Carmen Torruella-Quander rushes, a bit harried, through the doors to the gallery space in Freedom House, on Duke Street in Alexandria. She apologizes for arriving a few minutes late to walk a reporter through her latest exhibition, “Freedom From Slavery,” portraits of subjects she observed during a trip to Ghana. “You should’ve seen me flying down Route 1,” she says, as she shakes her head and laughs.
The 55-year-old District native and talkative teacher with a self-deprecating wit grew up isolated and unsure of herself, the only nonwhite student at D.C.’s Sacred Heart Catholic School in the early ’50s. The daughter of Dominican and Puerto Rican émigrés, Torruella-Quander spoke almost no English, rarely talking in class and communicating with her teachers through sketches.
When she was 8, Torruella-Quander went on a school trip to the Corcoran Gallery of Art. A museum guide asked the children to look at a painting quickly and then close their eyes and describe what color they thought of. As Torruella-Quander remembers it, everyone but her saw the same color. After hesitating, she raised her hand and, in her limited English, confessed her disagreement. She was laughed at by her classmates, but the guide said she was right in her perception.
“It was the first time I got some positive reinforcement,” says Torruella-Quander. “I just knew this was what I was going to do.” She later attended the Corcoran School of Art and earned a B.F.A. from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y. For the past 30 years, she’s communicated her vision through teaching art classes and through her own paintings. She recently taught at Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory and is currently an instructor at the Hillwood Museum in D.C.
Torruella-Quander’s paintings in “Freedom From Slavery” are modest but powerful portraitsmostly watercolorof people doing everyday things: a young boy smiling in front of a door, a woman joyfully sorting fish, vendors at an outdoor market. “I’m an anthropological artist,” she says with a laugh. “Yeah, I like the sound of that.”
The Northern Virginia Urban League (NOVAUL), a community-outreach group, runs Freedom Housewhich housed, in the 19th century, one of the largest slave dealerships on the East Coastand uses part of its space to exhibit the work of African-American artists. When NOVAUL asked Torruella-Quander to create an exhibit about slavery to coincide with Black History Month, Torruella-Quander instead responded with “Freedom From Slavery,” choosing to show contemporary African life and the place, she says, where African-Americans came from and where they can look back to.
“There’s nothing sad about these paintings. There’s nothing sad about this building,” Torruella-Quander says. “It’s time those of us from the African diaspora started building positively on the negativity of slavery.” Dave Mann
“Freedom From Slavery” is on view at Freedom House until Saturday, April 7, when there will be a closing reception from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (703) 836-2858.