Elsa Muñoz at work in her studio Credit: Natalie Dalea

Elsa Muñoz’s paintings carry a sense of intimacy. They’re full of dark colors, but they glow—it’s as if light can’t help but seep through the lines. Panels painted with controlled forest burns have flickers of sunlight glinting through the smoke, flames spreading through shadowy leaves. Even an inky black floor-to-ceiling ocean tide at night shines almost silver in its froth. Her paintings are like dreams, even though they’re as realistic as realism can get.

Muñoz is a 38-year-old realist painter, born and raised in Little Village and now living in Rogers Park. Her signature photorealist, dreamy style enacts desahogamiento, literally translated to English as “undrowning.”

As a child, Muñoz didn’t know where desahogamiento came from. “The way that it was introduced to me was by simply hearing my mom use it so casually throughout childhood,” Muñoz explains. “She was a big fan of singing and a big fan of crying. It was not something to be hidden. If you’re having an emotional day, ‘undrown yourself.’ There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Cry it out, sing it out, but allow it to pass through you.”

It was later in life that Muñoz discovered Elena Avila’s book Woman Who Glows in the Dark, in which Avila explains how desahogamiento is a way to process grief that arose from curanderismo, Mexican folk medicine. It’s the main tool for consejeras, curanderas whose gift is the ability to deeply listen. Reading Avila’s work confirmed to Muñoz why she makes art.

“It validated this practice that I’ve carried with me since childhood, and my mom has carried with her not knowing it was literal folk medicine,” Muñoz says. “That was a profound moment: knowing you do carry ancestral wisdom without knowing it is ancestral wisdom.”

Muñoz’s use of desahogamiento has left her art uniquely prepared to process the tragedies of the past year. Grief struck Latinx communities hard in Chicago. If the pandemic wasn’t difficult enough, on April 15, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Police Department released footage of the police shooting and killing 13-year-old Adam Toledo, another Little Village resident. Muñoz says gun violence, though usually gang-related, marked her own childhood.

“We were babies going through those things,” Muñoz says. It hit her when she watched the tape. She thought she was prepared to see Adam’s death, but it made her feel more grief for her younger self than she anticipated. Muñoz picks over her words with care as she explains. “It tears you apart. You’re looking at a child. You know, when you grow up in ‘the hood,’ at 13 you feel grown. You feel grown! And now as an adult, you look back at a 13-year-old’s body, and you’re like, that’s a baby.”

To deal with the tough neighborhood, Muñoz developed a hunger for beauty. Outside, she felt a lot of pressure to be tough herself. But in secret, hidden underneath her family’s dining room table or inside the boiler room, she devoured books of poetry, with a love of reading instilled by her mother. Sometimes, the beautiful text would move her childhood self to tears.

“It’s vital,” Muñoz says of beauty. “It’s not a decorative thing. It’s a life sustaining thing. It gives you—I know it sounds corny for people, but it gives you hope. It gives you a lens to look at things. It gives you a little bit of hope.”

One striking encounter with beauty occurred when Muñoz’s third grade class went on a field trip to the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, in the forest preserves of Cook County. It was Muñoz’s first time seeing something more than a neighborhood park. Her classroom separated into groups, and a park ranger took Muñoz’s group to see a controlled burn.

“Of course when you see an ashen forest ground, it’s startling. You always associate fire with destruction.” The forest guide explained to their class how a controlled burn regenerates the forest. Some seeds can only germinate after exposure to fire, and the flames expose minerals that increase the forest’s vitality. Muñoz’s third-grade mind caught a glimpse of metaphor in this description. “I was like, wow. Fire, the idea of a fire, or something that looks like it’s destroyed is actually kicking off these processes that are essential, that are vital, that will give life to things that we don’t even see on the surface. This is deep time work.” It gave her hope that the struggles she and her classmates were enduring could give way to their own regeneration, something vital for their own lives.

The image lingers, even years later. “I carried it with me as a spiritual token of sorts,” Muñoz says. Most of her recent paintings are controlled burn landscapes, painted throughout the pandemic.

Muñoz battled long-running imposter syndrome while painting landscapes. Her art history classes usually approached them as decoration or examples of conquest. But she kept returning to this metaphor of revitalization. And as a Mexican American artist who rarely had access to nature, who never owned land, she realized her perspective could transform what landscapes mean.

<i>Controlled Burn 16—There’s a New World Coming</i>, 2020
Controlled Burn 16—There’s a New World Coming, 2020Credit: Elsa Muñoz

Muñoz says her family lost connections to land “through migration, through the loss of stories even.” When her parents came to the United States, they were in survival mode. “So you lose the stories of their connection to land, what herbs they know about, all the little losses you don’t even know you’re losing,” she says. Painting landscapes helps her reclaim what was lost through the dutiful, careful practice of witnessing the land. “It has allowed me to forge a connection that I think various processes severed in people,” she says.

Realism speaks to Muñoz because she sees it as one of the most accessible styles. “There is just something about the language of realism that it can’t help but be relatable,” she says. She wants everyone, especially the working class community she was raised in, to know art is for them too, not just for other artists with advanced degrees.

Her realist style also transforms how the art world recognizes Latinx, specifically Chicana, art. Another contributor to Muñoz’s imposter syndrome was pressure to paint Mexican folk art, but using folk art’s bright colors and geometric shapes felt inauthentic. “There was nothing like that at home,” she says.

It was the mentorship of Dolores Mercado, a curator at the National Museum of Mexican Art, that helped Muñoz realize she didn’t need to change her style to fit established forms; she could expand her community’s aesthetic possibilities.

And Muñoz’s style is itself an authentic portrayal of her life growing up in Little Village. “My first impressions of beauty were in those dark internal spaces,” she says, speaking of her childhood reading poetry under the dining room table. “I could create a source of my own light.”

To create this light, her paintings require a particular physical process. Instead of canvas, Muñoz paints everything on panels, Masonite boards made of composite wood. “It’s labor intensive from the start,” she says. Her paintings require an extremely smooth surface, so she spends a lot of time grinding boards down with a motorized sander. “You’re just covered in dust. It’s not cute. Not for the Instagram,” she jokes.

The process usually takes her a week, but for Muñoz, it’s a labor of love. “Because of the way that I paint, the application can be very delicate. Very fine brushwork.” Canvas weave can absorb pigment, but on panels, every detail, every small fleck of paint Muñoz puts down will stay there. Plus, “You love what you love,” Muñoz says. “I can’t, not for the sake of cost, I can’t pick up another material.”

Though the images are so detailed, and almost photographic, she doesn’t use fancy paint brushes either. Muñoz works her brushes hard, so “I figure if I have to destroy a brush in two paintings, then I’m going to use a cheap brush,” she says with a laugh. But it’s also integral to her linework. “Sometimes it’s those funky brushes that give you those particular marks. Especially if you’re painting organic matter like grass, you don’t want a point that is too perfect.”

But the secret step in her process is silence. “People tend to be weirded out that I mostly paint in silence. And that becomes kind of an ingredient, I feel.” Muñoz explains that she’s tried to listen to podcasts or audiobooks to keep her company while painting, but they get in the way of her work. Silence facilitates her connection with the art.

“I have to hear the painting, if that makes sense,” she says. “You have this sense that the painting has to rest. It has to talk back to you. It has needs!” Rushing toward deadlines makes Muñoz feel like a bad creator. “I know you need space, I know you need time to sit and chill, and not me exerting my will,” she says of her paintings. “There comes a moment where that thing you are creating, it takes on its own presence.”

Muñoz thinks allowing her paintings to germinate in quietness is what allows them to enact desahogamiento. She’s had “the good fortune” to have people tell her that her controlled burns or dark seascapes helped them get through difficult moments in life. That’s the most rewarding part of painting. “I can’t sit in front of every viewer and ask them, desahógate,” Muñoz says. “My hope is to make works of art that have enough presence and are quiet enough to perhaps listen to the viewer.”

The tragedies of the past year have only clarified why she paints the way she does. “You know if you can accompany someone in a dark moment, I’m happy with that being my life’s work,” she says. “That sounds so pretentious but it’s so true! Because I know I’ve been extremely hopeless and the thing that has always gotten me out has been art. A beautiful sentence, a poem, a painting. To contribute in the stewarding of that effort, I want to do that forever, please.”   v

View Elsa Muñoz’s work at elsamunoz.com and on Instagram @elsa.munoz.art.