‘The eyes always draw me in’; Immokalee portrait artist turns dark times into color

Reporter: Jacquelyn Kisic
Published: Updated:

One of Southwest Florida’s best portrait artists, Martha Maria Cantu, almost gave up art. Now, she’s at the forefront of the city of Immokalee to make her community filled with color.

As a child, Cantu had trouble balancing pleasing her mother and bringing out her artistic talents.

“Being an artist, especially as a kid growing up, my mom was totally against it,” said Cantu. “She thought a woman’s place was in the kitchen.”

As a toddler, Cantu remembers her first piece of artwork, being inspired by a portrait of Jesus Christ. Looking into his eyes, she felt a deep connection, and it inspired her to pick up a pencil for the first time and draw.

“It was a way to communicate,” said Cantu, explaining her relationship with her stepfather, who barely spoke Spanish. “He’s like, ‘Okay, well, don’t interrupt me during my wrestling now until your picture looks exactly like what’s on the wall,'” said Martha, adding, “And I said, okay. “

During the week, she worked on her daily chores along with her siblings. On the weekends, she found time as a “hobby” to work on her art skills.

Cantu said she was cherished by her teachers in school growing up for her detailed portraits. On the other hand, her mother decided to destroy all of her artwork.

“There was a time that she ripped it,” said Cantu. “She just ran to my room and just tore up every piece of art that I had at that time.”


Cantu was left devastated after her mother believed that art was distracting her from too much of her time.

“My childhood wasn’t that great, and I believe art saved me,” said Cantu. “There’s a lot of ways I could have gone, and it was just always art, art, art.”


After leaving the Eddison State Community College’s art program, Cantu did not touch any form of art for 17 years. It was until her son came home in need of some help drawing a cell organism for his science project.

Since then, Cantu has won numerous awards and has done five murals for the city of Immokalee. According to Cantu, she has three murals that will be built in Fort Myers Beach at a new 7-Eleven coming soon.


Cantu encourages those to ‘keep smiling’. She teaches art therapy for The Shelter of Abused Women and Children.

For those interested in reading more about Martha Marie Cantu’s journey, click here.

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