Colombian-American artist Eduardo Gomez-Rojas shares his passion for sculpting with Martin County and beyond
JENSEN BEACH – Since 1988, the United States has celebrated National Hispanic Heritage Month from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 to pay homage to the success of Hispanics who immigrated from Spain and the Spanish-speaking nations of the Americas and the Caribbean searching for a better way of life. Colombian-American sculptor Eduardo Gomez Rojas found both his American Dream and the love of his life upon immigrating from Bogota to Wisconsin more than half a century ago.
A native of Bogota, Mr. Gomez was a freshman at the Universidad de los Andes in that South American metropolis when an American girl named Sheila McCormick caught his eye. In the late 1960s, the third generation Irish-American was majoring in psychology at the historic private university founded by a group of Colombian intellectuals in 1948. When she returned to the states in 1969, her love-struck schoolmate followed along in her wake to the University of Wisconsin. The two married the following year, and the rest is romantic artistic history.
Now a resident artist in Jensen Beach who has taught sculpture at the Lighthouse Art Center in Tequesta for the last 12 years, Mr. Gomez had no idea he would become an artist upon his arrival in the United States. He initially majored in economics and earned his first bachelor’s degree in that field while first dabbling in art at UW. He attributes that initial bent toward sculpture to an aunt in his native Colombia who took him as a child to meet a friend of hers who was an artist.
“The sculptress was creating an image of the Blessed Mother in clay,” he recalls. “I was amazed at how this could be done. I felt draw to her work and wished that one day I could do that also. Ever since that day, I have felt something tug at me in the direction of sculpture. As an undergraduate student, I took various art classes – including sculpture – and carved my first sculpture out of a block of alabaster.”
Those initial experiences sealed his destiny as an artist, but the fact he then had two toddlers – Nicola Sheila and Pablo Ignacio – forced him to take odd jobs to support his growing family. Even so, he simultaneously attended night classes at the University of Arkansas where he earned a second bachelor’s degree in that field as well.
“A couple of years after my B.A. in Economics, I did obtain a master’s degree in social work from The University of Wisconsin,” he added. “That was around the time we lost our oldest daughter to cancer. I then had to work in many different jobs and various enterprises to support my family.”
After their little girl died, the couple moved with Pablo and his younger sister Alexie Maria to Colombia to help the burgeoning artist’s father out in a family business. After living there for six years, they returned to Arkansas in 1984, where they finished raising their children, both of whom are now married with families of their own. During that time, Mr. Gomez simultaneously produced art and operated his own coffee-roasting company.
Alexie eventually married and moved with her family to the West Palm Beach area, which served as the impetus for the couple to relocate to Florida in 2006. They now have nine grandchildren and one great grandchild, all of whom have been brought up to cherish their multiculturalism. The Gomez family ensured that by making regular return visits to Colombia when their children were growing up.
“We used to send them to visit their grandparents during the summer months so they would stay in touch with their extended family and culture,” Mr. Gomez said.
One of the artist’s favorite memories of his Colombian childhood was spending time on the family farm near the hamlet of Pantano de Vargas in the State of Boyacá, about two-and-a-half hours northeast of Bogota. He’s now continuing that legacy and making memories with his grandchildren, who occasionally accompany him on horseback riding excursions on the same family farm. Of course, Colombian cuisine is part of that heritage, and the couple regularly prepare bistec a caballo (skirt steak prepared with a tomato and onion sauce and topped with a fried egg), pan de yuca (yuca bread) and of course, the famous Colombian cheese bread known as pan de bono. One of Mr. Gomez’ favorite Colombian foods is the arepa, which is simply a thick corn meal cake served with fresh white cheese and a variety of other toppings.
Nowadays when not teaching sculpture in Tequesta or spending time with his grandchildren, Mr. Gomez can be found in his Jensen Beach studio working on his craft, where the public is invited to visit by appointment. There he sculpts in a variety of media ranging from ceramics and carved stone to cast bronze and cold-cast materials like bonded marble and bonded metal. He also invented what he refers to as a halo sculpture, which is a sculpture that includes LED lighting cast into the sculpture itself. One of his most recent sculptures, however, is one dedicated to the loss of their first child.
“My latest sculpture, finished only a couple of weeks ago, is actually carved out of a block of Portuguese Estremoz marble that I purchased from the widow of a fellow sculptor who died a few years ago,” he explained. “The title of the piece is Mountain of Grief and it’s a personal memorial sculpture. It had been in my head for 48 years since we lost Nicola to cancer. It depicts the very deep grief my wife and I felt over this loss. It took me over six months to carve it, and I found the hard work somehow therapeutic.”
Aside from visiting his studio or viewing his online catalogue, Martin County residents can view two of his public sculptures in Stuart’s Memorial Park: Unconditional, a bronze bas-relief depicting a female soldier and her young child, and Above and Beyond, a sculpture of two male hands holding the folded American flag against the heart. St. Lucie County residents can view his creation titled 38th Parallel at Veterans Memorial Park in Port St. Lucie.
The roots of National Hispanic Heritage Month actually lie with President Lyndon Johnson, who first inaugurated Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968. Two decades later, President Ronald Reagan expanded the celebration to cover a 30-day period running between mid-September and mid-October. The celebration was formally codified into law on Aug. 17, 1988.
For the last several years, the National Council of Hispanic Employment Program Managers has held an annual competition beginning in February to choose a theme for each year’s Hispanic Heritage Month. This year’s winning theme, Unidos: Inclusivity for a Stronger Nation, was submitted by Ily Soares, a supervisory accountant with the Virginia-based Farm Credit Administration.
“Hispanics in the United States are a diverse group who bring a rich combination of language, culture, educational backgrounds and experience to the great American experiment,” she wrote as part of her contest submittal. “We call on citizens of this nation from all walks of life to look around and welcome new voices to the table. This will help us build stronger communities, and in turn, a stronger nation.”
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