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At this Pinellas gallery, the stories of Puerto Rican artists are on display

“Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales” runs through Oct. 15 in Largo.
 
"Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales," a show by Puerto Rican artists on their experiences, is at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo through Oct. 15. Jose Feliciano's mixed-media sculpture "Fallen Angel" is in the foreground.
"Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales," a show by Puerto Rican artists on their experiences, is at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo through Oct. 15. Jose Feliciano's mixed-media sculpture "Fallen Angel" is in the foreground. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Times ]
Published Aug. 12, 2023|Updated Aug. 14, 2023

LARGO — Identity. Place. History.

Those themes and more are explored at a new exhibition at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas. “Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales” showcases the diverse work of Puerto Rican artists.

Keepers of Heritage is a collective that promotes the work of Puerto Rican artists. It’s also an effort to find artists of Puerto Rican descent living in the U.S. whose stories and work aren’t connected to the island’s history of art.

It was formed when director Ángel Rivera-Morales came to Central Florida from Puerto Rico in 2012 and noticed a lack of opportunities for such artists.

In 2015, the collective had its inaugural exhibition at Orlando City Hall. Since then, the group has shown at the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture in Chicago and the Appleton Museum of Art in Ocala.

The Gallery at Creative Pinellas’ massive space has enabled the collective to present its largest exhibition yet, which Rivera-Morales said is also its finest.

He pointed out that Puerto Rican art is diverse and contemporary and can’t be pigeonholed.

“We have a lot to offer,” he said. “And we have a rich story, but also a story of oppression. A story of ... we had to lift ourselves up to survive.”

Indeed, the exhibition features artists working in a wide breadth of contemporary styles. They are high-caliber works that could easily hang in museums around the world — which many of them have.

Ric and Merlin Savid study an untitled painting by Yasir Nieves during the opening reception for "Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo. Nieves is the curator of the exhibition.
Ric and Merlin Savid study an untitled painting by Yasir Nieves during the opening reception for "Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo. Nieves is the curator of the exhibition. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Times ]

The legacy of multi-generational artists is also present, with the works of students and their teachers hanging together. The works of Rivera-Morales’ own mentors, Carmelo Fontanez-Cortijo and Rafael Rivera Rosa, are included in the show.

Fontanez-Cortijo lived in New York during the 1960s when abstract expressionism ruled the art world. He used that genre to explore the Puerto Rican landscape, and Rivera-Morales likens his meditations on color to the work of Mark Rothko.

Rivera Rosa started his art career in Puerto Rico but went to New York to study at the Pratt Institute in the 1980s. He was influenced by artists like Willem de Kooning and developed his own visual language about the island.

Rafael Rivera Rosa's painting "Fuego en el Barrio" is on display in "Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo through Oct. 15.
Rafael Rivera Rosa's painting "Fuego en el Barrio" is on display in "Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo through Oct. 15. [ Courtesy of Keepers of Heritage ]

Like his mentors, Rivera-Morales draws from the landscape but turns the reflection inward. He creates a series of celestial paintings called “Dystopian Paradise.” He’s reacting to the turmoil and unpredictability of the world by painting these universes where he feels more comfortable. He builds the paintings up using layers of solids like gesso to create texture, and uses an atomizer to spray fine mists of color.

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Ángel Rivera-Morales' "Dystopian Paradise III" is on display in "Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo through Oct. 15.
Ángel Rivera-Morales' "Dystopian Paradise III" is on display in "Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo through Oct. 15. [ Courtesy of Keepers of Heritage ]

Jose Feliciano created sets for the stage at New York venues including the Metropolitan Opera House. His mixed-media sculpture “Fallen Angel” contains the tragedy mask for a face.

He also makes paintings reflecting on world events in South Africa and Afghanistan, like the powerful “La Carta,” which makes reference to a massacre in which children were murdered.

Jose Feliciano's "La Carta" is on display in "Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo through Oct. 15.
Jose Feliciano's "La Carta" is on display in "Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo through Oct. 15. [ Courtesy of Keepers of Heritage ]

Joan Emanuelli Sanchez makes portraits of subjects who have been left behind by society. He found people in Kissimmee (near Orlando), where he lives, who were experiencing homelessness and interviewed them. He said that the subjects told him very few people take the time to listen to them. He tries to portray their stories so that the viewer can feel their humanity and realize that any of us could find ourselves in a similar situation.

Joan Emanuelli Sanchez's "Restless Souls - Melvin" is on display in "Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo through Oct. 15.
Joan Emanuelli Sanchez's "Restless Souls - Melvin" is on display in "Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo through Oct. 15. [ Courtesy of Keepers of Heritage ]

Brenda Cruz makes photo collages in which she places herself in scenes where Puerto Rican women weren’t previously depicted, exploring cultural, societal and gender identities.

"America Yo Europa" by Brenda Cruz is on display in "Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo through Oct. 15.
"America Yo Europa" by Brenda Cruz is on display in "Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo through Oct. 15. [ Courtesy of Keepers of Heritage ]

The paintings of late artist Valentin Tirado were stashed in his daughter’s basement for eight years until his son approached Rivera-Morales at his gallery in Orlando. The paintings depict the indigenous Taino people as they react to Spanish conquistadors and slave masters. In “Guarionex — God of War,” the Taino people have begun to fight back, with a powerful spirit coming from the mountains in El Yunque.

Valentin Tirado's painting "Guarionex - God of War" is on display in "Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo through Oct. 15.
Valentin Tirado's painting "Guarionex - God of War" is on display in "Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo through Oct. 15. [ Courtesy of Keepers of Heritage ]

Alejandro De Jesús depicts scenes of everyday life, like a chess match and a basketball game, with the hand of a master. He was an art teacher and also an accountant, so the joke is that he doesn’t waste a stroke when he’s painting.

"Chess Players" by Alejandro De Jesús is on display in "Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo through Oct. 15.
"Chess Players" by Alejandro De Jesús is on display in "Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo through Oct. 15. [ Courtesy of Keepers of Heritage ]

In “Young Basketball Players,” he shows the varied skin tones and mixed identity of Puerto Rican teenagers, who are rapt by the game and united by their fancy footwear.

Alejandro De Jesús' "Young Basketball Players" is on display in "Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo through Oct. 15.
Alejandro De Jesús' "Young Basketball Players" is on display in "Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo through Oct. 15. [ Courtesy of Keepers of Heritage ]

With a performance by the local Cukiara ensemble of Bomba Body Dance and Drumming Academy, a recent opening reception was aptly festive for an exhibition that celebrates this rich culture.

Local Puerto Rican artist Selena Ferrer performs with the Cukiara ensemble during the opening reception for "Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo on on Aug. 5.
Local Puerto Rican artist Selena Ferrer performs with the Cukiara ensemble during the opening reception for "Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo on on Aug. 5. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Times ]

What to know before you go to “Keepers of Heritage: Hidden Tales”

On view through Oct. 15. Free. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. The Gallery at Creative Pinellas, 12211 Walsingham Road, Largo. 727-582-2172. creativepinellas.org.