Artist Melissa Gutierrez developed an editorial eye after working as a photo editor for major travel magazines. But the Miami native couldn’t shake the thought that the most profound images of home, often depicting the familiar, not-so-newsworthy stomping grounds of her youth, weren’t quite right for glossy publications.
In 2020, as her homesickness during the COVID-19 pandemic piqued inside her cramped New York apartment, Gutierrez began posting her colorful, digital illustrations of the mundane mementos that reminded her of daily life in Miami on Instagram: saint candles, Fabuloso multi-purpose cleaner, art deco buildings, cafecito cups, ripe mangos, and of Mr. 305 himself, Pitbull. She named the account @WestofChester as a spin on the middle-class neighborhood of Westchester, where she grew up, 12 miles west of downtown Miami.
“I like to think of the moments we wouldn’t otherwise consider as art or worthy of illustration and to bring visibility to them,” Gutierrez says. “I’m hoping that this helps create a space dedicated to the locals and the power of our communal bond.”
Her work comes at a time when Miami residents are experiencing the city morph into the fourth-largest tourism market in the country, partly due to its courting of out-of-state entrepreneurs and tech workers. Gutierrez has since expanded the account to feature seemingly unremarkable buildings that evoke an emotional connection: a South Miami ice cream parlor, a late-night Cuban cafe, an old-school bowling arcade, a brightly colored hot dog shop she’d visit after school—spots easily recognizable to locals yet absent on any must-visit guide to the city.
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“Miami is such a new city and so much has changed in the past 10 years,” Gutierrez says. “Something that I’ve seen a thousand times now I think needs to be illustrated and documented.”
In partnership with the annual O, Miami poetry festival running this month, Gutierrez is asking locals to write a few lines about their favorite Miami memories and to place them inside “El Palacio de los Recuerdos” (“The Palace of Memories”), a collection box styled as a miniature replica of the traditional Cuban food chain, El Palacio de los Jugos. Throughout the year, Gutierrez will select a few of the submissions to illustrate and release as limited-edition prints.
“We’re getting memories of folks watching the sun rise at the beach, growing up with grandparents who are no longer with us, and some are of being stuck in traffic and seeing the sun set,” she says. “It’s a nice range that people are submitting, from casual to a little bit more personal to lighthearted.”
Throughout April, which is National Poetry Month, O, Miami publishes locals’ poems in the most unexpected of places: parking tickets, billboards, and even three-million-gallon water tanks.
“We found it is way more meaningful if the poems come from Miami, and that our role is to collect poems and then platform these voices,” says O, Miami founder and executive director P. Scott Cunningham. “The goal is for people to hear their own communities speaking back to them.”
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To anyone looking to experience the area like a local, Gutierrez says, no trip is complete without the 12-mile detour to Westchester. She recommends a drive down Bird Road, the historic east-west thoroughfare connecting her neighborhood to Miami, to Bird Bowl, an ideal spot to spend the afternoon knocking down pins. For a meal, she suggests hot dogs and chili-cheese fries at Arbetter’s, square-cut pizza at Frankie’s, and, of course, people-watching at her project’s namesake, El Palacio de los Jugos.
“Not only do they have great food and juices, but it’s also a great place to see communal bonds in Miami,” Gutierrez says. “Folks kind of linger around and sit outside and really enjoy their meal. That’s what this memory palace project is hoping to replicate: that communal aspect of people sharing memories together.”