“When she's anxious, just falling asleep, or whatever, I [could] just get her to cut paper,” Romero said.
After Romero’s mother passed away in June, he poured himself into his work.
“I considered my mom to be a hero,” said Romero. “She and my father sacrificed all to leave Cuba so that my brothers and I could live in a free country. I never gave up taking care of here and tried as hard as I could to keep her in her house and not in a nursing home. I could never repay her for all she did.”
Romero's love for his mother shines in recent work. One new work is a collage depicting Maria Cores, a member of the local St. Augustine Church, who visited Romero's mother every Thursday.
“She's a ray of hope for a lot of people,” Romero said, “including my mom.”
Another collage in the works is for Dr. Isaac Stadler, a North Bergen doctor who treated Margot and came to see her “rain or snow. He deserves a medal; she [Romero] deserves a medal. Lately, I've been doing things for people I feel deserve recognition and don't get it.”
A current employee at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Romero plans on entering the newest works into MET's annual Employee Art Show, running from late August through September.
Both works will soon incorporate slow-motion videos of Stadler treating Romero's mother and Cores visiting patients in local nursing homes.
“My biggest lesson is that God puts people in our path to help us when we're going out on a limb to do what's right,” Romero said of the two.
Speaking with slightly nervous modesty, interspersed with short pauses, he added that he doesn't want much recognition on himself, as compared to his subjects.
“My mother put me on the path of being sensitive to other people's needs.” – Luis Romero
Romero's interest in paper came from a TV show. “I was like a kid,” he began. “I must have been 19 or something. I remember this lady on TV who was being interviewed for a short segment. She was like, 'This is how you do paper collages-you get a little bit of glue, you get some paper, you use acrylic varnish.’ ”
Suddenly inspired, he began creating little birds from paper. But he showed a buyer of his paintings, and the buyer had a negative reaction. As a result, it took him eight years to start displaying collages again.
One day at the Met, a man who saw Romero's bird collages purchased all of them from him. With renewed confidence, he ended up replicating the man's portrait in paper.
His biggest paper collage is of former President Obama, which he created around Obama's 2012 reelection. Mayor Brian Stack placed that work outside of his office for a few months, according to Romero. The Met also showcased it in that year's Employee Art Show.
“It just came about because, as an artist, I just wanted to record history,” Romero shared. “He was reelected and I felt I had a responsibility to capture the moment. I had done other paper collages, but they were tiny. It was a big, big hit at the Met.” Romero wrote to the White House, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, and even U.S. Rep. Albio Sires to gauge interest, but received no replies. He says he can “picture it in a museum someday.”
On his wall, Romero also has a paper collage of former Met President Emily Rafferty, who retired in March 2015. He created it from a picture he had of her, which is how he creates many of his portraits.
“I felt she was an example of what good leadership is,” he said. “I wanted to do this before she left.” Nearby, Romero keeps her glowing response letter in a frame.
Oil and other mediums
However, he says oil paintings are more his forte. One of his paintings is an image of Union City Mayor Brian Stack’s mother, which is in City Hall.
Romero also dabbles in pencil work, and has a religious pencil painting featuring St. Peter and the Virgin Mary in his home. He copied it from a similar painting from Spanish Renaissance artist El Greco.
He also has a permanent oil painting in the Union City Museum of Art of Dr. Francisco Cortina, who operated a practice in town for decades before handing it to his son. Cortina, who is in his 90s, was also a doctor to Romero's parents. Having known Margot for decades, he appeared at her funeral.
“I did it to thank him for everything he did for my parents,” Romero said. “I'm so glad that they wanted him there. He's part of the city and culture.”
The city also gave Romero a proclamation for the painting.
Romero has also made an oil painting from a picture a colleague sent him, of her twins.
Though his parents are gone, Romero feels the best ways to honor their memory are by paying homage through art, and by pushing forward.
“I just want to inspire people to do art,” he said.
He also said, “I would just like to keep honoring people who are doing the right thing – that's something I want to continue doing. I think my mother put me on the path of being sensitive to other people's needs. My father Juan, too. And to honor her and my father, I have to continue my art and continue my life. I can't let her down.” You can see more of Romero’s work at Luisromerofinearts.com.
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org