In a culture obsessed with labels, placing people in strict boxes and unrealistic—largely Eurocentric—beauty standards, embracing the eccentricities of our appearances and personalities is often frowned upon rather than considered a healthy display of self-confidence. That’s why Unusual Girls has resonated with thousands of people across the U.S. and Latin America. The Puerto Rico-based art project celebrates our oddities and accentuates the aspects of our characters and physical features that make us extraordinary.
Founded in 2016, Unusual Girls is a multi-platform project by San Juan-residing artist Bianca Montoya. Through personalized portraits, murals, merchandise and events, Montoya lauds the weird, the loud and the mismatched.
“My goal is to find the unusual in every person,” Montoya, 26, tells Remezcla. “I extract the weird, funky and cool things that you have inside you that you don’t usually wear or show, and I portray them in my art.”
The self-described unusual girl is able to capture our peculiarities through a series of questions she asks each of her clients. Among them: “What do you most enjoy doing?” What do you love about yourself?” “What makes you unusual?”
By getting to understand the quirky details of people’s personalities, she’s able to portray them artistically through vibrant hues, patterns, fabrics and sequins. Her portraits represent both the physical and immaterial personas of her subjects. To emphasize the offbeat, for example, Montoya might paint the person’s hair polychromatic or color their skin in shades of purple or green. For clients who prefer their portraits to appear more realistic, she’ll convey their idiosyncrasies through patterned backdrops, gaudy accessories and glaring facial expressions. For instance, if the person enjoys yoga and meditation, then Montoya might draw them with their eyes closed. If they’re bossy and often told they have an attitude problem, then the artist will likely depict them with a resting bitch face.
“I prefer my paintings to portray their personality through their expressions. I’d rather hone in on her personality traits rather than her physical traits unless it’s something great like she has really bushy eyebrows,” the Puerto Rican-Colombian artist says.
For many, the personalized pieces are inspirational or aspirational—a joy and liberation people want for themselves even if they haven’t yet achieved it. The art gives individuals, often for the first time, the permission to accept and extol parts of themselves that they had previously felt shame about or hadn’t even discovered.
“When I send people the questions, a lot of times they respond that it’s hard to answer because they would never talk about themselves like this, they never asked themselves these questions,” Montoya says. “So, for some, they are participating in a process of finding themselves, learning things about themselves they didn’t know before or considering different looks. They are realizing that them being this weird is actually cool.”
It’s a lesson the spirited woman behind the project had to learn early. The daughter of a father who paints and a mother who specializes in special effects makeup, Montoya has always been drawn to color, glitter and art—and she has long used her body and attire as canvases. For classmates, that made her “the weird one.” Meanwhile, school administrators villainized her eclecticness by punishing her for donning multi-colored hair and boldly-toned nail lacquer.
“I would always stand out, and because of that, I was always called to the principal’s office. It was a case where when you’re prohibited from doing something, you just want to do it more,” she says. “I think that’s what I like about the unusual: I like getting away from the standard.”
From the success of her enterprise, it’s apparent that more people want to join her in the sparkly, sequin-sewed land of the jazzy weirdos. To date, Montoya has painted 20 murals, completed more than 300 portraits and even has an IGTV series called The Unusuals Show, where she interviews quirky women leading endeavors in the arts, fashion, beauty, business and more. On a monthly basis, Montoya averages about one commissioned acrylic-painted canvas piece and four drawn paper portraits. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic has forced people all over the world to work from their bare-walled homes, demand has jumped. Some months, she is painting four canvases and drawing six paper portraits.
Soon, Montoya plans on taking her Unusual Girls—which she is considering renaming Unusual Portraits to reflect the rise in commissions from men and nonbinary individuals—to a new medium: pots.
Regardless of the name or the canvas, however, the goal remains the same: to shine a light on the weird and help everyday people revel in the oddities that society has attempted to shame them for.
“It’s about creating and finding an outlet where everything is accepted,” Montoya says. “It’s an acceptance of people being themselves.”