• Move from Puebla, Mexico, to Rogers and Elk River causes Cuanalo to shoot with camera lens wide open
by Britt Aamodt
In fall, Nelly Cuanalo photographs colored leaves and burnished fields. Wintertime, she bounds outside to capture snowflakes, snow banks, piles of snow on top of trash can lids and icicles with her camera.
She has lived in Minnesota for a year and a half and in Elk River for five months and still can’t get over the fluffy white stuff.
“We don’t have that where I come from,” she said.
A photographer and graphic designer, Cuanalo is from Puebla, Mexico, two hours southeast of Mexico City. You couldn’t find a place more different than Elk River.
A volcanic mountain rises over the city. Baroque and Colonial architecture rise up along streets, where a population of 1 million jostles. Tourists pack away meaty sandwiches called cemita. Poblanos and simmering mole scent the air.
Here, long ago, the land was called Cuetlaxcopan, the land where snakes change their skin. Legend has it that in 1530 a Spanish bishop dreamed that a host of angels descended into the valley. So he called the city Puebla de los Angeles.
Cuanalo’s hometown basks in eternal summer. The temperature hovers around 70 or 80 year-round.
So when the university graduate took an advanced degree in photography, her artwork reflected the subtropical environment, blooming with color and eye-catching buildings.
“When I first started taking photographs, I photographed close up,” she said.
Her camera trained on details, machinery, industry, an ornate span of arches. She loved portraiture. For an assignment, she dressed a model in period costume and photographed her in a hacienda.
Somewhere in her school years, she bumped into a friend in a touristy area. The friend had an American student with him in Puebla to learn Spanish.
Cuanalo joked, “I’m going to teach you Spanish.”
And that was that. She went on with life and didn’t think more about the American. But like the plot of a good book, their paths crossed again two years later when he returned for more Spanish lessons.
His name was Casey Cuanalo and when the young artist saw him this time she thought, “Oh, yeah, he’s cute and I like him.”
They dated for three months but then he returned to Minnesota. They’d keep in touch, but Cuanalo figured the relationship was over.
Yet one month later she got a surprise.
“I got a call from Casey. He was in Puebla,” she said. He’d moved to be near her. “That is the most exciting gift in my life.”
The couple married Nov. 2011 and the following May relocated to Minnesota.
They lived in Rogers at first. Cuanalo didn’t have a car or license, so she rode her bike. She traveled with her camera and couldn’t pedal a mile without jumping off to photograph some new vista.
“Minnesota is beautiful, the colors, the wildlife. You can see the change of seasons, like the cornfields in September, yellow and brown colors,” she said.
She noticed her style of photography changing with the environment. Instead of close ups, she pulled back to photograph large open spaces and big sky.
Cuanalo tackled her first winter with the fascination of a newcomer.
Snow piled on a patio table, “looked like a sandwich. The texture of the trees; you can see cotton balls on them. The snow on garbage cans was like ice cream cones,” she said and took picture after picture.
She has archived some of those photos on Flickr.com.
Moving to Elk River gave Cuanalo the chance to connect with the arts community through the Arts Alliance, for whom she’ll be scheduling art shows at the Government Center. She’s also building her portfolio of photography and graphic design work and looking for clients.
She knows achieving her dream will take time. Her cousin, in his 40s, left a steady job to pursue art 10 years ago. Only recently, his career took off.
“I think that is going to be me too,” she said. “I am working a job now, but I don’t close that door (to photography). The time goes so fast. You only have this opportunity and so I enjoy it.”