Sharing a passion for Colombian culture

Words by:
Barbara Young
Featured in:
November 2022

Barbara Young meets Esteban Peña Parga, a Lincoln based artist and lecturer whose creative career has crossed continents.

Born in Bogotá in 1979, Esteban Peña Parga is a Colombian artist and graduate of the University of Los Andes, who also holds an MA in Fine Art from London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London.

As an accomplished and highly regarded artist, the 43-year-old father of two, who is married to fellow creative professional Caroline Peña Bray, describes his eclectic style as “somewhere between pop and realism, although I feel a little uncomfortable with being placed into a category or ‘ism’.”

He explains that he likes to present an image “in a way that makes you stop and ask what it is you’re really looking at”.

“I might not be the stereotypical image of the Colombian artist, usually understood as someone who only makes work about Colombian politics and its long history of civil conflict. However, it’s true that my cultural references are influenced by the environment I grew up in. A lot of my earlier works look at foreign cultural icons that have been adopted into Colombian culture and adapted to their new setting, be it in religion, marketing, pop culture or folklore.

“I believe that the humour I inject into my work is particularly Colombian, as is my love of colour and all things vibrant, and I make many references to science and pop culture.

“I always aim for technical excellence, making sure the medium I choose is best suited to the message I want to convey and studying my materials thoroughly before using them, although I do like to keep things fun too!”

Since 2020, Esteban has been based in Lincoln with his artist wife Caroline (whom he met during his two years studying at Central Saint Martins) and two children, five-year-old Mateo and three-year-old Amalia.

“Since arriving in Lincolnshire I’ve been fascinated by the wildflowers growing in the fields and along the pathways near our home. My recent exhibition at the Museum of Lincolnshire Life was filled with works made in response to the beautiful and fascinating flowers I’ve found since moving here, as well as their histories.

“My residency was part of the Our Patch of Earth project being run by the museum, which looks at Lincolnshire’s relationship with its wildflowers and their natural environments.

“I work across all media, but in terms of painting my technique over the past 15 years has been based in studies of light. Over this period of time I have always used my studies of colour and how colour manifests itself as light as a foundation for my technique.”

Early ambition
It’s evident that Esteban – who describes himself as a “solitary child from a creative, intuitive, focused and driven family” – was always destined to follow an artistic path and his family not only recognised but actively supported his early talent.

“One of my mother’s favourite stories is from when I was about 10 years old and decided to sign my name on a beautiful wooden bedside table using a compass. I also signed a still life painting of flowers that my parents had in the living room, just above the original artist’s signature.

“However, when confronted by my parents, I flat out denied that it was me and said it must have been a different Esteban Peña! I don’t think my parents knew whether to discipline me, or laugh at such shameless creative ingenuity!”

Esteban says that by the time he was a teen, he had decided that he wanted to be an artist, a decision which was fully supported by his small close-knit family.

“I wasn’t particularly happy at school, so my parents found ways to balance my school days with things I loved and was good at. My mother took me to life drawing classes in the evenings at the National University of Colombia, and even joined me in the classes. She was particularly popular as she’d turn up with biscuits and snacks for everyone. Sometimes, she’d also bring coffee mixed with aguardiente, a strong Colombian liquor, which was great for keeping us warm on a rainy Bogotá afternoon!”

Family support
Although Esteban is the first artist in his family, he says they’ve helped to influence each other.

“My mother, Mariela, was a well-respected dentist, but also incredibly creative. Now that she’s retired, my mother spends time scouring shops and markets for objects for the house, which she then adapts to her own eclectic style, or she gathers old clothes to sew together into a new outfit.

“My father, Jaime, who is nearly 80, worked his way up the ranks as a publicist before the company went broke in the mid-1980s. He had also been studying law so after losing his job, he decided to take the leap into law – he’s an extremely resilient and adaptable man.

“My sister, Ximena, worked as a professor of economics at the University of Los Andes where I worked as a professor of fine art before moving to the UK. Sadly, Ximena passed away in 2017 from breast cancer, but she left a lasting influence on how I navigate the world. Smart and pragmatic, she taught me how to make things happen; how to make my ambitions a reality through consistent work and by taking small steps everyday towards a greater goal.

“My 2016 solo show Believing is Seeing comprised paintings of coils of lights used in celebrations, such as Christmas and fairy lights, and was an homage to Ximena’s ability to always celebrate the present and her desire to shine brightly before her light was extinguished.

“My parents never doubted or put me off my career path. They did their best to support and arm me with the wide range of skills needed to be successful. They explained that becoming a successful artist wasn’t just about drawing, but also about networking, running a small business, and juggling many skills and tasks. They worked to make me a well-rounded person, which has given me a great foundation as an artist.”

Before moving to England, Esteban – who has exhibited nationally and internationally since 1998 – worked as a full-time professor of fine art at the University of Los Andes, where he taught a range of 2D and 3D classes. He was also a professor at the University of Bogotá Jorge Tadeo Lozano and a tutor on the Masters course in Electronic, Plastic and Temporal Arts (MAPET) at the University of Los Andes.

“As an educator, I feel responsible for building bridges between art and the people interested in it,” explains Esteban, who includes Grayson Perry, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Wilhelm Sasnal and Yinka Shonibare among his many favourite artists.

Combining creative talents
Having met and bonded over their shared love of art at Central Saint Martins, Esteban and Caroline continue to pool their creative talents.

“Caroline and I hit it off instantly and haven’t stopped enjoying life and art together since. We understand each other’s needs as individuals and artists and provide essential support to each other along what is a somewhat unconventional career path. Caroline would probably deny it, but she’s a very talented artist and currently has work on display at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.”

In 2020, Esteban and his family took the decision to move to Lincoln, where Caroline was born.
“We decided to look for new opportunities beyond Colombia and the UK seemed the perfect place because it has such a rich cultural life to offer and one which we love being part of. I studied at an English school in Bogotá, so from a young age I was exposed to British culture and as a result, I’ve always had a desire to live and work in the UK, and give back to the culture that shaped me alongside my Colombian roots.”

In early 2022, Esteban won the Our Patch Of Earth artist residency at the Gatehouse Gallery at the Museum Of Lincolnshire Life, where the gallery was transformed into the artist’s workshop. The experience was well received, with the project extended until the end of August 2022.

“I took this opportunity to investigate and make different proposals about ecological issues and wildflowers, such as how the meadows in England are in danger of extinction,” explains Esteban.

“Many of these new series and proposals are just the beginning of a project that can be expanded much more.”

Looking ahead, the couple have plans for a new joint creative venture, Studio Parga, an art and design studio that brings their artworks into homes in varying formats for an affordable price, which they aim to launch this autumn.

“We’ve spent the last year trialling different interior design products, and the best of these have been our art prints, which we’re really excited about.”

Esteban says he finds inspiration for his work “absolutely everywhere”.

“I thoroughly enjoy the entire process behind creating a work: investigating subjects, testing production techniques, creating the final work, organising it in an exhibition and presenting it to the public. It’s a long process, and a solo show can take years to create, but the feeling of accomplishment at the end of it all is second-to-none.

“Lincoln is a lot calmer than Bogotá – it’s a much smaller city with much cleaner air and much less traffic! I enjoy seeing our children having such a safe and healthy childhood, although I do sometimes miss the chaotic and unbridled vibrancy and energy of Colombia that I’m so used to.”

As a dedicated professional Esteban says “you have to treat being an artist like any job, show up every day and work hard at it. You may not work from 9am to 5pm, but you need to be putting in long working days at whatever time suits you best.

or if I’m waiting for a layer of paint to dry, there’s always admin to be done. I look for exhibition opportunities, send a newsletter to my collectors, and plan the next exhibition or art fair with my gallery, Galería Nueveochenta in Bogotá. The romanticised idea of an artist who only works when he feels inspired won’t cut it in the real world!”

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