
Cindy Vendl, an administrative assistant in Gregory’s department, explained that the flower crowns reflected Kahlo’s approach to life, especially after a serious bus accident at age 18 crippled her for life.
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“She was bedridden and used flowers to distract from her injuries,” Vendl said. “She wanted people to look at her crown. She expressed her pain through her art.”
Emelia Lopez, a sophomore chemistry major from Highland, recalled seeing Kahlo’s works on display years ago.
“I liked how she portrayed beauty in her paintings,” Lopez said. “She was very expressive.”
Savannah Benitez, a freshman from Hammond, studied Kahlo in Spanish class at Bishop Noll Institute.
“She was so strong, and her self-portraits reflected her life,” Benitez recalled.
Her grandfather, Cervando Benitez, also from Hammond, has researched the late artist, saying, “She was the best painter to me. After her accident, she expressed her feelings in her paintings.”
The elder Benitez, who also liked Kahlo’s paintings of watermelons and sunflowers, added that in Mexico, “when you go to the market, you see Frida everywhere.”
Married twice to fellow painter Diego Rivera, Kahlo was known her for portraits and her depiction of Mexican and indigenous cultures.
Kira Aguirre, owner-instructor at Prizm Arts in Chicago, led the class in which students embellished an image of Kahlo.
“She was a surrealist painter,” Aguirre said. “She always said she was not a surrealist, that she painted her reality.”
Students could use multiple or single colors for a background, or they could add butterflies or peacock feathers.
Lyanne Herrera, a PNW alum from Chicago Heights, combined darkness, sunset and nighttime in her project. She added a ribbon with the initials “HS” for hidradenitis suppurativa, an inflammatory condition she has.
“I was impressed by her resilience and her strength,” Herrera said. “She didn’t care about breaking barriers.”
“She stood up for herself and was very independent,” Juan Ayala, of Merrillville, said, “and she wanted to make sure everyone knew that.”
Dayanara Villarreal-Brown, of East Chicago, an artist dressed as Kahlo, added, “She was beautiful. Despite being bedridden, she continued her art. It actually fueled her passion.”