Roll On, Colombia
artful eyeful maria checa changed hemispheres to become miss august
It's an hour before closing, and the Historical Museum of South Florida is nearly empty, just the way Maria Checha likes it. Slowly, as if treading on hallowed ground, the Bogotá-born Miss August wanders through the exhibits and stops, transfixed, in front of a 19th century photograph of a huge banyan tree. "As a child," relates Maria with a faint Colombian accent, "I would swing from the vines of a tree just like that one and play for hours under its maze of hanging roots. This picture brings back a million wonderful memories. That's the power of great photography." Maria should know. She's a photographer herself, having studied the craft since she was 17 years old. She shoots primarily with black-and-white film and develops her own pictures, usually portraits of friends or photographs of the art deco architecture in Miami's South Beach neighborhood, where she lives. But this self-proclaimed visual artist expresses herself with more than a camera. Maria also paints in acrylics and watercolors, sketches with charcoal, sculpts and creates three-dimensional mixed-media art. Back at her studio apartment, where she has painted a tromp l'oiel sky on the wall, she pulls a painting from behind an antique armchair that she's re-upholstering. Monet, Maria's Himalayan cat, jumps onto her lap for a closer look at the bemused figure on the canvas. "This could represent me," Maria says. "Confused at times, on the fence, open to whatever comes next. I'm quite shy, so I express myself through my artwork." Maria's father introduced her to art by buying her brushes and paints when she was just a child. "He never gave me coloring books, though, because just filling in the blanks requires no creativity. I always knew I had talent, and I wanted to prove it." Maria got her chance after her family moved to Miami in the late Seventies, where she was later accepted at the New World School of the Arts, a high school for artistically gifted teens. After graduating, Maria went on to the Maryland Institute College of Art. Finances forced her to return to Miami, where she now supports herself as a makeup artist for photo shoots and at the cosmetic counter in a department store. "I still feel a passion for art. But sometimes my job takes precedence over my artwork." Maria hopes being a Playmate will provide new artistic opportunities. Since appearing in the 40th Anniversary Issue of Playboy, she has become somewhat of a celebrity both here and in her homeland. What lies ahead for Maria? "Who knows what great things will develop from these photos," she muses. "My future is a blank canvas just waiting to be painted."
-- Tom Wotherspoon
Photography by Richard Fegley