San Diego photographer opening ‘Secret Doors’ in her art and her life in first solo exhibit

Nathaly Alvizures inside the Saville Theatre at San Diego City College
Nathaly Alvizures inside the Saville Theatre at San Diego City College on Wednesday, April 5, 2023.
(Kristian Carreon/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Nathaly Alvizures is a self-taught conceptual artist and her first solo exhibition, “Secret Doors,” is on display through May 31 at the Mission Valley Library, drawing from her own life’s struggles to focus on self-worth and intimate suffering.


The title image in Nathaly Alvizures’s first solo exhibition, “Secret Doors,” illustrates both the discomfort of the unknown and her readiness to step onto a new path for her life. There are more than a dozen images she selected, created since 2016, currently on display at the Mission Valley Library.

“I was never working specifically for this exhibit because I never imagined my work was going to get this far. In addition, it was really hard for me to choose between each image in my portfolio because they all represent something in my life. They all have a story to tell,” she said, describing the theme of her conceptual photography show as “a combination of intimate suffering and a journey to a new life in every way.” An opening reception for “Secret Doors” will be held at 3 p.m. today, at the library.

Alvizures, 40, is a self-taught conceptual photographer and mother of five, currently studying radio, television, and film at San Diego City College. She took some time to talk about her work, the life experiences that have informed her art, and what she loves about living in Linda Vista.

Q: In the description of this exhibition from the San Diego Public Library, it says that you’re a self-taught conceptual artist who was born in Guatemala and came to the United States when you were 11 years old. How did you first learn about conceptual art?

A: Yes, I am a self-taught photographer and artist. I bought my first and only camera in 2013, after I taught myself face-painting, body-painting and special effects makeup. I wanted to showcase my work as a makeup artist with good photos. I started by learning the basic stuff, such as the settings of my camera, composition, and lighting. That took me about a year to learn. I would use my own children, sometimes nieces and nephews, to practice what I was learning in photography. I would put my children to bed and start my learning routine every night from around 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. I did that for about nine months. As I learned, my basic portfolio started to take shape. I began to be known as a “kid photographer” even though that was never my intention.

Q: How did you come to decide on photography as the medium for the conceptual art you wanted to create? What is it about photography that you prefer?

A: I’ve always loved photography. I remember always carrying a disposable camera since I was a teenager. I remember having so many pictures on my walls and closet of random people and scenarios all the time. However, I never thought of pursuing photography as something serious. What really got me interested in this form of self-expression was my background in poetry. I went through hard times in my teenage years, and poetry was my outlet to cope with the hardships at the time. I reconnected with my love for poetry in 2011. I began to consider the possibility of using my poetry to make visual illustrations as a form of self-expression, which turned into conceptual photography in 2014.

What I love about Linda Vista...

I love living in central San Diego because the beach, my church, and my school are within 15 minutes.

Q: The library’s description of you and your work also mentions personal struggles with housing and domestic violence. Are you comfortable sharing what was happening during that time in your life?

A: Out of respect for my children, I’d rather not go into details about domestic violence. That is part of my past and I decided to not dwell in the past, but instead move forward. I can tell you that this exhibit has been inspired by so many things I’ve been through my life, including child abuse, dyslexia, abandonment, domestic abuse, homelessness, divorce, child custody, cancer, depression, and financial hardships. My main goal now is to inspire people who feel stuck and hopeless, as I did in the past.

Q: It says that you focused on your passions of motherhood and photography. Can you talk about how motherhood helped you during this time?

A: Motherhood helped me so much to keep pushing through adversity and struggles. I made my children my main focus in life, providing for them, setting a good example in every way possible, and taking the opportunity of being homeless as a way of teaching them coping skills and love to protect each other. There was a time when they were looking out the window at Becky’s House Shelter and they were scared because they saw homeless, intoxicated people acting in all different ways. They told me that we were homeless just like them and they were scared. I told them to look inside the room where we were: we didn’t have much, but we had so much more compared to them. We had beds, blankets, access to a bathroom and shower, and even a kitchen. I took motherhood to a level I never knew existed before.

Q: Can you describe a couple of pieces in this exhibition that illustrate these themes of self-worth, struggle, and intimate suffering, and the story behind how each piece came into being?

A: One of the pieces you’ll find in this exhibit is “Secret Door.” This photo was made as my divorce was being finalized in 2019. I wore an elegant, red gown that almost looks like a vintage bridal dress. It’s open in the back and I am showing my petite frame in it. I am walking into a door that has nothing but darkness and there are butterflies flying all around me. This symbolizes my walking into singleness. It feels uncomfortable, and it feels like I don’t fit in. The butterflies represent my nervousness about not knowing how to be single.

Another piece is “Reborn.” The model is my 11-year-old daughter. Her long hair is covering her eyes, she is wearing gray clothing, and there are two butterflies in the image. She is holding a vintage brush in her right hand and there is a butterfly on her left hand. The other butterfly is right next to her right knee and there is a white, closed door behind her. The description under this photo reads: “This image is the face of the ‘Secret Door’ exhibit. The lack of color in the model’s outfit represents the uncertainty of the photographer’s journey up to this point. ‘I can breathe again, pieces are finally falling into place for me and my family.’ The tint of blue in the butterfly on the model’s hand symbolizes a sense of coming back to life again. The red spot on the model’s hand is a symbol of allowing growth from within. ‘I had to fight for my healing and to get to a good place emotionally and mentally after so many years of trauma.’ The hair covering the model’s eyes represents how life will always be a mystery at the end. ‘There will be doors that will open, doors that will close, and there will always be secret doors to be discovered, and I am ready for that.’”

Q: What has working on your art, your conceptual photography, revealed to you about your own self-worth, struggles, and suffering?

A: Working on my conceptual photography has taught me resilience, self-expression, and mostly what I’m capable of. I know life will always be uncertain, I will struggle with different things, but I have a companion and that’s my photography. There are a couple of pieces in the exhibit called “Frida Alan Poe” and in one of them, I made sure to make the scar on my neck visible. This scar is what is left of when I went through thyroid cancer in 2020 and 2021. I was living in a fifth-wheel RV and life was painful and uncertain at that time. I promised myself to show off my photography if I survived the whole thing. Photography has shown me my self-worth by giving me a voice to show people when I hurt, without saying a word.

Q: What has your work as an artist taught you about yourself?

A: This has taught me how brave I have been throughout my life. I never realized that, ‘til now.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: The best advice I have received is to surrender everything to God. I’ve done it and I have seen a change in my life.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I think people who don’t know me personally would be surprised to find out that I’m only 4 feet, 9 inches in height. I look much taller in my self-portraits.

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: My ideal San Diego weekend would be enjoying a hike, flying my drone, having a nice meal, and watching a good movie or documentary. Perhaps, one day sharing those simple things with someone special, besides my children.