Passion-driven compassion

‘Washer Woman,’ oil on canvas, celebrates the vibrant colors of an everyday scene in Maja’s Caribbean homeland.
‘Washer Woman,’ oil on canvas, celebrates the vibrant colors of an everyday scene in Maja’s Caribbean homeland. PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Robert Maja has made the Central Coast his home for the past few years, but his native homeland is Santa Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic, a nation that shares an island with Haiti.

“I have a lot of neighbors in Domingo from Haiti,” Maja said, as well as many friends from the country 3,000 miles away that was devastated by January’s earthquake.

Recently, Maja and Seaside Gallery owner Tom Burgher independently had the same idea: invite other artists to hold a paint-out and donate proceeds to the earthquake victims. In addition to Maja, Robert Peterson, Fayrene Parrish, Laurel Sherrie and Jim Miley are painting on site at the gallery. Other gallery artists will donate works as well.

An artist since childhood, Maja was recognized early on for his talents. He worked with mural artist Silvane Lorca, and after extensive education in the arts, became the official artist of the Dominican presidency. During those three years, he traveled the nation, creating murals for various youth education institutes.

In 2001, he went to Madrid for four years, to be closer to the source of his primary inspiration, Pablo Picasso. “I wanted to look at the original art,” said Maja, who especially admires Picasso’s Blue Period and the work he did near the end of his life.

While painting and exhibiting in Madrid, Maja met Tyler Aldrich, a Cal Poly student studying in Spain. A sales and marketing major, she wanted to spread the word about Maja’s talents. “I was really excited,” she said.

The two connected in spite of the language barrier. “I spoke no Spanish and Robert spoke no English,” Aldrich said. She extended her stay for a number of years, and they married in Spain.

Saturday’s benefit will not be the first time Maja has shown compassion and generosity for someone’s misfortune, according to his wife.

“When we were living in Spain, my dad’s house burned down” along with his large art collection, she said. Maja immediately removed an 8-foot-tall painting from their wall and sent it to the father-in-law he had yet to meet.

In 2006, the couple moved to Shell Beach, whose small-town ambience and friendliness reminds Maja of his Caribbean village.

“Everybody smiles,” he said. “Everyone feels safe.”

He returns to Santa Domingo during vacations to visit friends and family and get inspiration. “I feel the energy,” Maja said, noting that “People talk very loud” and are excitable.

The artist said he’s eager to paint the crowded market place, capturing the emotions on people’s faces. When he paints his everyday scenes, landscapes or figures, Maja calls upon his memory, occasionally using photos or his wife as a model.

Along with staying busy painting canvasses, Maja studies English at Cuesta College. His English has improved because he’s willing to risk making mistakes. “I don’t feel embarrassed,” Maja said with a laugh.

One of five children, Maja doesn’t regret not heeding his father’s advice to study architecture. It was always art that pulled him. “It’s my passion.”