When Celeste June Henriquez needed a way to express herself as a child, she turned to art. Now, after twenty years as a freelance illustrator, her new series Guardians explores her role as a caregiver to her daughter, Abigail, a person living with an intellectual disability.
After graduating with a BFA from Philadelphia College of Art, Celeste spent nearly twenty years as a national freelance illustrator for advertising, editorial, and children’s books. While she still enjoys illustrating, she is currently a painter.
“I paint because I enjoy roaming in the subconscious where I follow narratives. Abstraction in my art practice helps me peel away or see the underbelly of a thought or story,” says Celeste, who adds, “The process of beginning a painting can vary; sometimes it’s a series of short battles of pushing and pulling the paint, using form, composition, color, and line until there’s a satisfying resolution, or the experience is an effortless birth. But no matter which way it’s created, it has to capture unexpected energy.”
Guardians explores her role as a caregiver to Abigail. Born in 2002, Abigail joined brother Julien, born two years prior. Abigail was born with low muscle tone and an atrial septal defect, to which doctors attributed early on her not reaching typical developmental milestones. Abigail was a happy, smiling baby, but Celeste noticed that there was something missing in the reciprocal visual communication she had shared with Julien before he spoke. He had a communicative glimmer in his eyes that Abigail’s eyes did not. Celeste describes it as a “dark veil” covering that glimmer, which raised deep concerns. Within a few years, Abigail was evaluated and diagnosed with autism. This was the beginning of an uncharted, unexpected journey full of challenges and blessings.
Celeste and Abigail’s dad, Robert Peck, worked together to find and maintain schooling that supported Abigail’s educational needs with ongoing speech and occupational therapy. However, when Abigail reached her early teens, the challenges grew more difficult, and now included anxiety and challenging behaviors. They needed to seek out more supports.
This led Celeste and Robert to have Abigail evaluated at Spring Harbor Hospital, in Westbrook, when she was 14. During the evaluation, Celeste recalls collaborating with other professionals who said, “We can help. You can have a better relationship with your daughter, and she doesn’t have to live with you to do that.” Celeste wondered whether that was truly an option.
Abigail remained at Spring Harbor for three months until a placement became available in a residential school program in New Hampshire through the nonprofit Easterseals. Abigail, still a minor, was placed there because there wasn’t a local residential program that could meet her needs in Maine. While the choice to place Abigail in a residential program was daunting, Celeste knew this was Abigail’s best chance to continue her development.
One might wonder how raising a child with special needs and painting could be similar. But as Celeste explained, in both, there can be preconceived ideas as to how your hopes could unfold, until it becomes clear that life can and will bring unexpected circumstances that require pivoting, moving quickly, pulling back, and staying open to what comes next.
“When a painting marks a moment in time and honors the deep learning and struggles parents experience raising children with intellectual disabilities, I am emotionally touched, and if I can then share the image and talk with others about it, the process deepens even further,” says Celeste.
Full time caregiving and advocating for a person’s needs can absorb every moment of one’s life. During this trying time, Celeste recalls a clear pull to create space for her art. Celeste wanted to take an art class to “loosen up,” so she registered for an abstract painting class at Maine College of Art. Celeste remembers feeling excited to be getting out by herself and doing something that would help her reconnect with her creativity. Painting with an abstract lens ended up being just the outlet she needed to express and address the myriad emotions that come with being a parent of a child who requires extensive care. It allowed Celeste to say out loud what she was feeling through a variety of images.
“I think of myself as a vessel filled with experiences I want to examine,” she says. “When I paint the process directs me on where to go.”
In 2020, Celeste was one of 25 Maine artists chosen to exhibit in the Portland Museum of Art’s show. “Untitled, 2020: Art from Maine in a ____ Time,” was a dedication to the multitude of artist’s expressions from the pandemic and political events of 2020. Her two paintings, Snow coming and Big house, inspired by two sentences Abigail often says, focused on the isolation Celeste felt while managing from a distance the care for her daughter. The paintings describe through color, form, and texture their relationship, and Celeste’s inability to see her daughter during the first several months of the pandemic, a separation many families experienced with their loved ones.
Abstraction allows Celeste to peel away the surfaces and see the gut or the emotional rawness of what it takes to be a guardian, and in this case, to express the depth of the internal and external experiences it raises.
“I use an investigative eye to slow myself down,” she says. “Abstracting is like drawing a teapot with its contours and tones, and then realizing what I really want is to know what’s going on inside the teapot. This is when I break the drawing up and rearrange the shapes until I see how to capture the inner water boiling. Abstraction can still look like something familiar, but you see it in a different light.”
This process allows Celeste to go through a side door into her thoughts where form meets emotion, where tensions can show evolution to an acceptance and to beauty.
“Anytime a piece of art allows me to really acknowledge this journey, I know it has done its job,” explains Celeste, her voice cracking as she describes how one of her pieces of art titled Wade speaks to the calm place she and Abigail now enjoy at times and have worked hard to get to. “I feel like I have made something that is acknowledging what we have been through. I, Abigail, and our family have done so much growing because of this journey.”
Henriquez has exhibited at the Portland Art Museum, River Arts Gallery, Frank Brockman Gallery, Harlow Gallery, and Zero Station. Henriquez shows her work with SEVEN Artists Collective, which can be found at www.sevenartistscollective.com and on Instagram @collectiveseven. To learn more about Celeste June Henriquez or to see her paintings and art for sale visit: www.celestejunehenriquez.com. She can also be found on Instagram @celeste.studio.art and on Facebook at Celeste June Henriquez.