Learning to accept the unexpected can sometimes produce the most fruitful results.

This pandemic-era lesson will be visible in the form of paintings and drawings at Bihl House Arts through August 14, in a dual exhibition titled Botanical Sensations.

Unbeknownst to each other, painter Carmen Oliver and her daughter Daniela Oliver de Portillo both turned to flowers as an artistic subject to help ease the pandemic stresses of isolation, anxiety, and parenthood under duress.

Oliver de Portillo grew up among her mother’s artist friends and colleagues, and studied art for a year in Florence, Italy. She later minored in art at Trinity University, but set her aspirations aside to become a communications professional, spending 10 years as head of marketing and communications for the McNay Art Museum. That period was the equivalent of a formal arts education, she said, requiring immersion in many aspects of the field.

Carmen Oliver (center) smiles while speaking with one of her painting students, Wilanna Ashley (right), and her husband, Wayne, at the opening of <i>Botanical Sensations</i>, Friday evening.
Carmen Oliver (center) smiles while speaking with one of her painting students, Wilanna Ashley (right), and her husband, Wayne, at the opening of Botanical Sensations on Friday evening. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Needing more flexibility in her schedule as her family grew, she left that position in 2016 and dedicated herself to motherhood. Then in 2019, she said she “came out” to an artist friend that she felt she needed to get back to making art. Her friend advised her to begin with drawing each day to get back into practice.

The pandemic struck soon after, and Oliver de Portillo was suddenly parenting her two energetic, attention-seeking young boys at home full time, while continuing to work as a communications professional, while her physician husband was frequently at work.

An unwelcome invasion, then inspiration

Whenever she could find a rare moment to herself, Oliver de Portillo began a series of line drawings with a black paint marker; cactuses, readily at hand throughout the house, became her subjects.

One day, 2-year-old Emiliano decided to participate in an uninvited collaboration while his mother was momentarily indisposed.

“When I came back, it was scribbled all over,” Oliver de Portillo said. “It made me feel like there was no way I was going to be able to have anything for myself.”

It’s a familiar emotion for many mothers who find themselves giving up a part of themselves to the constant demands of family life.

“It’s not even a conscious decision, it’s just something that happens,” she said, along with a creeping resentment over “how mundane the everyday life of parenting is.”

Emiliano, 3, colors a piece created by his mother.
Emiliano, 3, colors a piece created by his mother. Credit: Courtesy / Daniela Oliver

Having Emiliano innocently ruin her drawing felt like proof she’d have to leave that part of herself behind forever.

But a few days later “the light bulb went on,” she said, and she took a different view of Emiliano’s alterations, as a way to integrate these different aspects of her life. The result is Invasive Species: A Collaboration with Toddlers, a series of 13 marker-and-crayon drawings and four large acrylic paintings, all co-created by Oliver de Portillo and sons Emiliano, now age 3, and 6-year-old Rodrigo.

All the emotions

Oliver de Portillo’s titles evoke a range of emotions many mothers feel but rarely express aloud: I Like Being Alone, but That Alone Feels Like a Crime. You Can Be A Multitasker, But Only If You Are One Dimensional. Running Away From Running a Household. Perhaps most poignantly for Oliver de Portillo, It’s Too Late to Find a Calling.

While working on the Invasive Species project, she gained confidence in the revealing nature of her titles after listening to a New York Times audio piece titled “The Primal Scream,” which invited moms to call in and leave voice messages — sometimes very raw — about the effects of the pandemic on their lives.

“I feel the same way about some of these drawings,” Oliver de Portillo said, “that they captured that moment of despair.” There were some thoughts that were so dark that she edited them out of the series, but those that remain might allow other mothers to feel validated in expressing their own difficulties, she said, and lend insight into pandemic parenthood for non-parents.

Oliver de Portillo readily admits that her initial love of art came directly from her mother Carmen Oliver, who used to have her three young ones in the studio with her as she painted. Things were different in Mexico, Oliver said, with mothers aided by familial groups and nannies in the raising of their children, helping to ease the stresses and strains of parenting.

Rodrigo, 6, shows his cousins, Pia and Inés Crespo, the paintings he created with his brother Emiliano, 3, and their mother, Daniela Oliver de Portillo. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

“I think I had three angels, because they never touched my brushes, my paints, my art — never,” Oliver said, despite one of those little angels – the grownup Oliver de Portillo – revelation that she once snuck a touch of a painting in progress.

Flowers are a natural subject for Oliver, who helped her grandmother — also named Carmen — tend to her home garden. Later, Oliver ran a successful flower shop in Mexico City. Flowers and fruit were common subjects for her early still lifes, but as her painting evolved, she turned toward abstraction.

When the pandemic forced her to stay at home, flowers became an ideal, readily accessible subject.

“My art kept me safe and at peace with the pandemic, because it was very hard year,” she said. “The flowers give me happiness, and a return to my childhood, and that keeps me in peace.”

Moving past the pandemic

Visitors to the Botanical Sensations exhibition will see the last Invasive Species work Oliver de Portillo and her sons will ever make.

“Toddlers mature really quickly,” she said. “A three year old is not the same as a four year old is not the same as a five year old.” Emiliano and Rodrigo began at ages 2 and 5 by scribbling wildly, drawing outside the lines, adding their own flourishes, and otherwise exhibiting the ebulliance of youth in early drawings such as I Just Want a Moment and Parenting is the Ultimate Stockholm Syndrome.

As they grew, the boys changed. Rodrigo in particular now wanted to choose appropriate colors and stay within the lines, even when freed by his mother to do whatever he wanted.

Rodrigo, 6, and his brother Emiliano, 3, contribute to a canvas that their mother, Daniela Oliver de Portillo, placed for visitors of the exhibition to contribute to. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

“‘No, I like it this way,’” he told her. She realized that each of them had matured beyond the chaos of the pandemic’s early days and had now learned to be more aware and to direct their impulses. Oliver de Portillo recognized “that stage in their life is over,” and with it, the series drew to its natural closure.

Their final collaborative painting is titled And in the End You See Everything You Never Saw During, to recognize that only in retrospect can we truly see what actually happened, and that these artworks mark a stage of evolution in her family’s life.

“This whole series captures how frustrating it is to take care of a toddler, but [also] how fleeting it is, because no matter what you do, they’re gonna grow up,” Oliver de Portillo said.

Mother and daughter will join for a gallery talk at Bilhaus July 31 at 2 p.m., and will facilitate a family art workshop Aug. 7 at 2 p.m., featuring line drawings to be “invaded” by kids.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...