Artist Profile

Meet One of Southwest Florida’s Top Portrait Artists

Martha Maria Cantu almost gave up on art. Now, the self-trained artist is at the forefront of Immokalee's growing arts scene.

BY April 1, 2024
Martha Maria Cantu
From the makeshift bedside studio her husband built, Martha blends a rich palette with colored pencils, pastels, acrylic paints and oils. The space displays her children’s artwork alongside her own. “The stuff they do inspires me,” she says. (Photo by Anna Nguyen)

Years had passed since she used these muscles, but it felt natural. The piece was just a simple sketch of a plant cell for her son’s homework, but Martha Maria Cantu was instantly lost in the process. Once finished, the young mother looked up to see a pair of saucer-sized eyes staring at the page. “He called over his siblings and said, ‘Look, look what Mom did! She’s like a professional artist,’ and I was like, ‘What do you mean? I am a professional artist,’” Martha says, chuckling at the memory.

The kids watched in awe as Martha pulled drawings and paintings that hadn’t seen light in years. Some sported blue ribbons or newspaper clippings. Questions came pouring from every direction. Did she miss it? Yes, desperately. Why didn’t she draw anymore? She didn’t know.

That was about eight years ago. When you drive into Immokalee today, you’ll see a welcome sign Martha Maria Cantu painted that pays tribute to her community, with calloused hands enveloping a young seedling against a background of farmland, football fields, encroaching tides and a pulsing sunset. Her most prominent mural, three panels depicting Everglades wildlife, migrant farmworkers and early Florida cattle drivers, stretches along the side wall of Main Street’s 7-11 in a graphic riff on expressionist style. Through the public art commissions and exhibits across Southwest Florida, Martha has become one of the breakout artists of Immokalee’s quietly growing arts scene. And portraits are the artist’s calling card.

It all begins with the eyes. Light-bleached vacancies shatter irises that burst with fuchsia, amber and goldenrod, adding dimension to darker hues. Shadows and reflections creep out from black, cavernous pupils. The subtle curvature of each eyelid signals uncanny emotion. “Once I get [the eyes] down, I know I’ve got this,” she says. “Everything else is a blur.”

Despite commonalities, the population in Martha’s hometown is no monolith—artistic, agricultural, medical, culinary and educational aspirations abound alongside rigid traditionalism, even when opportunity feels scarce. Complexity and nuance characterize the people of Immokalee and, in turn, Martha’s portraiture.

Crafted in her makeshift bedside studio with colored pencils, pastels, acrylic paint or oils, her arresting portraits depict people she sees every day and people she admires. The artist sees a person’s story reflected in their eyes and the lines etched into their skin—two of the most prominent and detailed aspects of her representational work. She is drawn to subjects whose faces are marked with years of toil and struggle but whose eyes portray kindness and strength. Living in Immokalee, where economic strain and limited resources are met with limitless resolve, subjects like these are often close at hand.

When Martha heard the story of an older man known as Don Andres, she saw all those magnetic qualities in his eyes. For decades, Don Andres has worked odd jobs picking up cans or laboring in neighbors’ yards and sent what money he made back home to Mexico to support a wife he has not seen in nearly 40 years. Martha Maria Cantu does not glamorize her subjects. In his portrait, Don Andres’ skin is sun-worn and cracked, and his wardrobe, a tattered baseball cap and sun-bleached T-shirt, sags with daily use. Beneath the oasis of mottled shade cast by his favorite tree in Immokalee, the man’s gaze is burdened but steady.

Martha was born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States when she was 4. She moved here with her mother, a woman whose cruel and exacting nature would sculpt her daughter’s artistic journey. Martha’s stepfather came into her life around this time, too. He didn’t speak much Spanish, and as a child, Martha spoke little English. In the evenings, while her mother was at work, Martha would sit silently nearby—not so close that she’d get in the way but near enough to not feel alone—as he watched wrestling on TV. Today, she remembers the gruff and kind-hearted man as “Dad,” but at 7, she didn’t know if he could be trusted. Few people in her life had proven worthy of her faith.

In an effort to connect, Martha showed her father a drawing of the Jesus painting that hung on their wall in pious observation. In his best pidgin, her dad told her not to interrupt his wrestling again until her drawing looked just like the picture. Without instruction or books or anything but an ingrained attention to detail, the child set to work. “I don’t remember how long it took—hours, days, weeks—but I got it to look just like what was on the wall. I showed my dad, and he was astonished,” she says. “He didn’t need to say anything—that was it, and I was hooked.”

Finding approval at home never came easy, but at school, the young artist’s skills were celebrated—and nurtured. She remembers the art teachers who pushed her to enter competitions and got her an interview with Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota. “Winning awards, being on the news and in magazines—that was great, but it was just never enough for Mother,” she says.

With only a third-grade education, Martha’s mother did not care for her straight-As and art competition victories. She could be both verbally and physically abusive, and when these methods of discipline failed to faze her daughter, she sprinted to Martha’s room and destroyed every piece of artwork she could find.

The opportunity to attend Ringling felt like the beginning of a new chapter, one where she could silence internal and external voices of doubt. After weeks of courting the young artist over the phone and through email, the dean of students met Martha Maria Cantu face-to-face. As a woman of color from a home that rarely had air conditioning, much less pricey art supplies, Martha was not their typical demographic. Her acceptance was rescinded. Martha would be better suited for community college, the director said. “He looked down on me, not because of what I’ve done or what I could do, but just because of who I was and what I looked like,” she says.

After the rejection, Martha married, had children and gained stepchildren—mothering 10 altogether. The dormant artist focused on creating a different home from the one that raised her. As her children grew, they reciprocated her love and support, pushing their reserved mother to rebuke the fear of rejection and embrace her talents. The artists who inspire Martha are not Renaissance greats or vanguards of modernism; they are her children, who will not allow her to quit again. Among her kids—from elementary to post-graduate age—several aspire to artistry, like their mother.

Martha hangs their clay figurines and Japanese manga panels alongside her own artwork; their creations fill her studio with levity and joy. “I really want to inspire the younger kids. I didn’t have that inspiration or that outlet [growing up], and I want to give that to them—not only with my artwork but also my home,” she says.

Recently, her son asked for a spare sketchbook for a friend who couldn’t afford materials. She happily sent it over as a birthday gift. When Martha came to pick the kids up from school soon after, the boy ran over to her, nervous and excited to flip through the sketchbook and show her his latest work. One of the sketches had won him a $2,000 prize. “If they don’t have that person pushing them, I’m here, I’ll listen,” she says. “I have the time. I have a bunch of kids, but I have room. I love to cook. I do the cleaning like it’s nothing. I’ll be your mom. I’ll be that.”  

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