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Yajaira Surrett: Stained glass & mosaic artist

By Carolyn Males

The light glints off the vertical bands of yellow, red and blue chunks of glass and the mirrored strips that boldly spell out VENEZUELA. I’m standing here in Ridgeland at the Morris Center for Lowcountry Heritage, mesmerized by artist Yajaira Surrett’s personal version of her native country’s flag. The reflections bouncing off the mosaic’s irregular surface enhance its color and dimensionality.

“My Venezuelan Flag” and Surrett’s other stained-glass and glass mosaics are part of the center’s current show featuring four Latinx artists: Jesse Aguirre, Luz Celeste Figueroa, Nathalia Celeste Roca and Yajaira Surrett. The show’s title VeMe takes its name from the first two letters of their home countries, Venezuela and Mexico. But it’s also a clever take on the Spanish words for “See Me,” a theme that plays out in their works as they explore their identities and relationships to the Lowcountry.

As I wander through the gallery taking in Surrett’s subjects –– palmettos, mermaid, sea goddess, turtles, flowers, birds –– it’s clear she sees the world through prisms of color, texture and shape. It’s a view I will learn more about a few days later when she recounts her artistic journey from Caracas to California and beyond on her way to the Lowcountry.

[Q] You began your career as an architect in Venezuela.

[Yajaira Surrett] When I was young, I always dreamed of living in a huge house. I wasn’t rich and I wasn’t poor, but my mother told me, “You need to think big. I want you to have everything I couldn’t give you. And the only thing I can give you is education.” So I said I want to be an architect. My brother and sister shook their heads and said, “Hmmm. I don’t think so.” But I said I’m going to. And I did it. I went to the University of Venezuela and got my degree in architecture. Then I worked in Caracas as an architect, but only for one year because I met my husband who was there at the American Embassy. After we moved to California, I worked for an architectural firm that focused on commercial work.

[Q] Caracas has beautiful old churches. Did that awaken you to the possibilities of stained glass?

[YS] Over the years we lived in many different places, but in 2010 my husband was transferred to Oahu to work on military housing. I’d quit my job when we’d moved from California, so I had nothing to do and was getting bored. Then I saw a notice in the base newspaper about a class in stained glass. But I was the only one who signed up, and it was canceled. So I got the name of the teacher and took private lessons at his studio. He was retired Navy and when he was ready to go back to the mainland, he asked, “Do you want the studio?” I said, no because we weren’t going to stay in Hawaii. But then what was I going to do with all those jars of glass that I’d paid for? That’s when he told me about mosaics, so I started doing that as well.

[Q] But you’re primarily self-taught?

[YS] Yes. I already knew the basics. If you asked me, “Yajaira, can you teach me how to play chess?” I can teach you how to move the pieces, but after that you have to figure out how to kill the king and queen. My glass teacher in Hawaii said, “I’m giving you the tools, but then you’ve got to start using your imagination.” So I continued educating myself by watching videos.

[Q] I see from the VeMe show that nature is your favorite subject.

[YS] Exactly. One of the first pieces I made in Hawaii was a bird of paradise flower. Then when we moved to Beaufort in 2013, I began working on pieces related to Lowcountry nature, like live oaks, palmettos, blue herons, sea turtles.

[Q] Those two torsos of Maria Guevara, one adorned with shells and the other with sea-colored glass, remind me of mermaids rising from the waves.

[YS] Everybody who visits Margarita Island, off the coast of Venezuela, goes to see Tetas de Maria Guevara. Guevara, who had owned all this area during the War of Independence, was La Patrona, the boss of all these fishermen who’d used these famous twin mountains as landmarks. I made two different busts because I wanted people to see and admire the same project done in different materials.

[Q] Glass work is messy and can be hazardous—all those shards from cutting.
[YS] My studio is in our two-car garage. My husband’s antique car is on one side. On the other, he built me cabinets where I’ve organized all my glass and art pieces. My tools hang on the wall, and I have a big table for my cutting and crushing.

I draw my design first. Then I put it on the glass, trace and cut it. Glass can have different thicknesses. I don’t like when the glass is too thin because you just look at it and it breaks. Then I go “Oh, Yajaira, no more breaking glass. Let’s make a different shape…” When I finish working, I vacuum everything.

[Q] You’re also a plan examiner and a building inspector for the Town of Hilton Head. How do you fit your artwork into your schedule?
[YS] When I come home from work, I change my clothes and go into the garage and do some work until it’s time to cook dinner. I also work in my studio on weekends. I like to have on soft music, like Beethoven or Mozart, or no music at all. But sometimes my husband puts the radio on. Then when he goes away to the other side of the house, I turn it low, but when it’s nice crazy music, I play it loud. He sees me dancing and he says, “Are you working or are you dancing?”

The answer? Both.

See More:
VeMe runs through January 22 at the Morris Center for Lowcountry Heritage. The exhibition is a partnership between the Morris Center and Palmetto Luna Arts.