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Natural Awakenings Tucson

Whimsical Realism

Feb 01, 2016 03:04PM ● By Dale Bruder

The Red Apple by Neda Contreras

"Where does your art come from?” is a MacGuffin question at which every artist balks. Neda Contreras is no different. Her still life oils—juxtapositions of skeletons, birds, cats, dogs, old cars, plants, fruits, vegetables and pottery on beaches—are her own making. The naturalism of their placement is whimsically natural, as though one could stumble on the scene and chuckle.

“When I started painting still life,” Contreras recalls, “I went ‘Oh! That’s like Mexican Folk Art.’ I didn’t plan it that way. I wasn’t trying to do that; it just came out of me.”

“I get more realism from oil-based paints than any other medium. Oils have a spirit to them, deeper, richer than any of the others,” she says. Contreras’s oils follow

the process of numerous painted layers, light to dark, between extended drying times. “When it looks good to me, I stop,” the artist explains. After six months of drying, the painting is varnished. She does not use solvents, making the time longer than usual to bring a painting before the public eye.

Contreras’s works fall into two categories: series paintings and ex-voto (meaning “in gratitude, devotion”) pieces. Her preferred palette includes earthen tones with blues and reds.

Her cat series explored other artists’ styles. “I wanted to see what a different palette looked like, so I started at it,” Contreras smiles. “I had great fun, so I kept going.” Twenty-seven portraits of cats in the styles of Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Chagall, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Rousseau, Matisse, Cezanne, Degas, Dali and Gainsborough explored a vast variety of palettes.

“I look around to see what I want to put in my still lifes. I don’t plan my paintings; stuff just comes to me,” she explains. Contreras’s birds, dogs and car series displays a variety of narrative scenes. “I have to have humor in my art or I’m not happy with it,” she says. Each painting can be looked at with a smile that doesn’t grow old.

Her ex-voto paintings are especially provocative. The palette is her usual earth tones, the subjects scattered about a beach scape, sky above and handwritten text in the lower third. “People feeling sincerity, a fulfillment of a vow chose my ex-votos. I do my own writing,” says Contreras. Many grace the walls of art-minded, spiritually understanding people. The paintings reflect gratitude for the temporal.

An ex-voto is a votive offering to a saint or to a divinity. It is given in fulfillment of a vow or in gratitude or devotion. Ex-votos are placed in a church or chapel where the worshiper seeks grace or wishes to give thanks. The destinations of pilgrimages often include shrines decorated with ex-votos. They are not only intended for the helping figure, but also as a testimony to later visitors of the received help. As such, they may include texts explaining a miracle attributed to the helper, or symbols such as a painted or modeled reproduction of a miraculously healed body part, or a directly related item such as a crutch given by a person formerly lame.

“[My husband] Michael and I became members of Raices Taller Gallery 13 or 14 years ago. I started selling art there,” recalls Contreras. “Before that, I didn’t sell anything because I didn’t put it out. For 20 years, I painted still lifes and seascapes. Many have since been sold. We opened our own gallery in 2008.”

What does the future of Contreras’s art look like? “I’ll continue doing the things I do. I like skeletons in my paintings now. There will still be birds, dogs and cats and that little girl that keeps appearing in my paintings,” she smiles.

Neda Contreras runs Contreras House of Fine Art with her husband E. Michael Contreras, a silversmith and engraver, at 110 E. 6th St., in Tucson. For more information, call 520-393-6557 or visit

Dale Bruder is a freelance writer interested in creative people, social and cultural movements and applications of ancient esoteric knowledge. Connect with him at 520-331-1956 or [email protected].