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Artist Balances Tradition, Innovation

Colombian artist mixes painting, digital photography.

In Victoria Restrepo’s family, taking photographs is a tradition as old as photography itself.

“I have taken photos my whole life because it’s something that runs in my family,” said Restrepo, a mixed-media artist whose works went on display at Apex Gallery in Washington last week. “[My mother’s] dad was a photographer, Her granddad was a photographer. … My great-great grandfather was a photographer. They started at the same time that photography was. He started in 1840. In 1842 he opened his first studio, and photography started in France in 1839.”

Though she has French ancestors, Restrepo is a third-generation Colombian. Her father met Kodak founder George Eastman in 1915 and the family photo lab in Medellin became the first distributor of Kodak products in South America. The lab remains in business today.

MORE THAN being a follower of her family’s tradition, Restrepo has been an innovator. Though she refers to her artworks at “photographs,” they are really digital collages, combining works that she has painted with parts of original photographs — sometimes dozens of elements in all.

Distinct from the colorized digital photography popular among some artists, Restrepo’s technique uses the photo-editing program Photoshop to combine and layer the photographic and painted elements of her works, but does not use any of the program’s tools for distorting or touching-up the images.

“We’re being bombarded [with digital art] and a lot of times you disregard it,” said Apex Gallery owner Jodi Walsh. “I’ve sort of seen it all and I know what can be done. I’m a bit jaded. So when I do find something that’s a little bit different I go out of my way to find the person and latch on to it.”

“I knew it was different,” she said of Restrepo’s work. “I knew that whoever was doing this was going through maybe three or four steps in a process, as opposed to just shoot something, scan it in, and Photoshop behind it, and that’s what we’re being bombarded with.”

INSPIRED BY the natural beauty of Colombia, Restrepo grew up an avid painter. She was accepted at the Massachusetts College of Art to study painting, but her father wouldn’t let her go. So Restrepo applied to the New England School of Photography to study that art instead. In light of the family’s photographic tradition, Restrepo’s father assented.

“I wanted to do something beyond traditional photography,” said Restrepo. She focused on experimental photography in school and strove for realism in her paintings.

Restrepo returned to Colombia and started a family, working as a commercial photographer and setting her experimental work aside. She shot products, mostly for cosmetic companies. In retrospect, “it really helped me,” she said, “because I had to spend three hours on a lipstick to make it perfect. … So I really can spend a lot of time just making one glass, or a carrot [perfect].”

Five years ago, Restrepo returned to the United States with her family. Her husband, Leonardo Rojas, took a job with the Organization of American Sates in Washington and the family settled in Potomac, in a rowhouse on the northern tip of Cabin John Regional Park. Restrepo has three children from a previous marriage — Juan, Claudia and Cristina Angel. Juan, 20, is studying sports journalism at Universidad de Palermo in Buenos Aires; Claudia is a senior at Whitman and Cristina is in 8th grade at Hoover. Restrepo also has a three-year-old son, Martin, with her current husband.

Restrepo saw the new start in America as an opportunity to leave commercial photography behind and return to the work that she loved. Starting with a few collages using her children and scenes from Colombia, Restrepo developed her technique and began making art full-time.

But with three children still in the house, Restrepo does most of her work late at night: “the only time when everything’s quiet.”

She’s taken classes in marketing her work and has exhibited her work nationally, picking up awards in several juried shows.

RESTREPO’S WORKS are informed by her love both of painting and photography, the influences of the United Sates and Colombia, and the competing pulls of film and digital photography.

Many center on windows.

“I really love windows because two different worlds meet in that exact place. Inside is something and outside is another thing,” she said. Some of the outside scenes are Colombian and Caribbean skies, others are scenes from her new home — the Potomac near Great Falls, and trees in Cabin John, for example.

“It’s so sad when you see something beautiful and you don’t have a camera,” Restrepo said. “I have so many ideas. When I send my photographs, [reviewers] say, ‘What is that, a photograph?’ They attract them, but they really don’t know what it is. Magic is what I try to project.”

Said Walsh, “You can tell by the way she talks and handles the pieces, she’s very proud of what she’s done. It has nothing to do with her ego. It’s not ego-driven at all. She’s just very meticulous. It just shows.”