February is the shortest month of the year, but this February is truly a bonanza month for artcentric folks in Miami!

Not only have we had a fab ArtTable meeting at Books & Books on February 8, but for the first time we can look forward to a second such gathering in one month.

ArtTable members and guests, mark your calendars for this event: 11 a.m. Saturday, February 19 at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum of Florida International University.

It's on the occasion of a wonderful show there by Maria Brito, as well as the publication of an award-winning book about her by FIU professor Juan Martinez. Juan and Maria will discuss her exhibit, "As of 24/03/07," at the Frost on February 19, during this 11 a.m. gathering for ArtTable members and guests. Light refreshments will be served. There'll also be a book signing of the book Maria Brito. To RSVP or get more information, call 305-348-2890 or visit www.thefrostfiu.edu

Carol Damian, the Frost's dynamic director and chief curator, agreed to make this ArtTable event happen. I'm not surprised by her energy and resourcefulness. Tonight I'm going to see "A Visual Journey Through Art & Music," performed by the Miami Symphony Orchestra, and based on a text by Carol Damian. It will be at the acclaimed New World Center on Miami Beach, so I think my husband and I are in for an outstanding evening! (For more information about Miami Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Eduardo Marturet, see www.themiso.org)

Renowned FIU Alumna Maria Brito at the Frost

I was so lucky to write about Maria Brito for the FIU Magazine that I want to share much of what I wrote with readers of my blog this morning. She is one of the many extraordinary people I got to know so well through my work on the visual arts beat for The Miami Herald.

Your first encounter with Maria Brito's show at the Frost Art Museum could be confusing. You may even wonder why it's there. If so, you'll please Brito, a rebel at heart who likes controversy. Celebrated Miami artist and FIU alumna, Brito traces her rebellious spirit to the long ago moment she concealed gold jewelry in clothes she wore on a Pedro Pan flight from Havana to Miami. Everyone knew that doing this risked terrible consequences, she recalls, but she couldn't leave the jewelry, a small bracelet still in her possession, behind.

Her longstanding aversion to doing what's predictable, as well as considerable talent, has led to "As of 24/03/07," Brito's mixed-media installation at the Frost. A small shrine--dedicated to a mysterious figure and recalling saints' altars--is an ominous part of this work. In ways not amenable to conventional religion, this shrine recalls Brito's conservative Catholic upbringing, especially for girls, in the Cuban community transplanted to Miami in the early 1960s.

Brito endows simple, familiar objects with disturbing symbolism: this installation evokes a modest scientific laboratory where human forms are created in a clandestine manner. "It has to do with social, ethical issues related to the manufacturing of human life," says Brito, intrigued by news reports about biological experimentation.

This will be the first solo exhibit at the Frost Art Museum for the FIU graduate, although her art has been in group shows at the previous museum space. The Frost also has sculpture by Brito in its permanent collection.

Brito's art has been shown in every major exhibition of Cuban American artists and in venues around the world: the Second Iberoamerican Biennial of Lima, Peru; the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seoul, South Korea; "Cuba Twentieth Century: Modernism and Syncretism" at the Centre d'Art Santa Monica in Barcelona, Spain; and in "The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s," in New York City at various venues, including Studio Museum in Harlem. Her art was part of the traveling exhibit, "Arte Latino: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum."

Frost Art Museum director and chief curator Carol Damian has known Brito for more than 20 years. As a professor, Damian includes Brito in her art history courses, especially given her own interest in women artists. Brito is "an artist of great complexity that can be inspirational to my students," said Damian, "especially in South Florida with all her references to growing up here as a child of exile."

"Maria has long represented herself and her life experiences in multi-media works that combine ceramics, painting, sculpture, and installation in constructions that embody issues of loss, femininity, women's roles, and identity," Damian explains. "She has never wavered from her commitment to create works that are dense with serious personal symbolism and yet can be quite humorous."

In 2009, FIU art history professor Juan Martinez wrote the book Maria Brito, published by UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press of Los Angeles. A year later, at Book Expo America in New York City, his book was awarded "Best Arts Book--English" by Latino Book Awards.

This exquisitely illustrated volume about Brito belongs to the series "A Ver: Revisioning Art History," which explores contributions Latina and Latino artists have made to American and world art history. It highlights Brito's signature installations--mixed-media interior spaces imbued with symbolism and emotion--as well as her paintings and sculptures. "As Brito and her art have broken cultural, social and artistic barriers," Martinez writes, "they have made a notable contribution to the diversity and dynamism of contemporary art."

His book looks at Brito's artistic career in the context of recent Miami history, touching on how interest in Latin American culture increased significantly in the 1980s in the United States. This cultural shift, along with growing opportunities for women, coincided with her hard-working life as an art teacher, mother, and artist.

"For me, getting married and having a family was what I was supposed to do," Brito said. Still, she says, her father emphasized the importance of being educated so that she could support herself. "If you have a good education, no one can ever take that away from you," she recalls that her father would tell her. This was indeed a mantra for the close-knit Cuban-born family transplanted to Miami.

"I didn't know about the educational system here, but I knew that after finishing high school I could go to community college," she says, explaining that she attended what is now the north campus of Miami Dade College to study art. She eventually earned four degrees: a bachelor's in education from the University of Miami in 1969, a master's degree in education from FIU in 1976, a bachelor's of fine arts from FIU in 1977 and an MFA from UM in 1979.

"I had my children, but I just kept going to school," she said. "Honestly, I never thought I would be creative enough to become an artist."

Martinez notes how Cuban culture has transformed Miami since the early 1960s, when she came to the city along with thousands of other Cuban exiles. Miami was much smaller, with fewer opportunities for artists than exist today. Early on, Brito gained attention as a member of "The Miami Generation," several Cuban American artists featured at the Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture in Miami. She was the only woman included.

Brito's breathrough came in the 1980s, Martinez writes, "in the context of multiculturalism and the growing recognition of women artists."

Brito and some Cuban American artists of her generation are inspired by Renaissance and Baroque painting, Martinez said. Perhaps this is because Catholic imagery in this art is so familiar to these artists. "They were raised Cuban Catholic in a time that was very intense," he said. "But notice her relationship to Catholicism is complex. If you look at some of the mixed-media that deal with Catholicism, Catholicism is seen as kind of oppressive and overpowering."

These complex themes are present in Brito's installation at the Frost Art Museum. But don't look to Brito for interpretations of her shrine-as-laboratory. As viewers enter her single-room installation, she says, "I hope to leave them with more questions than answers, which is what I love to do with my work. I want to get people to think."