Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Abstract Expressions: Reina_76: Fragments of a life, re-assembled.

Portrait of Reina_76 by Michael Fitzgerald.

Portrait of Reina_76 by Michael Fitzgerald.

In what at first glance appears to be a random splashing of colors and materials, the Harrisburg-based artist who signs her work as “Reina_76” tells stories of social conflict and class separations cutting across economic, national and technological spectra.

“Even in the colonies, there is no equality,” she said of a recent show mounted at WITF headquarters in Swatara Township.

The display featured eight sculptures, abstract presentations including “Military Colony,” “Urban Colony,” “Medical Colony” and “Gated Colony.” The pieces used such materials as light bulbs, vacuum cleaner belts and pieces of plastic netting to tell their stories.

In another show, Reina used old sport coats, seemingly random paint colors, a beer can, pieces of news clippings and other flotsam to create what she called “pop culture” pieces about music and the military.

Somehow, it works, with a minimum of explanation.

“It says Katy Perry ‘Last Friday Night,’” Acacia Bellamy of Lower Paxton Township said, reading words from a snippet of a creation based on an old beige sport coat.

“It’s very pop culture,” she added, pointing to a QR code, a peace sign, Atomic Balls candy and a picture of Gen. David Petraeus.

Another visitor called the display “pretty … unique, totally eclectic.”

“Usually, when you walk into a gallery, you expect to see frames,” said Megan Weber of Harrisburg, pointing out what Reina’s art is not.

Reina_76 was born Reina Ercilia Aguilar Wooden to the son of a Susquehanna County hog farmer and daughter of a Venezuelan textile worker.

“I really applaud my mother,” she said, and the admiration is clear.

One Christmas, her mother took her two daughters and her son to Venezuela to visit their grandmother. Reina, who “was into being 17,” was impressed with the poverty and class that permeated the South American nation.

“The shower was a bucket and a hose,” she said. “Tin huts and animals everywhere.”

Her mother had come to the United States after answering an ad in a Venezuelan newspaper offering opportunities to learn English and work in a variety of industries. Here, she met the man who would be Reina’s father, a graduate of Howard University, doing post-graduate work at American University in Washington, D.C.

“She didn’t want to go back to Venezuela,” Reina said of her mother, who later graduated from Cheney University in Philadelphia.

Reina returned home to finish high school. She went on to college and, in 1998, graduated magna cum laude from Howard University.

Her bachelor’s degree in business administration, or BBA, “grounded” her, she said. But it also left her determined there would be “no suits” in her intended future.

She returned to Harrisburg in 2003 and met a guy who was into art, but turned out also to be into heroin and abuse. It was a relationship that resulted in a hospital stay and a night in a county jail when she was arrested in a barroom brawl.

“The abuse rattled my self-esteem,” she said. It also led her from work as a successful business consultant to a job in a grocery store.

“In an odd way, it led me to believe in art again,” she said.

Reina_76’s journey into the art world has sometimes been at odds with her family. Her sister, one year her junior, works on legal issues with the Environmental Protection Agency. Her brother, a year younger, is a member of the Secret Service.

She grew up surrounded by post-modern art her parents purchased, but they do not support her pursuit of art as a career.

“They felt it is not a respectable profession,” she said, recalling a time when her mother went to the basement, ripped several of her paintings from their frames and tossed them in the trash.

“My dream is to have an exhibition in MOMA,” Reina said, referring to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

She said the artist with whom she has best connected has been Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat was the offspring of Haitian and Puerto Rican parents and a one-time muse to Andy Warhol. His father was an accountant who wanted nothing to do with art.

“I saw his show at MOMA,” Reina recalled.

Her abstract creations are a reflection of her discomfort verbally expressing her thoughts. Some of the conflict derives from her visit to Venezuela as a teenager. Her familiarity with fabrics and textures comes from time spent on her grandfather’s farm.

Now 38, she has no spouse, no children, no tattoos and minimal jewelry; she appears for an interview wearing a small-jeweled ring and a matching wristwatch. Her abstract commentaries have been shown in Harrisburg and also in the MARFA gallery in New York’s East Village.

“Somebody from Brooklyn found me on Facebook and said she had bought one of my paintings,” she said of a recent contact. It was one of four acrylic-on-glass creations shown and sold at the Vivant Art Gallery in Philadelphia’s Old City.

As to what’s next for Reina, she said she’s cooking up creations for local shows over the coming months, which will continue to offer our area samples of her abstract, often avant garde, approach.

“Harrisburg has some great artists doing wonderful work,” she said. “But we need to embrace a more contemporary, interactive approach to art. It is the future of art.” 

There are two chances to see Reina’s art this month. She will exhibit “The Faces of Reina 76” at Historic Harrisburg Association, 1230 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg, during 3rd in The Burg, Oct. 17. She will show her installation piece, “An Immigrant for a Day,” in the group exhibit “Alienation” at Graham Street Studio, 312 Graham St., Harrisburg. The reception for that show is Oct. 18, 6-9 p.m.

Readers may contact John Messeder at

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