Prodigy and persistence: Meet Twin Cities painter Fina Mooney

Fina Mooney, 14, of Minneapolis, poses for a portrait
Fina Mooney, 14, of Minneapolis, poses for a portrait with two of her drawings at The Art Academy in St. Paul on Dec. 4, 2018.
Caroline Yang | MPR News

Fina Mooney may be prepared to settle an age-old artistic debate: Are artists born or made?

An up-and-coming painter from northeast Minneapolis who has won awards and scholarships locally and internationally, Mooney specializes in Renaissance-style portraits of women. She has twice won ribbons at the Minnesota State Fair. She's been invited to local and international art workshops and has studied at the Florence Academy of Art in Italy in its 2017 summer scholarship program.

She's 14 years old.

A drawing by Fina Mooney.
Drawings by Fina Mooney. The drawing on the left is a self-portrait.
Caroline Yang | MPR News

Fina said she has her parents to thank for exposing her to fine art at an early age. She had just turned 5 when her parents began taking her to art museums. "I would just be in awe of all of these pieces," she recalled. "I would say to my mom, 'I want to paint like that. I want to be that.'"

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That experience cemented Fina's drive to become an artist and convinced her parents to sign her up for classes at the Art Academy in St. Paul.

Over the next nine years, Mooney would spend more and more time at the Art Academy. Dedication made her what she is now: a budding artist with serious technical mastery.

"I wasn't the type of kid going for like, the fun, crafty, after-school type of art," she said. "I wanted to take my skills to the extreme and find out how good I can be."

Fina has worked with color pencils and watercolors, and she's moving into oil painting. This placed her in oil study classes with adults more than twice her age. Whenever she felt intimidated or out of her depth, however, her self-confidence and determination sustained her.

Students take an adult painting class.
Students take an adult painting class at The Art Academy in St. Paul on Dec. 4, 2018.
Caroline Yang | MPR News

"Not only do I need to do more work, but I'm on the right track," she said.

Jim Robinson, founder of the Art Academy, has taught Fina since she started classes there.

"The one thing that sets Fina apart from everyone else is her dedication," he said. "She decided at a young age that she was going to start applying herself. She's never gone off course with that."

Fina knows she's fortunate to have been born into a family that encourages her artistic pursuits and supports her every step of the way. Her uncle is the only other artist in the family. And if she's been lucky it wasn't the kind of luck that comes from being born with abundant natural ability.

Fina Mooney, 14, of Minneapolis, sets up her supplies to paint.
Fina Mooney sets up her supplies to paint before class at The Art Academy.
Caroline Yang | MPR News

"A lot of people will think it was luck, or that I was born with this," she said. "I just sat for 10 hours a week, learning how to draw."

Fina admits the path she's taken and some of the sacrifices she's made won't sound like fun to a lot of kids.

"I have friends who would call me over for sleepovers, and I would make up excuses like, 'Oh, my parents won't let me.' But I love art, and I have to be at these classes."

Robinson, Fina's instructor, says she is proof that all kids have the potential to draw or paint.

"That's not what our culture teaches us. What it teaches us is that some people are talented, and some people are not," he said.

And maybe not all kids have to give up sleepovers or hanging out with friends. Maybe all it takes, says Fina, is following what moves you.

"You don't have to make something like a Renaissance drawing. Make whatever you feel expresses yourself," she said. "If you feel that drive, take that drive."