The artist among us
In the middle of the midwestern prairie now covered in a blanket of snow resides an almost unknown hidden cultural treasure who happens to be a neighbor to those who live in the rural Chandler area of southwest Minnesota.
Primitiva Monteiga, who goes by the artist name of Primi Monteiga, has been living in the area since 2010. Her art is well known in her native country of Venezuela, but she and her story may be a mystery to those who have driven by her acreage on Highway 91 and appreciated the statue of an angel sculpted from cement that kneels at the end of her driveway.
Visiting the inside of her home is to be greeted by an oasis of South American culture, charm and hospitality. As she is not fluent in English, her daughter, Marcia Carrera-Fernandez, translated from Spanish.
Born in Spain on April 24, 1940 at the beginning of World War II, Monteiga and her family were no strangers to hardship. In 1957, over 10 years after the war had ended, Primi’s father sent her to live with family in Venezuela in hopes of a better life for her. Little did they know that years later, Venezuela would also become a country that would suffer hardship under President Hugo Chavez, and that the country would be in the world spotlight today for its continued tumultuous political climate long after Chavez’s death.
According to Monteiga, her father also sent her to Venezuela hoping that she would forget about her then-boyfriend, Jose Fernandez, of whom her father did not approve. Her father’s plan did not work and Jose eventually followed Monteiga to Venezuela where the two were married in 1962 and had two children, Marcia and Alejandro.
Although Monteiga had an interest in art from a young age, it was during her adult years she received much of her formal education. She studied in Caracas, Venezuela under famous artists such as J.A. Aranaz and Dr. Pedro Centeno Vallenilla, working within many different mediums, such as oil paint, wood, bronze, stone, cement and stained glass.
Art has been a part of Monteiga’s life for 45 years and it is one of the most important things to her.
“It is something that has filled my life even though I have never been able to devote as much time as I wanted,” she said.
In Venezuela, Monteiga is most notably known for her oil paintings of the indigenous tribes of the country. She extensively researched each tribe in order to accurately portray their culture in her work and she was the first artist to ever paint them in Venezuela.
“I felt I had to paint them because I felt like I was one of them,” she said. “I painted the entire collection of 47 Chiefs of Venezuela, and it is the only one that exists.”
The fact that it was the only collection in existence, the government classified Monteiga’s art as a national treasure. So when she and her family decided they had to leave in 2010 due to economic and political crisis, she faced great opposition from the government who would not allow her to take her art with her.
“The government would not allow anything of value to leave the country and that included all of her art work,” said Carrera-Fernandez, Monteiga’s daughter. “They would not allow Venezuelan bolivar [the country’s currency] to be exchanged for American dollars and shipped out, which is what we needed for my parents to leave.”
Not willing to part with her life’s work, Monteiga had to devise a plan to smuggle her own art out of Venezuela. Piece-by-piece she removed each painting from its frame, gently rolled them up and sent them one-by-one as “gifts” to family members over the years.
“There are two things in my life: art and family,” Monteiga said. “I could not leave the family for art, and I could not leave the art either because it fills me a lot and everything I saw and felt I wanted to capture in the canvases.”
Monteiga and her family had to leave behind much of what they had in order to come to the United States. Her husband Jose stayed behind for four years to try to sell his business, but in the end he had to let it go for a very cheap price so he could join the rest of the family. To this day, the Monteiga-Fernandez family have yet to recover all of their family’s financial assets from the country.
Originally, Monteiga’s son was attending college in California in 1982 while the rest of the family was back in Venezuela. Monteiga’s daughter, Marcia, first came to stay with her brother in 2004. It was then that Marcia met her husband, Jose Carrera, who had a sister who lived in Chandler. Marcia had concerns about living in a fast-paced, crime-ridden California environment, so she told her husband that she wanted to move to Chandler where he had family. In 2010, Monteiga was able to join her daughter in Chandler. After living in a house in town for some time, they were able to move to the acreage that they call home today.
For Monteiga, leaving Venezuela so many years ago was a difficult choice.
“For me it was very sad to leave Venezuela because I had lived many years there and I left all my friends,” she said. “It was very sad for me to leave everything, it was very hard. I came to a strange country, my children were here, and thank you God, now I feel happy. I love living in this rural area of Minnesota because people are very kind and special like family. They treat everyone very well. One is calm, one breathes pure air. I feel at home. I feel very good.”
Even at the age of 78, Monteiga continues to create art in her rural studio, with some of her work appearing locally, like the painting of a fish she did for Lonnie Clark, the president of the State Bank of Chandler, and the stained glass art that can be found in Saint Mary’s Church in Worthington.
Her artistic accomplishments go beyond painting and sculpture. In the past, the Venezuelan government commissioned her five times to have her work printed as stamps for the country. A limited number of stamps were printed, and only 120 collector’s books were produced. At the present time, Monteiga is working to have a book of her work published.
Monteiga would like for all of her neighbors to know that they are welcome to pay her a visit.
“I want my neighbors to know that they are welcome to come and meet me and see my art,” she said. “I want to share it with them. I would be pleased to meet you and share with you my work and the joy that it brings me.”