Nora Chavez is drawing circles today.
Using her pencil, she scratches them heavily in rows onto a canvas painted pink. Pink is Chavez’ favorite color. Purple too. She likes circles. And pretty much everything around her.
“I like flowers. I like hearts. I like birds. I like people,” Chavez says.
She taps her heart and smiles so broadly it takes over her entire face.
“I love art. It makes me happy. Birds make my heart happy.”
Born in Mexico 37 years ago, Chavez came to Petaluma with her family when she was 13. The family was initially drawn here for her father’s work — he found jobs at local dairies and in the agricultural fields of Sonoma County. But perhaps more importantly, Petaluma was able to provide Chavez with more services than her native country.
In Mexico, according to Nora’s sister, Elisa Rivera, children with Downs Syndrome, like Nora, have no place in school. But here, she was able to attend a special program at Rancho Cotate high school, and eventually found Petaluma’s Alchemia Gallery and Studio, which gives adults with developmental disabilities the opportunity to create and display art.
The youngest of 13 children, Chavez has always loved art. Her sister Elisa is the oldest of the siblings — there are 9 brothers and 4 sisters in her tightknit family. Whenever Nora’s birthday rolls around, she has only one wish for gifts: “Color,” her word for art supplies.
These days, Chavez spends most of her days at Alchemia, working on various art projects. Artistically, she has gone through many phases. Liz Jahren, Alchemia’s artistic director for 12 years, notes that, though her organization works with over 100 artists in its three centers, Chavez has always stood out.
“Nora has been one of our most prolific artists over the years,” says a bustling Jahren, pulling colorful canvases from the back of her white van. Among Chavez’s many phases as an artist, she’s created a number of paintings inspired by the folk traditions of her native Mexico. She’s clearly been fascinated with animal lore. And angels. Her paintings of angels are intricate and colorful. They often feature some of her other favorite things: birds and flowers.
Jahren thinks Chavez’s interest in painting angels springs from family discussions.
“Nora is Catholic and goes to church every Sunday,” Chavez says. “Because she is from a large family and people pass away, there is a lot of discussion about angels. But also, there was a period of time when she would go to the library and check out books, and for a while, those books were mostly about angels.”
Lupita C.A. facilitates printmaking at Alchemia.
“The first time I met Nora, she told me that she loved me,” Lupita recalls. “She becomes very dramatic and passionate. She speaks with conviction.”
You can see the two are close. Lupita helps translate for Chavez, and they often get sidetracked in discussions about Selena, Nora’s favorite singer, and various friends of Nora’s from Alchemia.
Another of Chavez’s fans is Cheryl Tevens, an Independent Skills for Living instructor. For the past three years, she has spent two days a week with Chavez.
“She’s this amazing woman that, with Downs Syndrome, speaks Spanish and English,” Tevens said. “She has a great love for life and she really enjoys people. She is the most loving person. She gets really close to people very fast, because she has this wonderful heart and she wants to be your friend.”