'Just exquisite': Photographer brings Frida Kahlo to life in Wheaton exhibition

  • Photographer Miguel Morna Freitas pays tribute to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo with his portraits, now displayed in the offices of the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce. "This is a milestone for me, and I'm very proud," said Freitas, who left the corporate world four years ago to pursue photography.

    Photographer Miguel Morna Freitas pays tribute to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo with his portraits, now displayed in the offices of the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce. "This is a milestone for me, and I'm very proud," said Freitas, who left the corporate world four years ago to pursue photography. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • "I wanted to do something as a chamber member, and it just grew into this amazing collaboration, not just with chamber members but even people from Aurora and Chicago," photographer Miguel Morna Freitas says of his works on exhibit in the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce offices.

    "I wanted to do something as a chamber member, and it just grew into this amazing collaboration, not just with chamber members but even people from Aurora and Chicago," photographer Miguel Morna Freitas says of his works on exhibit in the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce offices. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Miguel Morna Freitas honored Frida Kahlo with a photography project.

    Miguel Morna Freitas honored Frida Kahlo with a photography project. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 8/6/2021 10:34 AM

Miguel Morna Freitas usually focuses his camera on movement: ballet dancers leaping midflight, gymnasts soaring through the air.

But for his photography exhibition, "a dream come true," Freitas wanted his subjects still, their gaze stoic and unblinking.

 

His striking portraits show young women of Mexican heritage, their hair braided and crowned with flowers in full bloom.

By now, you might have guessed they are channeling the beauty of artist Frida Kahlo.

"There are so many things you can focus on from her work," Freitas said. "I didn't want to focus on the politics. I wanted to celebrate color, life, all the hardships she went through. But she still created amazing work."

Freitas shot the Frida-inspired portraits for "Homage to Frida," an art show sponsored by the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce to coincide with the summerlong exhibition of Kahlo's paintings at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.

The "Homage" collection has turned the chamber's office walls into a gallery of works by students and staff from the college, Jade Nava, a Mexican-born artist from Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, Aurora artist Josue Paiz and other contributors.

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A reception will recognize the artists Friday night, an event that also ties in with the last "Frida Friday," a festival that's brought large crowds to the downtown.

Freitas' photography fills a room painted the cobalt blue shade of Kahlo's Casa Azul, her home in Coyoacán, outside Mexico City, until she died in 1954.

His photos capture three women -- Bianca Castrejon, Bianca Cahue and Anais Salinas -- who represented Kahlo down to her unibrow and bold red lip.

Models from Maria Bonita Modeling -- Bianca Castrejon, Bianca Cahue and Anais Salinas -- pose for photographer Miguel Morna Freitas.
Models from Maria Bonita Modeling -- Bianca Castrejon, Bianca Cahue and Anais Salinas -- pose for photographer Miguel Morna Freitas. - Courtesy of Miguel Morna Freitas
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"The models were just exquisite," Freitas said. "They were so wonderful to work with."

Freitas took it upon himself to pay tribute to Kahlo after attending a chamber lunch with Diana Martinez, the director of the McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage and the visionary behind the school's "Frida Kahlo: Timeless" exhibition.

"Once I commit to something, I go 110%," Freitas said.

That commitment proved infectious.

A host of volunteer collaborators joined Freitas in bringing his vision -- and Kahlo -- to life.

Lulú Hertenstein, a community engagement specialist for the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, helped him line up the locations for the photo shoot.

Hertenstein also connected him with Carolina Ocampo, founder and director of Maria Bonita Modeling Agency in Aurora, and ultimately his three subjects.

Colores Mexicanos, a store in Chicago, provided the wardrobe: rebozos, or the kind of shawls that Kahlo would drape around her shoulders in the style of Tehuanas, women from a matriarchal society in Mexico.

"It's all authentic handmade in Mexico, unique pieces that they sell here in Chicago in support of the artisans in Mexico," Freitas said.

The final touch? Elaborate floral headpieces arranged by Andrew's Garden, a florist in downtown Wheaton.

"Seven chamber members came together for one project," said Vickie Austin, president and CEO of the business group. "I've been a member 20 years, almost 20 years, and I've never seen anything where that momentum expanded not only to the chamber members but beyond."

The momentum culminated with a seven-hour shoot at the Danada and St. James forest preserves. Freitas shot over 600 images that hot day in June.

"It was a joyous day ... and one I will never forget just because of the spirit," he said. "Everyone wanted to be there."

He chose 15 out of the treasure trove of images for his exhibition, a turning point in a second career.

A native of the Portuguese island of Madeira, Freitas left a corporate job in software sales to pursue his passion for photography full-time about four years ago.

He now runs his own business with a portfolio of fine art, dance and family photography. The father of a professional dancer, Freitas specializes in audition shots.

"It's in my heart. I really feel it. I could not imagine going any other direction," Freitas said.

Visiting family in Portugal, he'll join the reception via Zoom.

But before he left, almost a month after his portraits went on display in Wheaton, Freitas' voice was still filled with emotion. His eyes were still filled with tears at the thought of his own in-person exhibit.

"This is a milestone," he said. "This is incredible."

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