Carlo Mejia

Carlo Mejia works slowly and meticulously as he creates a richly detailed oil pastel piece of art. JOHN BIONDO


If you’ve enjoyed the Downtown Fort Pierce Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings, you may have spotted certain bright prints from afar. Reminiscent of Mayan culture, the prints and ceramics in artist Carlo Mejia’s corner tent would be an asset to the finest gallery or museum, but Mejia loves the market, meeting people, explaining the time-consuming nature of his ceramics or the symbolism of a particular print.

What brought this talented artist to the Treasure Coast? The answer is as complex as Mejia’s artwork.

Mejia’s ancestors were the Quiché, descendants of the ancient Mayans. By the time his great-grandfather, originally from Guatemala, became leader of the indigenous people group in El Salvador, many had fled their lands to find greater economic opportunities in the cities.

“We maintained our culture, but everything was secret,” Mejia says. “We prayed in secret, spoke our language in secret.”

Even as a small boy, Mejia was expected to help put food on the table. By the age of 5, he was knocking on doors, trying to sell little oil paintings he had done. He helped any way he could, whether cleaning homes for a few coins, or assisting the shamans as babies were delivered. As his stature and skill grew, Mejia’s paintings grew in popularity, but he never considered himself a painter.

More than 60 years later, he is comfortable with the title. His talent opened doors of opportunity. At 12, El Salvador’s ambassador to France said, “Do three paintings for me, Carlito.” He took the boy to Paris, where one of the paintings won honors in the 1959 Paris Biennale and he met Pablo Picasso. It was the beginning of a career that has spanned his entire life, showing his work in exhibitions, studying abroad, lecturing, but mostly, finding his own artistic identity through drawing, painting, and sculpture.

He and the other Central American artists struggled as they studied in Europe.

“I would sell small porcelain pieces and be rich in the moment, so I’d buy food for us,” he recalls. “The money didn’t matter as much then.

Back in his country, financial considerations grew along with his family. When civil war broke out in 1980, the Mejias brought one suitcase to the United States, leaving everything else behind. “My studio, my work there, were casualties of war. It was all destroyed.

Initially, the family lived in Virginia. With a few partners, he owned a gallery in Washington, D.C. His work has been commissioned by the Smithsonian Institute; he has won international awards. Private and corporate collectors around the world, even royalty, own Carlo Mejia’s work. But he has also dealt with unscrupulous galleries, inefficient agents, those who copied his work, discrimination, and professional rejections. Mejia has taken it all in stride.

Dealing with people is one thing; the bottom line is another. “Whenever I get a little money, something goes wrong with the house,” he says with a smile. “I do it because I love it, but advertising? Shows? My food money is involved!”

Mejia’s art distinctively reveals his connection to his past, but for him, it is not about culture, but heart. He brought his family to this country to escape war, not for the American Dream, which he says doesn’t exist.

“I was born with dreams,” he says. “Some people think we come to this country to take something from it. No, we bring culture, hard work. We love it here, but we make our dreams.”

Mejia tells of a famous art critic who lamented the fact that talented Latin American artists tended to produce pieces in classic European style. “Latin America has its own history,” he recalls the critic saying. When he saw Mejia’s work, he was elated that Mejia had not only connected with his roots, but transcended them.

While abroad, another critic said something that resonated deeply. “ ‘If paintings don’t move people, it would be better to sell cars,’ ” Mejia remembers. “That if I was not different, the world would put me into this or that group, but also that being different would keep a shadow over me. Still, I knew I must develop my own passion.”

Mejia is a prolific painter of oils and oil pastels, but his ceramics reflect a secret technique that is part magic, part time, part talent, but all Carlo Mejia. For 10 years, experimentation produced unsatisfactory results. One day, he opened the kiln and wept with happiness.

“I kept shouting ‘I have it!’ ” he says. “My wife thought I had gone nuts.” He pauses. “People don’t understand how serious art is. They see a price tag, not the years of study and developing. Even a small piece is not simple. It is my life.”

Now the patriarch of his own family, settled into a quiet Port St. Lucie neighborhood, Mejia is no longer as active in the commercial side of art as he once was. He receives requests to show his work, or travel abroad to speak, but the money is not there for such things.

“You have to be proud of who you are and not compromise. And you never stop, even if you don’t have a penny.”


Age: 72
Lives in: Port St. Lucie
Occupation: artist
Family: “My wife, Ana, makes me clean up my mess when I work. We have four children and five grandchildren.”
Education: Schools of art in El Salvador, Peru, Argentina, Mexico, Europe and the United States
Hobbies: “No time! – but I do write short histories for Latino magazines.”
Who/what inspires me: “The shamans in my family who taught me about being both human and spirit, about the beautiful quetzal bird.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “My grandson, Carlo Mejia III, plans to film a documentary about me and my art.”