Unexpected Turns

It’s been a little over a year since I was sitting in a The Rocket Cat cafe, a cool little coffee shop in Philly’s Northern Liberties, talking with muralist extraordinaire, Betsy Casañas, about the possibility of doing a solo show at her gallery. I had my portfolio with me to show the breadth of my work beyond what is on my website. Betsy paged through, offering constructive feedback on my imagery; then she stopped dead in her tracks when she got to a photo I’d taken of my kids’ great grandmother, Mama Oti. “This is it!” She said. “This is the image I’ve been looking for….”

Then she clarified. She told me how she’d been commissioned to paint a mural in Puerto Rico; that the building was ready, but that she was still looking for the right image of a Latina matriarch. When Betsy asked if she could use my photo as a reference for the mural my answer was “Of course!” I’d seen her work before and was honored that she wanted to include my image in her project.

A bit of background on the portrait of Mama Oti. She is my wife’s grandmother and played a definitive role in her upbringing; she is a strong, strong woman, and a beloved matriarch in the family. But since she is getting up in years (nearly 98) I wanted to get the quintessential portrait of her for posterity. 

So I decided it was worth the risk to bring my DSLR to Ecuador. (On our previous visit someone broke into the house where we were staying and made off with a bunch of my camera gear.) No matter how good my Spanish is, at 6’ 2” 250lbs, I don’t exactly blend in with the locals, which made this big ”gringo“ feel like he had a target on his back, even while hiding his camera from plain view while walking around Quito.  

Once in Quito, I pondered lighting setups and possible scenarios, such as whether to do a camera-aware shot or do something more candid. But the answer presented itself when I happened upon my wife chatting with Mama Oti in her room. The ambient light that spilled into that room was amazing. Even better was the fact that this was a beautiful, genuine moment—Mama Oti engaged in conversation and unaware of my presence just outside the doorway. The series of frames I clicked in that moment didn’t disappoint.


Fast forward to coming home after my initial meeting with Betsy. I told my wife I had a surprise for her. After some initial confusion about how the whole thing had come about, she got excited about the idea of having her beloved grandmother as the focal point of a 40’ x 70’ mural.

Several weeks later Betsy forwarded some preliminary sketches of her plans for the mural project at La Respuesta (in Puerto Rico). Then a bit more silence;  then (in early January of 2016) progress photos of the mural started filling Betsy’s Facebook feed, as she and her team worked tirelessly on that wall for a month. 

The finished mural brings beauty and unity into the neighborhood and involved community members in the creative process,  a testament to Betsy’s skill as an artist, her will as a community activist. And my wife’s family is very happy to see Mami Oti’s image larger than life for many people to enjoy.  

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