Humboldt Park artist breathes Puerto Rican life into papier-mâché

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In a one- bedroom apartment on Division Street, salsa music stimulates the ears while art pulsing with bold colors excite the eyes.

Welcome to Galeria Cuca.

Nereida Cartagena, better known by her nickname, Cuca, sits barefoot on the gallery’s hard wood floor in a modest space that also functions as her art studio. She puts the final touches on a piece, thrilled to be completing a work that will shortly hang in a prominent place on her gallery wall.

The piece she has now finished is of a bomba dancer and a drummer. It is made from a medium Cuca has been working with since she was a child—papier-mâché.

Cuca calls papier-mâché “true art” or “recycled art” because with the newspaper you are reading right now and a few other ingredients, Cuca can create something visually stunning.

Cuca was born in Aguada, Puerto Rico, in 1963. At the age of 7, Cuca, along with two brothers and a sister, moved to Elgin.

“The first thing I noticed was how flat it was,” Cuca said, comparing the Illinois landscape to Puerto Rico’s mountainous countryside. Cuca began to use art to “escape” to her homeland. “Whenever I was asked to draw something in school,” Cuca said, “I would draw palm trees because that was where my mind was.”

Most of Cuca’s art work has a heavy emphasis on Puerto Rican culture seen in her papier-mâché sculptures of bomba dancers and drummers, Puerto Rican flags, and vejigante masks. Cuca also paints and makes jewelry.

For someone with such obvious artistic talent, it is hard to believe that Cuca has never formally studied art. Before Cuca began making art full-time she was a self-described “housewife,” raising her three sons – Samuel, Max and Jordan.

Cuca made her first art sale at Cook County Hospital more than 13 years ago. She sold her art alongside Arletta Van Buren. Not only was she impressed with Cuca’s papier-mâché sculptures, said Van Buren, but also with the way Cuca displayed them. “I was very shocked that she had never done a show before,” Van Buren said. “Her mode of display was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.”

Van Buren added that Cuca’s involvement in Humboldt Park’s Puerto Rican community has been an important part of Cuca’s artistic journey. “It’s hard to think of Humboldt Park artists and not think of Cuca,” Leony Calderón, a Humboldt Park resident and Cuca’s friend said, “Everyone here embraces her and she embraces everyone.”

Cuca’s art is currently on exhibition at La Bruquena restaurant, 2726 W. Division St., until mid June. For more information on Cuca’s art contact (773) 909-9287 or stop by Galeria Cuca at 2456 W. Division St.