From Cuba with Love: Meet Painter Elena Maza Borkland

Written by Artie The Panda

Elena Maza Borkland was 13 years old when she fled Cuba with her two sisters in a political exodus known as “Operation Pedro Pan.” Although she settled near Washington, D.C., her grandfather’s tropical fruit trees back in Cuba would later inspire a passion for sketching and painting flowers and plants.

A Penchant for Details

Elena didn’t study art until after college. And it wasn’t until she had worked for an architect and an electrical engineer that she embraced plein air painting. It’s easy to trace a line from the disciplines of architecture and engineering to the delicate intricacy of Elena’s work. The minutiae matter to her.

A Passion for Beauty

From angel trumpets to flame azaleas, Elena depicts not just the natural beauty she finds while exploring, but the blooms she grows in her own garden. The watercolor work we feature here is titled “American Wisteria.” This native American genus of Wisteria was named “2021 Plant of the Year” by the Virginia Native Plant Society, and the society asked Elena for a rush illustration using a photo reference. But we shouldn’t be surprised if she’s now growing a real-life specimen in her garden.

See More of Elena’s Work

You can enjoy Elena’s collections of botanical and landscape paintings via her online portfolio. Follow the seasonal progression of her personal garden and works of art through a blog she calls Maza Studio. Elena also exhibits at Cottage Curator in Sperryville, Virginia. And if you’d like to read about her life, check out her biography, Embracing America: A Cuban Exile Comes of Age. Below, my Q&A gives you a peek into her official “motto,” her latest medium, and the mystery tool that helps keep the edges of her artwork clean.

Now for Artie’s Eight Q&A with Elena Maza Borkland …

1. What is your background; how did you get started?
I was born in Havana, Cuba, and have drawn and painted since early childhood, inspired by the nature that surrounded me. I came to the U.S. in 1961 at age 13 in the company of two sisters, all of us minors. We were fleeing from Castro's regime through what later became known as “Operation Pedro Pan.” My sisters and I lived with foster families in Albuquerque, New Mexico, until my parents were able to leave and reclaim us. We were reunited in Arlington, Virginia, and lived in the Washington, D.C., area. My parents encouraged me to study art in college, but I was afraid I wouldn't be able to make a living as an artist. I didn't want to be a burden to them, so I majored in architecture. (My father was an architect.) My heart was not in it, and I dropped out before earning a degree. I started working in an architect's office, doing art in my spare time as an antidote to the constraints of my job. After a few years I got a temp job in an electrical engineer's office. During my 15 years there, I learned about electrical design and business in general. I also started taking classes at art centers and meeting other artists until I felt confident enough to enter juried shows. Taking a sabbatical from work, I attended classes at the Corcoran School of Art. I also joined a women's art group, learning about the art business from more experienced members. My first solo show was at a gallery in Georgetown, and I continued developing my resume, participating in group shows. As the volunteer exhibitions chair for the women's group, I learned how to write proposals and develop connections. In 1999, I attended my first art residency in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and have since completed seven other residencies. I've always loved plants and gardening, and in 2011 I took a botanical art course at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland, a lovely botanical garden where I've painted plein air watercolors. Brookside was offering a certificate program at the time, and I signed up for a four-year program, earning my certificate in 2015. Since then I have joined the American Society of Botanical Artists (ASBA). I serve as Treasurer and Exhibitions Chair for their local chapter, the Botanical Artist Society of the National Capital Region (BASNCR).

2. What role do you think the artist plays in society?
I believe the visual artist's role is to create images that inspire everyone to observe the beauty all around us. The artist can give a voice to those who don't feel they can articulate what they sense or intuit. "Good art gives heart" is my motto.

3. What has been a formative experience or the best advice you’ve received within your career?
An elderly professor asked me what I wanted to do with my art. I told him I was waiting to be financially secure enough to dedicate myself to doing art full-time. He asked my age, and when I told him I was 40, he responded rather sharply: "Well, don't wait anymore, or you'll find the opportunity has passed you by." That lit a fire under me! After talking to my husband about it, I quit my job. We struggled financially for a time, but leaving my job opened a door that eventually led to my first solo show in a prestigious gallery. Later I had to go back to my day job, but by that time I had learned how to juggle my art with my job.

4. What ways does your work reflect your personality?
As a child in Cuba, my grandfather had a yard full of tropical fruit trees. Being a tomboy, I loved to climb trees, and became fascinated with how the different flowers grew into ripening fruit. I developed a scientific curiosity about plants and nature which has stayed with me. Painting landscapes was a natural extension of my travels to the beautiful countryside where my parents took us on vacations, and I sketched the landscapes, flowers, and creatures we saw. As a mature artist, I still rely on the inspiration of being outdoors and painting in the field, whether it is plein air landscapes or plants.

5. Creative blocks, do you get them? If so, how do you overcome them?
Yes, I'm going through one right now. I try to overcome these periods by doing “homework" — drawings that may not be particularly inspiring, but help me just to keep drawing. I often go out to my garden to do some chores or putter, and I may see something that gives me an idea for a piece. I also look through my files of photos to see if I can find a subject. If weather permits, I may go out for a hike.

6. What is your most indispensable tool? (Not counting the obvious, like paints, brushes, canvas, camera, etc.)
A magnifying glass, to look at the botanical details of my subjects as well as my paintings. Clean edges are a must with botanical art, so I often work looking through my magnifier.

7. Do you have a new project you are working on, or a new passionate idea?
Generally I work with watercolor, but this year I'm starting to exploring a new medium — egg tempera. I tried this medium in a class many years ago, and seeing the work of some ASBA members who are now working with egg tempera, I'm curious to see if this medium will be suitable for me with botanical subjects.

8. What is your favorite paint color name?
Brilliant Blue Violet.

Elena Maza Borkland: botanical painter

All artwork and/or photographs used in this post are subject to copyright held by the featured artist.

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Last Updated July 1, 2021

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