The opening of the exhibit for the Largest Miniature Art Collection at Central Library in August 2017.
Some of the paintings on display at the opening of the exhibit for the Largest Miniature Art Collection at San Antonio's Central Library in August 2017. Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Public Library Facebook

Rarely has so large an accomplishment come in such small packages.

Earlier this year, San Antonio artist Martha I. Ochoa achieved a Guinness World Record for the “largest collection of miniature paintings” after completing and exhibiting 5,000 paintings each 1-by-1½ inches or smaller.

If you ask Ochoa how long the process took, she’ll tell you that’s the million-dollar question even she can’t answer. For her, these miniature paintings represent random bursts of inspiration she took on between other projects – each one birthed from a stolen few minutes each time something caught her eye. It’s impossible for her to count the hours; she just knows that since she started painting them, she hasn’t been able to stop.

She estimates that she’s made up to 10,000 miniature paintings over a 40-year career, along with regular-sized paintings, murals, and artistic faux-finishing in the homes of friends and associates. In small, gold oval and rectangular frames, Ochoa manages to capture small vignettes – a stack of books or vase of yellow jasmine – and giant landscapes – mountain ranges in France or an expansive moonlit lake in Peru.

“I do frescoes and murals, but these little paintings are special,” Ochoa said. “Anytime I go somewhere, I take my little cases of pencils and watercolors and nothing can bother me once I get going. Even when I’m tired, I can’t stop. I’m on a break now, but I still made 10 yesterday.”

Click through the gallery below to see some of Ochoa’s miniature paintings.

Ochoa is a native Peruvian who emigrated to Texas more than two decades ago. She brought with her the tradition of the Escuelas Cusqeuñas, or Cuzco School, a post-colonial hybrid of local and Spanish artistic styles. Her colorful miniature paintings represent memories of the flora and fauna of her native Peru, including examples of gardens and landscapes.

“I have a million paintings that have to do with Peru,” Ochoa said. “Since I started painting, I tried to capture every corner of Peru, show off everything I could of my country. In one place we have the coast, the jungles, the mountains – it’s all so different there.”

Since before she was in school, Ochoa started making miniature artworks, beginning with graphite drawings scribbled into her sketchbook, before moving on to more colorful pieces in paint. She didn’t even know her paintings might be eligible for any kind of recognition until a few of her relatives mentioned it.

With encouragement from her husband, Bill Menke, the two exhibited more than 5,000 miniature paintings in 2015 at Saint Mary’s Hall. It should’ve been enough to merit the Guinness World Record, but, as Menke readily admits, he wasn’t aware at the time of the meticulous record-keeping required for proof of Ochoa’s achievement. A minor technical detail – the paintings weren’t numbered and named – prevented Ochoa from receiving the recognition.

In the summer of 2017, the two mounted another exhibition of 5,000 paintings, each within the 1-by-1½ inch size limit, framed, and titled, this time at the Central Library. That effort, combined with Menke’s meticulous documentation, finally won Ochoa the world record. The certificate dates her accomplishment as Aug. 2, 2017.

“I felt like I was floating,” Ochoa said. “I’ve only ever worked for the love of art, and I never had any expectations to be recognized for it. It made me very emotional.”

Following the record-breaking honor, Peruvian Consul General Rodolfo Coronado Molina sent a letter of recognition from his office in Houston through a representative that praised Ochoa’s artistic perseverance and dedication and her contribution to Peru’s cultural legacy.

Martha Ochoa Olazo receives the official certificate.
Martha Ochoa Olazo receives the official Guinness World Records Worlds Largest Collection of Miniature Paintings certificate. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Mini Art Museum co-founder Mary Cantú saw that show, thanks to a Google Alert for the keywords “miniature” and “art.” The eventual result of that meeting was a donation by Ochoa of 72 miniature paintings to the museum’s collection.

Chris Castillo, an advisory committee member of the Mini Art Museum, visited Ochoa’s home to receive the paintings, where he also saw much larger-scale, 30-foot mural-sized landscape paintings by the artist. “It’s amazing that she can work at such a grand scale and such a tiny scale,” Castillo said.

Now, Ochoa says she’s getting requests to exhibit her paintings from several museums and galleries across the world. Ochoa is thrilled, but she also balks at the challenges of transporting 57 boxes of the minuscule works of art.

Of the smaller work, and of miniature art in general, Cantú said, “To say a lot, you don’t need a lot.”

While she’s finally met her goal, Ochoa said that as long as she has her health, she knows her inspiration won’t fade and neither will her drive to paint.

“I still have the hope to do another 5,000 more,” Ochoa said. “Who knows, but as long as I love what I’m doing, it’s all worthwhile.”

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Cat Cardenas

Cat Cardenas is a freelance journalist from San Antonio focused on news and culture reporting.