From Peru, with love, to Philadelphia’s northwest

by Len Lear
Posted 1/18/24

As a child in Peru, Elena Maria Aldrete loved to color, like so many children all over the world.

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From Peru, with love, to Philadelphia’s northwest


As a child in Peru, Elena Maria Aldrete loved to color, like so many children all over the world. “My mother gave me huge rolls of newsprint that she got from my uncle Pedro, who worked for a newspaper,” Aldrete recalled last week. “With a big box of Crayola crayons by my side, I spent days lying on the floor coloring in the sunshine.”

The would-be artist's family moved when her Panamanian father relocated for work. Although she was born in Berkeley, California, by the time she was two, her family was living in Panama, then Costa Rica for two years and then in Peru for most of her formative years.

“Throughout my childhood, I felt surrounded by indigenous history and culture, and I loved how spirits from the past — whimsical animals, plants and other beings — inhabited local pottery, textiles and baskets,” she said. “This sense of spiritual connection has remained with me throughout my life.”

Aldrete's stunning images are currently on exhibit until Jan. 31 at the Center on the Hill in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8855 Germantown Ave. The show highlights Elena's recent work using watercolors, gouache and pastels, often on black paper. One section of the exhibit displays work inspired by Aldrete's time growing up in Peru.

“Most recently,” she said, “I discovered black watercolor paper and realized how it rendered color, which I love so much, even more magical. I also shifted toward abstract art and found those ancient spirits revealing themselves in my paintings. 

“As I hope people will see in this exhibit of my recent work, I now feel more connected to the plants, animals and people of the vast universe of humanity and their flow of love and positive energy. I thank these spirits who accompany and inspire me on my journey through life. I also thank my husband, friends and family who are all part of me.”

At age 21, Aldrete made her way to the U.S. with $1,000 in her pocket. Then she moved from Newport News, Virginia, to Philadelphia to take a job as a live-in nanny and be near a friend. 

One of eight siblings, she could not afford to attend a university here, so she worked at several jobs, most extensively at the American Friends Service Committee's International Desk. Still, she continued to pursue art by taking classes, often at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), in drawing, painting, printmaking and watercolor, as well as basketry and pottery. She also took jobs that required bilingual speakers in government, nonprofits and the private sector. 

All the while she was taking art classes at Allens Lane Art Center, Woodmere Art Museum and the Fleisher Art Memorial, and pottery classes at a senior center in Roxborough.

Now a 73-year-old, 40-year resident of Mt. Airy, Aldrete has become known primarily for her abstract art, although for many years she did strictly representational work. 

“The thing I enjoy the most about abstract art,” she said last week, “is that it is just me that comes out, my unique creation. I am not struggling to capture something representational. It works best when I am free of distractions, listening to music and just playing … I am closer to achieving what my intuitive self wants to communicate. I do not plan my work; I just start it.”

Aldrete was a member of the Northwest Artist Collective for many years. Her works were exhibited in many group shows at the Sedgwick Theater, Stapeley Hall in Germantown, Allens Lane Art Center, Journey's Way in Roxborough and PAFA, among others. Her work can be seen on the Instagram site, EMAldrete. She is also a member of the Joined Hands Artists Collective, most of whose members live in the Northwest.

Aldrete's husband, John Adams, opened Community Audio, which sells electronic equipment, in 1980. For many years it was at 8020 Germantown Ave. Adams sold it in June 2016, to an employee, Bill McKinley. Now called Chestnut Hill Audio, it moved next door to 8022 Germantown Ave.

But the person who had the biggest impact on Aldrete's life was her mother, Barbara Johnson Aldrete.

 “She was so full of love and compassion,” said Elena. “She was dedicated to her family and saved us from many difficulties. She was never afraid of confronting anything. She was a survivor. She taught me love, simplicity and strength and made me an excellent problem-solver and survivor.”

For more information, call 215-247-8855 or email

Len Lear can be reached at