Cuban artist uses candy wrappers to create beautiful works in foil and glass

I may never open a piece of foil-wrapped chocolate candy the same again.

In the finished basement of Nelsa Abalo's Hilltop home are shelves with container upon container full of small sheets of foil. Abalo uses the foil, along with panes of glass and black ink, to make colorful, glittering works of art. The sheets of foil are made of candy wrappers that have been gently, painstakingly removed so as not to tear or otherwise damage the material; Abalo prefers to manipulate the shape and texture of each piece she uses.

(For the candy curious: No, the artist does not eat all the candy herself, but saves it for sharing with grandchildren and other deserving friends and family.)

The application process is even more meticulous. Abalo applies precisely cut, folded and crinkled pieces of foil to the back of panes of glass, filling in the often-minuscule spaces in the designs she has outlined in black. The pieces are built back-to-front, outside-to-inside, but Abalo, via interpreter and Columbus artist Natalia Sanchez, said her patience is never tested. She values the accurate and clean representation of her image too much to rush the work.

“It's also very meditative,” Abalo said.

The technique is an adaptation of a method Abalo learned as a child in her native Cuba. A lifelong painter and fabric artist, Abalo had forgotten about it until 2014, when an art contest at Columbus' Our Lady of Guadalupe Center asked participants to make something related to their homeland. A folk art, of sorts, the use of foil to create colorful images is something Abalo learned from an older cousin, though her recollection of the technique proved imperfect, so Abalo's method is truly her own. (It also earned the artist first place in the aforementioned contest.)

“I'm inspired a lot by color — a very Cuban color palette, very bright colors,” Abalo said.

Abalo's husband, Alcides, hand-makes many of the frames for the glass pieces and also serves as a second set of eyes for quality control.

The couple traveled a circuitous route to Columbus, initially leaving Cuba in the 1970s due to their distaste for the Castro regime. Traveling through Panama and living for a time in Costa Rica, the Abalos settled in Miami in 1984. They have lived in Columbus for the past 18 years, moving here partly in search of a better job market but primarily because one of their daughters called Columbus home.

Works representing some of Abalo's inspirations, including nature, Aztec traditions and scenes from Cuba, are on exhibition this season at Gallery Denmark.