Rafael Aguilera first came to Canada to bring his daughters to study at university. His eldest daughter studied at Dalhousie in Halifax, and a few years later, his youngest chose the University of Toronto. Upon graduation, both decided to remain in Canada rather than returning to their home in Venezuela. Leaving the country has been a common decision for Venezuelans. Estimates suggest than almost 20% of its population has left the country since 2014, fleeing social unrest caused by poverty, hyperinflation, severe crime and corruption. Even with the arrival in 1958 of democratic government, the political climate continues to be unstable. Since their last election in 2018 there are two men claiming to be the country’s President, with international recognition split between them.
As the situation deteriorated, the young women implored their parents to move to Canada permanently. Three years ago, Rafael arrived in Halifax with a few pieces of luggage. Soon after, his wife Aru came and together they moved into a home with their younger daughter in Fowler’s Corners.
To integrate into their new community, the Aguileras participated in activities including language lessons at Peterborough’s New Canadians Centre. At a summer event, they met retired Nurse Practitioner Sylvia Arsenault of Millbrook, and the three have become fast friends, expanding their language skills, cycling around the region and sharing traditional holiday meals.
Rafael is licensed architect, but is not able to practise here. He took on odd jobs to earn some cash, and began to funnel his creative energy into painting. Despite his architectural background, his subjects are rarely buildings. From mountains to dramatic skies, birds and water, his paintings reflect the natural world, often in vibrant colour.
As a gesture of thanks to Sylvia for her friendship, Rafael decided to produce a painting for her. Working from a photograph, he is painting a historic local landmark: the railway bridge found along the Grand Trunk line of the Millbrook Valley Trails, accessed through the Trout ponds on Zion Line. A stickler for detail, the artist wanted to include the words inscribed on the keystone at the top of the arch. Sylvia found the answer, tracing her fingers along the lines from the top of the bridge. It says “1867.68, H. Covert, President, A. T. Williams Superintendent”. These were executives with the Port Hope, Lindsay and Beaverton Railway founded in 1854.
One of the challenges for the artist was creating the foliage. His first interpretation of the plants at the edge of the creek were a bit tropical and have been reworked after a closer examination of Canadian native plants. He is particularly fond of our Birch trees and is glad they are in the background of his reference photo.
The photo guides but does not dictate the image he is creating. The artist has been careful to include a light at the end of the tunnel. It is an important feature, both physically and philosophically.
A few months ago, the source of a persistent leg pain was determined to be late stage cancer. There is an increased urgency in completing the canvas, which has sparked more requests from others who have admired his work. These days rather than cycling around town, Sylvia is chauffeuring Rafael to medical appointments and providing expert support as he makes his way through the medical system.
The significance of the canvas seems to grow with each treatment, and while beautiful, its importance is over-rated. Rafael’s biggest gift to his friends and family is his example. His courage to start again, his attitude of appreciation, his enthusiasm and love of life shines brightly even as he approaches another bridge along his journey. KG