'Westofchester' pays homage to suburban nostalgia. The result is uniquely Miami
Sometimes you have to leave your hometown to appreciate it.
For local artist Melissa Gutierrez, the nostalgia for her Miami suburban neighborhood was so strong, she turned it into art. Her work has become a popular Instagram page called Westofchester, with now over 4,900 followers.
The colorful digital illustrations focus on the facade of buildings and their memorable features.
There's the massive lettering of "DRUGS" that wrapped around the corner of the now-gone pharmacy and diner Allen’s Drugs on Bird Road. Or the instantly recognizable, bright red and yellow-striped roof of El Palacio de los Jugos.
It was a way to recreate her childhood memories of Westchester and surrounding areas. In the winter of 2020, the 30-year-old moved to New York City for a job opportunity — she soon found herself missing home.
“I think as a teenager, I was really longing to go elsewhere. And I think that I was able to really finally understand how unique and lucky of an experience it was to grow up in Miami once I moved away,” said Gutierrez.
She started to draw buildings that loomed large as she grew up in the area. Westofchester made her realize that other people also feel an emotional connection to them.
Some of her other most popular illustrations are of the Redbird Shopping Center — also on Bird Road — or the Dandy Bear in Kendall, which also doesn’t exist anymore.
"A Kendall legend," reads one of the comments on Instagram of Gutierrez's Dandy Bear illustration. "Something about the pizza and Coke out of a pitcher made it all better," another person commented.
But in Gutierrez’s art, you’ll recognize some other iconic Miami places.
"It almost feels like the work that I'm making is serving as like a communal yearbook."
One of her most recent works depicts the entrance to Santa's Enchanted Forest. Another, the front of the Versailles Cuban restaurant. There's also the Islas Canarias drive-thru on Coral Way. And of course, Flannigan's.
“The places were so specific to me and I wasn't sure if it would resonate. But a visit back home, that's when I started to realize that more people from Miami were engaging and connecting with my work online,” said Gutierrez.
“These shared experiences, these love of shopping plazas. It almost feels like the work that I'm making is serving as like a communal yearbook.”
From objects to places
Westofchester began as a platform to showcase the work Gutierrez was creating at the time. It ranged from objects —like saint candles — to food, like arepas and Jupiña. It then progressed to more specific places around Miami.
The first of these illustrations includes the neon blue and pink entrance to a Miami Subs. Another, the front of what used to be known as Mall of the Americas. It's now called Midway Crossings.
"My parents worked at this mall when I was a kid so I grew up going there every day after school," one of Westofchester's followers shared on Instagram, along with a heart emoji. Another person shared that his father used to be a janitor at the mall.
Gutierrez is a digital artist, creating her illustrations on her iPad, using software called Fresco. She also works as a senior designer at Adobe and spends her time between New York and Miami.
Her gateway to art was film photography. The love for the medium began as a teenager, when she already started to build a portfolio. That led to a major in photography at Parsons School of Design in New York City and the start of a career in media.
“I was a photo editor at a few magazines like Departures, Condé Nast Traveler,” said Gutierrez. “Then I realized… that wasn't the path that I was really interested in. I felt like I was a bit constrained. The work that I was doing was a bit more administrative, so I kind of longed for a way to have a more creative outlet outside of photography.”
After realizing she wanted to create work outside of photography, Gutierrez came back to Miami to rediscover her true path.
She enrolled at the University of Miami, and received a masters in fine arts through the Interactive Media Program. Gutierrez worked odd jobs, some freelance jobs and, ultimately, found her way to design and illustration.
But her background in photography continues to impact how she illustrates.
Gutierrez often references to the work of photographer Larry Sultan, specifically his collection of work titled Pictures from Home. She says it's a major influence in the way she thinks of composition and color schemes.
Pop artist David Hockney is another influence, especially the playful nature of his work, she says, and the format of his latest work that's done on an iPad. Julia Rothman's illustrations of New York were also a big motivator in Gutierrez wanting to carry out that tribute to Miami.
"I feel like my work is rooted in memory, while also working to transform what we may not typically recognize as art, and zoom in on the aspects of the everyday through details like light, shadows, and playfulness," said Gutierrez.
Hearing stories, building community
A passion project, Gutierrez runs Westofchester during her time off. She also sells prints of her illustrations online.
When it comes to deciding what to illustrate next, Gutierrez said she has a sheet full of ideas, some of which come from recommendations that fans of Westofchester have. People can submit recommendations in an ongoing Google form she has set up.
“I really want to get that community involvement more into these works,” said Gutierrez. “A lot of people have shared a lot of memories when they share these suggestions. So I'm wondering about a way to tie in other stories beyond my own with these illustrations.”
Some people want their high schools represented. She’s also thinking about the Youth Fair.
“It's been a way to hear their stories and build community and make friends that I hadn't had previously before,” said Gutierrez. “All through these places that, if they exist, have gone through some changes, the neighborhood has evolved. And if they don't exist, just reminiscing for a time before.”
Gutierrez has an online shop set up for Westofchester, but people can also buy her artwork through Instagram's shopping feature. There are over 30 illustrations — old and new — available for sale, some even as mini-prints. The prices range from $15 to $25.