El Salvador’s capital city, San Salvador, is home to a strong bohemian culture little known in the United States. Painters, writers, dancers, and poets flock to the metropolis, providing a rich and vibrant cultural life for their entire country. Karla Cecelia Cortez Rodas, known as Karlisima, spent her early years in this San Salvadoran milieu, where she was provided with the opportunity to nurture her artistic spirit and abilities from a very young age. Karlisima’s mother, Mayamerica Cortez, is a well-known poet in the Salvadoran expatriate community in the United States. Best known for her English-language book Indigenous Lament, Cortez longed to be a painter and passed many of her dreams down to her middle child.
Karlisima began private studio instruction at age 8 and continued until she turned 14, at which point the family moved to Annandale, Va., to escape the civil war in El Salvador. Struggling to learn English and succeed in high school, Karlisima abandoned her artistic training. Then a teacher noticed her drawing Valentine’s Day cards for classmates during her junior year and suggested that she return to formal study.
That year, Karlisima was reunited with her muse and her dream of being a painter. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in art from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., before returning to the East Coast. She moved to D.C. in the early ’90s, and since then, her work has been featured in several group shows—such as the highly acclaimed “Women of the World” tour (and subsequent book)—in advertising campaigns, and on murals in restaurants around the city, including Lauriol Plaza, Café #Atlantico, and Luigi’s.
Karlisima’s latest show, “Suns: Mayan-Modern,” on view starting Sept. 1 at the Espacio Cultural Salvadoreño in Dupont Circle, marks the beginning of a season of Karlisima. During the next few months her work will be featured at the Centro de Arte, Adams Morgan Day, the Washington Hispanic Festival, and the Organization of American States.
Karlisima considers her talent a “gift” and the exposure “a blessing,” and looks forward to shattering the stereotypes of Salvadoran immigrants as uncultured and unrefined. She believes that art is the great “unifying principle” between people of different nationalities,—and that her life mission is to share passion for art as a way of fostering intercultural understanding.
In her work, Karlisima displays a preference for vibrant reds, blues, and yellows. Unflinchingly proud of her Mayan heritage, she fuses ancient symbols—sundials, floras Izotes, and corn husks—with modern influences ranging from Camille Claudel to Vincent Van Gogh. Karlisima, a deeply spiritual person, deftly mixes the reverent and the representational in her work. In Santo, Santo, Santo, Biblical hymns painted in a style similar to Islamic calligraphy metamorphose into human faces. In other pieces, there is a sense—either invoked or illustrated—of prayer and meditation. In the show’s signature piece, Sol Radiante, a prominent sun illuminates the cosmos, providing, Karlisima says, enlightenment, nourishment, healing, and energy.
In her undergraduate days, a classmate began calling her Karlisima while learning the English language. The Spanish suffix -isima means “very” or “the most,” and that makes the meaning of “Karlisima,” “the most Karla.” The name stuck, and in many ways, Karlisima’s work lives up to the superlative of her name. —Maori Karmael Holmes