December 2021 SUNY Oswego graduate Sofia Luz Pérez won one of only three Best of SUNY awards at the 2021-2022 Best of SUNY Student Art exhibition for her painting, “Know Thyself, Heal Thyself.” 

Pérez’s work was part of the 2022 “Made in New York” exhibition this spring at Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center in Auburn, and her work is currently on display in Cazenovia Counterpoint, an invitational that features work by regional artists all over the city of Cazenovia. Pérez will also have a solo exhibition at ArtRage Gallery in Syracuse in 2023.

As an award-winning piece, "Know Thyself, Heal Thyself" will remain on display at SUNY Plaza in Albany through November.

Ancestral inspiration 

Although born in Austin, Texas, Pérez and her family moved to the Central New York area during her childhood. While her mother had attended Fayetteville-Manlius, she and her brother attended Jamesville-Dewitt high school; it was apparent while attending school in her Upstate New York suburb that there were stark racial differences.

“My brother and I were the only few brown people.” Pérez said. 

Pérez’s paintings, including her award winner, are inspired heavily by her ancestral heritage. Although Pérez only began painting upon arriving at SUNY Oswego, this series has been a long time in the making. 

“Ever since my early 20s, my work has been about my ancestral heritage and rediscovering my roots and where I come from on my dad’s side - my Mexican side,” Pérez said. “I have struggled with my health and also with generational trauma and I have been trying to heal myself. With my research into my heritage, there are strong archetypes -- especially the Aztecs –- and that is what I have been focusing on.” 

Depicted in Pérez’s painting “Know Thyself, Heal Thyself” is the Aztec goddess Toci. Pérez explains that Toci is “seen as the grandmother figure and mother of goddess Coatlicue. Toci is the grandmother aspect of her and associated with healing.”

Using Toci opposite herself in her painting, Pérez describes her painting as a way to use her ancestral wisdom as a way to heal herself. 

“With Toci, I depicted her on the left side of that painting,” Pérez said. “I tried to show that with what she is typically depicted with –- headdress of cotton spools of thread, the face markings, and then white hair to show that she is older. And then there is me as her, with her passing on her ancestral knowledge to my present self on the right.” 

As Pérez continues her self-exploration and healing through painting, she will continue to rely on her ancestry as an inspiration to tell her life story. 

“To me, learning about and reading about how those ancestral traits can be within me and how I can access those powerful characteristics of these goddesses -– it has been empowering and healing to bring together myself and my self-portrait with these traits,” Pérez said. 

SUNY award experience

Although nervous about submitting her painting, Pérez feels an incredible amount of gratitude for the faculty at SUNY Oswego who encouraged her to submit, noting art faculty members Kelly Roe and Cynthia Clabough as the two who encouraged her through the process. 

“I was about to graduate and I wanted that painting in my final show to be able to show my professors, family and peers the work I was really proud of.” Pérez said. 

Pérez was missing one family member who was supportive of return to higher education. Her father, who had been an elementary school principal, passed away a few months prior to Pérez graduating. 

But after the award ceremony in Albany, a woman approached Pérez. 

“She had an office next to the painting in the front hallway at the SUNY Plaza where the work is displayed,” Pérez said. “She came to me and said 'I wanted to wait until the very end to tell you this -- your painting is right next to my office, and I look at it every day.' And then she started to tear up. And then she said that she had lost her sister, her mom, and her grandmother all within the past year. She was telling me how my piece meant so much to her –- it moved me. It’s so interesting to see how different people interpret it and how it means different things to different people.” 

Pérez graduated from SUNY Oswego with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a concentration in painting in December 2021. Pérez plans to attend SUNY Albany to complete her master of fine arts. 

Visit Pérez's website to learn more about her work.