Artist’s fluid paintings at Oakton College emanated from near-death experience, she says

Before the day Gabriela Leyva was lying on a hospital bed bleeding profusely, before she decided to change careers to a helping profession, before she created the paintings in an exhibit that just opened at Oakton College in Des Plaines, she was a businesswoman.

But after her third child was born, she had an experience that changed the life she had known, she said. It set her on the path to getting two master’s degrees, becoming a therapist, moving to Highland Park and mounting the “Heaven on Earth” art exhibit at Oakton, where 10 of her works are on display through June 28.

“It’s really very difficult to describe the incredible effect” of her art, said Nathan Harpaz, museum curator for Oakton’s Koehnline Museum. “Gabriela works on several layers of tulle (fabric) that has transparency from layer to layer.”

“It’s mixed media creating almost the feeling of a hologram. When you face it, it almost comes out of the surface. Regular photo images don’t give the effect of the technique.”

Leyva’s art reflects the unfolding of what she calls her near-death experience.

It was 20 years ago exactly, she says, and she was 32. Two weeks after giving birth to her third child, she developed a uterine infection and landed in the hospital, with her sister, who is a doctor, and a nurse in attendance as she bled more and more severely.

“It took me years to be able to put this into words because it’s difficult to explain and impossible to prove,” she said.

“I just left my body and saw it (lying) there and I was flying super-fast.”

When she looked down at her hands, it amazed her that they were in the same shape they had always been, but they were now made of white light, she said.

She saw a “humongous” sun in front of her. “I was so excited and happy, feeling connection, love, joy,” she said, and thinking, ‘I’m at home.’

“I recognized that sun, and I was elated.

“There are not words to explain the sensation of being out of your body. It’s immense love, connection and certainty at being part of everything.”

As she reveled in a beautiful garden, she said the question of whether she wanted to live arose for her and she answered yes without hesitation. In that moment, her eyes fluttered open in her hospital bed, she said, to find her sister and the nurse crying because they thought she had died.

Scientists have documented the phenomenon of near-death experiences, finding that they often involved bright light and out-of-body experiences, and that they are not uncommon, but interpretations vary as to what they mean, according to Kevin Nelson, M.D., as published by the National Library of Medicine.

Leyva underwent a subsequent surgery by a specialist, and said she woke up and her mind was clear about her purpose in life. After quitting her job as a buyer for Walmart, she began studying human development and became a therapist, including alternative therapies.

Leyva earned a Master of Education in counseling from DePaul’s College of Education last year and, according to Oakton College, also earned a degree in Human Development from Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City.

Leyva also took art classes and developed a regular meditation practice, When thinking about her art, she remembered her time dancing ballet and the fluidity of the tulle fabric, which is often used on ballerinas’ costumes. She experimented with using it as an art medium.

“I thought,’maybe I can paint the sensation of the near-death experience,” she recalled.

After moving here from Mexico in 2011 and settling in Highland Park, her first art exhibit in Crystal Lake in 2019 drew hundreds, with many people telling her of their own experiences “that connect us with the life after this life,” she said.

Since becoming a therapist, Leyva said she has spent a lot of time working with families in grief. “For me, this transition from life to death — it has changed,” she said. “Sometimes I share this story, especially if it helps (the survivors) understand that they are fine, they’re OK.”

If you go: Koehnline Museum of Art, Oakton College, 1600 E. Golf Road, Des Plaines. September through May, Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., and Saturday 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. For June through August, Monday – Thursday 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. A map of the campus is available at