By Kelly Krieger

I recently visited Key Largo Art Gallery and met artist Carmen Sotolongo-Kelley. We talked a little about each artist and I enjoyed viewing a variety of styles that included works from 30 artists. Sotolongo-Kelley’s own work is vibrant, and represents her passion for life, love for people, and appreciation for the environment. By blending her experiences, travels, and education, we get to be a part of her personal journey through her paintings.

Sotolongo-Kelley and her family fled from Cuba to the United States in 1962. Her father was a doctor and mother a teacher with a doctorate in pedagogy while in Cuba, but, after relocating to the U.S., they had to go back to school to re-earn their degrees. With little money and only the clothing they were wearing, her parents spent years working odd jobs to support their family and rebuild a new life. Eventually her father earned his degree in medicine and her mother, a doctorate in education.

Humble beginnings provided Sotolongo-Kelley with a deeper appreciation for the simple things in life we can sometimes take for granted. She always enjoyed taking art classes as well as participating in art shows in middle and high school. She continued her education, combining her interests when she decided to major in art and social science, with a focus in oceanography.  While teaching at Florida Institute of Oceanography, she created the idea for an oceanography camp for girls at the University of South Florida Marine Science campus which recently celebrated its 25th year. This program offers many young girls the opportunity to study marine science who would normally not be able to do so. Over the years, she also taught in Pinellas and Lee Counties, and now teaches art at Coral Shores High School, where she was voted teacher of the year.

“I’m inspired daily to paint, and to share my journey as an artist with kids in my classroom,” she said. “I was lucky to have had amazing art teachers in middle school and high school who were graduates from Pratt Institute in New York. Ideas and creativity need to be nourished in school. I share my work with my students and paint to show them new techniques. My paintings are finished in my mind before I add the paint to the canvas. I try to share that enthusiasm. You paint or draw with your eyes and your hand is your tool. They need to connect.”

Statistics have shown over and over the importance of the arts through education and Carmen is a perfect example. “My favorite time of day is when I teach students with special needs,” she said. “It is so refreshing to see them enjoy the creations and projects they take home. This year students are grouped with the AP drawing classes and it’s a great combination. I believe art and music should always be part of the school curriculum. Creative minds need to be developed. They are the future musicians, architects, designers and artists. Even if they don’t go into the art field, its important to continue to do what you like. Art is beauty, it’s therapy for the soul.”

Sotolongo-Kelley is closely involved in her community and helping others. Whether it’s the Boys and Girls Club Miami Gala (November), The Purple Pumpkin Rett Gala, (October) or an event for the Marrvelous Pet Rescue and Cans Across the Keys, she will dedicate her time and talents to make a difference.

Sotolongo-Kelley has come a long way since she arrived in the United States as that 6-year-old girl who didn’t know what the future held. More than 50 years later, she has inspired her young students to look toward their future, embrace what makes them happy and follow their dreams.

Key Largo Art Gallery is located at 103200 Overseas Hwy. Key Largo, 305-451-0052.

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