After her mother died of cancer almost ten years ago, Bernadette Esperanza Torres says she experienced an awakening. Her mother was always working, always helping other people. She'd planned to take a vacation when she retired.
"When my mom was dying she was like, 'I guess I'll never retire,'" Torres remembers. "She would not even take a day off to go to the doctor to help herself."
The results of Torres' awakening now fill the space at Garcia Squared Contemporary, where, after years spent nurturing young art students and curating the work of others, Torres is having an art show of her own. It's her first solo show in Kansas City.
"This is the first time for me to see a whole room of all of me," she says.
It is work she loves, but it comes at a cost.
"Sometimes I feel as a teacher that I am giving so much and I get so drained. Sometimes I feel that they're sucking me dry," she says.
"I’m always facilitating and being the fairy godmother to other people’s stories. It’s all about other people. It’s all about everybody else."
Lately, Torres says, she's been carving out time to create her own art.
At Garcia Squared Contemporary, her colorful finches nest in vanity drawers, and resplendent mounds of ceramic flowers and curvy, voluptuous women emerge from bouquets.
"My figures do have the rolls, they do have the bellies," says Torres. "They are very sensual. I feel they are very soft and feminine and yet strong."
Her mother's experience inspired Torres to create with new energy. "The Other Side of her Life," from 2011, is a large, handbuilt figurative work in clay. Conjoined mother and daughter stand together bedecked with flowers and birds. The daughter looks downward in grief, while the mother leans over her protectively.
Each of Torres' large-scale sculptural pieces takes six months to complete. She fires them in a kiln multiple times in the process of adding color and gold luster. At any point, success can turn to failure when a glaze drips or a figure cracks or even explodes.
"It is pain and then excitement," says Torres. "I haven’t given birth, but this is my blood and my sweat and they have a life of their own after me."
It's an arduous process but Torres says working in clay is a way to tell her own story.
"People, plants and dinosaurs is what clay is made out of," says Torres. "I feel that I am manipulating it and adding my story and translating the clay back to people."
Israel Garcia, who has run Garcia Squared Contemporary for the last seven years, says he has much in common with Torres, both as a gallery director and an artist. He says hosting this new show was a way to help her spread her wings.
"I really wanted to wanted to make sure that her personality came across with her body of work and when you stepped into the gallery that it was Bernadette and only Bernadette," says Garcia. "We wanted to make sure that this white box became her playground. Whenever she hits a wall, I’m here to help her move forward."
But if she didn't find a way for her work to help another artist, it wouldn't be Torres. That's why she has donated one of her ceramic sculptures to be raffled. Each ticket will cost $20, with proceeds benefitting Garcia's new moving art exhibit, "Bordes Carnosos/Border Carnage," which will travel around Kansas City showcasing archival photographs and artwork that explore the immigrant experience past, present and future.
Torres says she sees the raffle as helping all involved.
"The great thing is that somebody who loves the piece will actually get to own it for $20," says Torres. "It could be exciting for that first collector. I feel good about that."
Bernadette Esperanza Torres' "Reflections of Hope" opens with a First Friday reception June 7 and continues through October 18 at Garcia Squared Contemporary, on the second floor of the Bauer Building, 115 West 18th Street, Kansas City, Missouri 64108.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.