When Cynthia Diaz looks at the animals that make their home in the Everglades, she sees swirls of yellow, brown, blue, red and indigo.
These are the eyes of her subjects, or how she interprets them. Eyes of wild hogs, red foxes, iguanas, sandhill cranes, alligators, Burmese pythons, red-shouldered hawks, white-tailed deer, cottonmouth water moccasins — even the Florida panther.
They all come to life in rich, vivid hues, painted by Diaz on polished wood panels. Her work is being featured at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center Gallery at Everglades National Park, with an opening reception on Saturday.
Diaz, 26, gets to see many of the animals closeup and personal, as she is a tour guide at Shark Valley at the park. In her two years of working there, the Miami native has photographed many of the animals.
“I’ve actually seen alligators eating Burmese pythons twice,” she says, talking about the deadly competition between native and invasive species.
Shortly after she began working there, she showed an out-of-town conservationist a photo on her cell phone of an alligator eye she had painted on a ceramic tile. He had asked her about her hobbies, and wound up purchasing the tile, along with three others.
That made her realize that she could go further with her hobby.
“I’ve seen most of these animals while working – with the exception of the Florida panther and the Skunk Ape – a mythical creature, probably Bigfoot’s cousin,” she says.
Diaz mostly photographs from a distance, zooming in on their eyes. She also uses shots from a wildlife photographer friend, images from bird books, and sometimes online photos to capture the details for when she paints, which she does on her days off. Her colorful close-ups of irises and pupils surrounded by scales, fur, or feathers keep visitors guessing.
Before working as a tour guide she had worked as a cashier at Publix but demoted herself to a bag girl so she could spend more time outside.
“I can’t be inside,” she says.
While taking bike rides through Shark Valley she “fell in love with its peacefulness.” And when she met an Everglades tour guide at Publix, she told him how she though his job was “so cool.” He told her the park was hiring for tour guides and she should apply.
“Every white bird was just another white bird. It really wasn’t until I started working here that I cared,” she said.
Today, she’s quite the bird expert.
“That’s a double-crested cormorant,” she exclaims, pointing to one of her more colorful paintings. “They develop blue crests around their eyes when they’re in breeding season – they look like jewels.’’
She talks about the importance of preserving the animals’ natural habitat. “I feel that by looking into the eyes of animals, that people may be more able to feel some compassion for them – and care more – by seeing their expressions through their eyes.”
Her first memories of drawing come from her childhood. “I probably got into art after seeing my dad draw this little man behind a wall; my grandma would also draw a little house and I would always replicate it… and I would also watch Bob Ross paint on TV.”
She took an art class in the sixth grade but didn’t like the teacher and shied away from taking any more art classes until high school. While attending Felix Varela Senior High, she was in the Art Academy for the 10th, 11th and 12th grades while studying nursing.
Diaz credits her visual thinking art class and teacher, Gretchen Sharnagl, at Florida International University for helping her develop her artistic identity. Sharnagl required her students to follow a theme and interpret it.
“What I remember about Cynthia is that she saw the detail in a subject,’’ Sharnagl said. “She would cull down a subject to one or two objects to tell the story. By doing so her works of art seemed more loaded, more potent than you would expect from the thing depicted.
“She is a keen observer. This is evident in her latest work that shows only a single eye from many individuals found in the Everglades, at once familiar and mysterious — environmental, mythic, and psychological.”
Diaz graduated from FIU with a bachelor’s degree in art and art history.
During Art Basel 2012, Diaz displayed four of her paintings at Wynwood’s Hangar Gallery. But with so few pieces to show, it didn’t have the connection she was hoping for.
“I thought maybe if I did a whole bunch more then – BAM! – it would have an impact,” she said.
Over the next 14 months, painting at her dining room table, her 40-piece collection became whole.
Diaz’s friend and coworker, Katy Dimos, a professional photographer, told her about the exhibitions at the Coe gallery. Ryan Meyer and Maria Thomson, park rangers who oversee the gallery at the visitor center, accepted Diaz’s work immediately. Every month a different artist is featured to display work that relates to the Everglades.
Diaz’s paintings will be shown until the end of January. She plans to donate 10 percent of her sales to the park.
When asked where she sees herself going with her work, Diaz says that she’d like to work with charcoal and move onto something different than animal eyes, but adds, “It depends on how I feel and what motivates me at the time.”