The first time someone praised a landscape painting Robert Montesino made, he shuddered, stifling an uncomfortable surge of pleasure he hadn't let himself feel since 2007, when his father and younger brother died two months apart.
Montesino gave the painting to its admirer, thinking nothing of its value, and thinking only how swabbing a brush against canvas somehow beat back chronic depression, thoughts of suicide and what he calls "a general feeling of deep-rooted sadness."
"I've lost so many people. For reasons I can't explain, my life was spared. Why them and not me?" says Montesino, 64, of Hollywood.
The question bothered Montesino in 2008, when he first walked into Rebel's Drop-In Center in Hollywood, a clinic that treats people dealing with mental-health and substance-abuse issues. And it still bothers him now, as his landscape paintings go on display at the Broward County Main Library, which on Tuesday will open the group exhibit "Hispanic Artists From NAEMI's Permanent Collection," a collection of works by six self-taught artists with mental illness.
His younger brother and father weren't the first losses in Montesino's life. That distinction belonged to his unborn baby, who died six months into his wife's pregnancy when the couple lived in the countryside near Tallahassee. His wife committed suicide shortly after. Then, his younger brother and father died, both from cancer, which he says, "finally broke something inside me."
Now retired from a career at a Miami state correctional facility, Montesino takes care of his 88-year-old mother, who has dementia, and his granddaughter. He paints in art-therapy classes at Rebel's: landscapes filled with stately redwood and oak trees with broad trunks that dominate the foreground.
"It's good therapy. It's good medicine. Medications didn't help. The magic bullet for me was art," Montesino says of his paintings. "I'm a tree hugger from way back. When I was a kid, I climbed trees and I liked looking out at open spaces. I guess it takes me back to my childhood, when things weren't so complicated. But it's also me expressing the beauty of God's creation. Regardless of whether I got paid for it, it will always be a tool for me to deal with depression issues."
Montesino's work was discovered last year by Juan Martin, the Cuban-born founder of the National Art Exhibitions by the Mentally Ill. Martin, who created the nonprofit in 1988, collects and displays so-called "outsider art," works from artists living with physical and mental issues, such as autism, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Montesino's relationship with art is a story Martin encounters often through NAEMI. He has collected more than 1,200 outsider artworks, all of which clog up his four-bedroom Hollywood house ("even our bedroom, which my wife hates," he says), and are painted by people in recovery from mental illness.
"A lot of them don't care if they sell work. They are in their own worlds," says Martin, who discovers the artists, many Hispanic, around South Florida, Cuba and South America. "They do it to express themselves."
Accompanying Montesino's art at the Main Library are works by one of Martin's newest NAEMI finds, Misleidys Castillo, a Cuban artist he says lives in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana with her caretaker mother and younger brother, a medical student. Martin doesn't like talking about each artist's diagnosis, but one NAEMI catalog printed for the show describes Castillo as "born with brain, hearing and autistic impediments."
Martin, who has dual citizenship, found Castillo through a Havana gallery. He was struck immediately by the 29-year-old artist's tempura paintings, which depict men with bodybuilder physiques and cartoonishly large muscles, all wearing women's lace panties.
"At first, I thought someone was fooling me. The quality was so good," Martin recalls. "She has no formal training, nothing. I don't care if she is mentally ill or living in the street. She is a true artist."
An opening reception for "Hispanic Artists From NAEMI's Permanent Collection" will open 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 4, at Gallery 6 at Broward County Main Library, 100 S. Andrews Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. The exhibit will close Sept. 26. Admission is free. Call 954-922-8692 or like NAEMI on Facebook.