By Eleanor Cecconi
Miami artist and HIV/AIDS counselor EmilioAponte-Sierra gives me a tour of his elegant Bal Harbour apartment, telling me the details of the extensive renovation just completed. His heavily-accented voice is soothing and combined with the cool colors on the walls, it is easy to see why his specialized method of art therapy, counseling using art, is such a success at the PRIDE Center at Equality Park in Broward County. Aponte-Sierra serves at PRIDE as the coordinator of RESPECT, an Effective Behavioral Intervention and individual client-focused HIV prevention counseling program funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Aponte-Sierra grew up amidst the tiny Caribbean villages of Colombia, but brought his love of the arts and glamorous theatrical visions to Miami Beach about ten years ago. I first met Aponte-Sierra at a Miami Fashion’s Night Out event at the trendy LMNT Gallery in midtown. Aponte-Sierra was displaying pieces from his “Catwalk Collection” throughout the gallery, but he had also engineered and designed the catwalk for the Emporio dei Giovani couture fashion show. “I have been wanting to infiltrate the Miami fashion scene for a long time,” says Aponte-Sierra about the gig. “I’ve been working as a guidance counselor and using my art to benefit local charities while expressing myself. I’ve been so interested in design and theatrical productions throughout my life that a transition into collaborating with fashion houses is a natural step.”
At this stage of his career, Aponte-Sierra is known for his local gallery exhibitions, such as that at the PRIDE Center, ArtServe, and LMNT, so many would be surprised to discover Aponte-Sierra’s formal education was in Fishing Engineering. Studying at the University of Magdalena in Santa Marta, Colombia on a theater scholarship, Aponte was interested in how to marry sustainable fishing and agriculture with the needs of the local Colombian village people.
Part of Aponte’s educational program was field research and on-site projects, which would require interaction with the locals. Aponte tells me it was at this point that he began building invaluable communication skills that would one day contribute to his successful approach to counseling using Art. “Many people think, ‘How did an education in fishing engineering prepare you to be a counselor?’ While this is true, it wasn’t such a sudden switch of careers. The process was slow, organic, and natural. I began working with village people for environmental and sustainable development projects at Fundación Pro-Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta -FPSN, and it was at this time I realized I had a gift when it came to communicating with people. Talking to them, listening to them, figuring out their needs- the educational experience was almost sociological in that way.”
FPSN is a Colombian nonprofit organization established in 1986 to seek alternative solutions to the degradation of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and improve the lives of its inhabitants. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, declared as a “Man and Biosphere Reserve” by UNESCO, is the world’s highest coastal peak and contains examples of all of the climatic zones that can be found in the tropical Americas.
Sierra-Aponte Aponte-Sierra moved to Miami in the early 2000s, and it was upon meeting a friend who was involved with local HIV/AIDS education and prevention activism that Aponte first came to work with victims of the virus. “At first, a friend of mine asked me to help him work with Latinos with HIV because he could not speak Spanish and as a fluent Spanish-speaker I was helpful for translation. It was at this time I began accompanying him on his activism work, and was involved only in a secondhand way. This same friend was instrumental in helping me see that I wasn’t just translating, but was actually beginning to help and counsel people in my own way. After my involvement grew into more than just helping a friend or even a hobby, I realized this communication with people was extremely important to me. It was at this time I decided to pursue my Master’s degree in counseling. From that point on, I did not look back.”
Despite furthering his education with psychology, Aponte-Sierra has always identified himself as an artist. His interest for the Visual Arts started when Colombian Artist Nohora Parra Leyton introduced him to the world of painting in 1981 at the National Loperena School. During his adolescent years Aponte was involved with theater- specifically Grotosky and Stanislavski School. “I was always very dramatic and interested in acting. I continued acting through my college years. In fact, it was being involved with the theater that led me deeper into the visual arts. When I wasn’t rehearsing or on stage, I was helping create stage settings, backdrops, painting scenery, and working on the general artistic direction of whichever production I was in at the time.” Not only was Aponte-Sierra introduced to painting in this way, but it was at this point that he fell in love with the creation of masks- a visual thread that runs through his body of artwork to this day.
Aponte-Sierra’s “Catwalk Collection,” a variety of women carrying handbags and wearing vibrant shoes, was created by the artist’s unique method of weaving together pages from colorful and diverse magazines and news publications. “The colors and different photographs create a texture that is something I love- the energy can not be created in quite the same way using paint and ink.” Recycling materials is also important to the artist. “Everyone needs to change their behavior in some way. We need to use our already existing materials to transform or change our world into something beautiful. This is why I use newspaper, cardboard, and plastic in my work.”
The artist does not discount these more traditional mediums. Pieces from Aponte-Sierra’s “MOON” collection and “RIBBON” collection were created using ink and paint on canvas. When viewing the MOON pieces, it is clear they were inspired by Miami’s mysterious and sultry nights. The RIBBON collection is a graphic and emotional series, utilizing the colors black, red, and white to express a variety of feelings regarding disease, knowledge, regrets, and choices one must make.
Aponte-Sierra is most proud of his RIBBON collection because the images are utilized in his counseling sessions at the PRIDE center. “Clients sit in the waiting room and view my works. Frequently when they come into my office, they mention the works of art they looked at. If not, I will ask them if they noticed the pieces and what they thought. People infected with HIV, or living high-risk lifestyles, frequently bottle up their emotions because the disease is so taboo. Discussing my images, related-to and inspired by the HIV infection which is such a problem in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, is a great way to get these suppressed personalities to open up. I love that my art makes people feel comfortable and helps them realize feelings they couldn’t acknowledge otherwise.”
While still in the process of obtaining his US citizenship, Aponte-Sierra is not free to travel back to Colombia. But as soon as he can, the artist has global plans. “I want to bring my ideas for counseling, art therapy and the RIBBON project to Colombia, where access to education about HIV and AIDS is very limited for high-risk individuals. I am working on other series’ for a variety of diseases, including breast cancer.”
Aponte-Sierra’s poignant body of work gives life to the old saying that a picture speaks a thousand words. I leave his elegant and spacious apartment feeling hopeful because, even if it is one painting at a time, talented individuals like Aponte-Sierra are finding innovative ways every day to make a difference in their community.