Napa Valley native Andrea Cazares is an artist and instructor whose view of the world shines through her work, often evoking hints of the Victorian era combined with an eye for photo-realistic portraiture. Viewing her art is often as if one is looking at the present moment through a lens that provides a magical passage to a more ancient time. The effect is transportive and can provide an emotional response that is comforting, contemplative and challenging all at once.
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Cazares’ heritage is Mexican-Italian. Her father emigrated from Mexico when he was 17, and her mother’s family originated from Italy. After she was born in San Francisco in the early 1990s, her parents moved to Napa, where they opened Sushi Mambo in 1998.
During her early years she gravitated toward art with the encouragement of her grandmother, Johanna Bernstein. Bernstein was a “Sunday painter” who produced lovely works but had no interest in selling her creations.
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Saying yes to art
“Even as a child I knew I had to become an artist because it was where I found solace,” Cazares said. “My parents were very supportive but very practical people and so were less enthusiastic than my grandmother when it came to my contemplating my future. But I will never forget when she [my grandmother] told me that I was going to become an ‘amazing’ artist. I was like, ‘yes, I am going to be an artist.’”
She spent summers with her grandparents in Southern California. Here she was surrounded by her grandmother’s art and influenced by her grandfather, Larry Bernstein. He was a prominent architect who first taught Cazares how to use Adobe Photoshop when she was 4 years old, and the precocious young artist’s skills quickly advanced.
Back home she helped out at the family restaurant and eventually attended New Technology High School, a secondary school in Napa that promotes project-based learning, student-centered culture, college and workforce readiness, and technology integration. There she focused on computer science.
“When I was at New Tech I was trying to combine the practicality of my parents with my deep desire to become an artist by focusing on web and graphic design,” she said. “In many ways it was a good combination and allowed me to learn some skills that I still use today. But there was always something tugging at me — the voice in the back of my head that kept whispering that I needed to focus on my art.”
From photorealism to Italian gilding
The first opportunity to consider herself a working artist happened when she was 19 and secured her first show at the now-closed Slack Collective in Napa. There she showcased enormous ballpoint pen sketches of some of the people in her life. Drawn from photographs, the black-and-white sketches were reminiscent of works from an artist she admired, Chuck Close, the 1960s artist who had pioneered photorealism with his monumental, exquisitely detailed portraits.
“I was trying to capture the soul, the essence, the purpose of the people in my sketches,” she said. “I’d start with the eyes — the eyes are the hardest and most important part of the face — and then build out from there.”
It is haunting to view some of Cazares’ early work. Viewable on her website — andreacazares.com — those early sketches not only show a deeply skilled artist but also hint at the near-clairvoyant element of her work that remains today.
But being a working young artist is challenging. To make ends meet she leveraged her skills as a graphics designer and web designer, and she also assisted her family at the restaurant. By the time she was 22, Cazares decided that if she was going to make a go at becoming a full-time artist that she needed a dramatic severing of old ties.
When she learned about a small art school in Italy — the American University of Rome — she had little money and no clear idea about how she was going to make it work, but Cazares bought a plane ticket to Italy.
“My dad had survived when he came to America by working hard, staying positive and integrating into an entirely new culture,” she said. “So if he could do it, I thought I could do it, too. But it was much harder than I thought.”
The program was housed in a 500-year-old monastery with a tiny classroom located next to a bell tower that rang on the hour, rattling the old building and sending paintbrushes flying to the floor. On a diet that consisted of little more than tomatoes and potatoes because “art supplies were more important than food” she lost weight. Nevertheless, she continued. Delving even deeper into her studies, she gravitated toward religious iconography, art history and ancient methods of art-making.
There were days when she thought she might not survive. But a break came when she was hired to paint a portrait of a European bureaucrat whose child also attended the school. Word spread, and soon she was painting portraits for a host of clients. Leveraging her computer skills, she also found work within the university’s graphics design department.
With her growing exposure came increased access. Eventually Cazares gained entrance into some of the Vatican’s restricted areas, where she would sit with restoration artists whose task was to restore ancient works.
“I saw and touched 500-year-old pieces of art, and the experience transformed me,” she said. “The textures and techniques added a deeper context and made me want to learn more of those ancient techniques, many of which are being lost to time.”
Her admiration and appreciation for what she learned — mosaic, fresco, gilding (gold leaf), ceramic and sculpture — grew and have since become infused into her art.
After three years of travel, Cazares returned to Napa, and since 2018 she has continued creating — commissioned pieces for wineries, individuals and organizations, but also expanding her own private collection. Her work can be found at her website, at shows throughout the region and in the homes of collectors.
She is also one of two resident artists at Nimbus Art Studio in St. Helena, where she teaches oil painting, mosaic and other art classes to both adults and children. Additionally, she hosts the popular “Paint and Sip” program at Nimbus held for adults over 21 that combines art creation with tasting wine from various local vintners.
Cazares' work speaks in the language of fine art but with a dialect that is an amalgam of her eclectic interests and heritage. The result of her distinctiveness, adroitness and expertise produce works that seem local yet worldly, poignant yet cheerful, fantastical yet authentic and place her in the upper echelon of young local artists.
“It has never been easy and I don’t suspect it will ever be, but all my experiences have pushed me to be more,” she said. “Much of my work is rooted in the spirit of continual rebirth and reinvention, in happiness, love, self-love and the power of the world around us. Those are ideas I hold on to tightly and also ones that I want to share.”