By Jillian Mueller
Murals have been popping up on walls all across the Queen City in the past few years, but certain neighborhoods—especially those further away from the Center City area with larger minority and immigrant populations—seem to get less attention than others.
Inspired to make a change in this inequality, Davidson-based artist and 2020 ASC Emerging Creators Fellowship recipient Irisol Gonzalez is creating community murals in three different areas of Charlotte with content that reflects the diverse, vibrant and often under-represented Latinx cultures of the people who live in each location. The first mural, which was completed this June, is located at a Compare Foods international grocery store (3600 N. Sharon Amity Road) in the East Charlotte neighborhood.
“The East side is a wonderful diverse little community that doesn’t really get talked about much, but it’s almost like a big city too…it’s a little hidden gem,” said East Charlotte resident Michael Haithcock. “[The mural] is an asset and it’s very needed. People don’t realize how art affects them, but it’s got a subconscious effect. People would rather go and see nice things and be around things that make them happy and feel good and that’s usually arts or community art – that’s what the East side has needed for a long, long time.”
From planning to painting, Gonzalez invited the local community to participate in all stages of the mural and was overwhelmed when hundreds of volunteers came out to help with every step, from finding a location to developing subject matter and creating the final project. Gonzalez involved anyone who was interested to offer input during the planning phases of the project via her Instagram, bilingual Zoom meetings and discussions on an open Facebook group and was overwhelmed by the response.
“I saw the need and I saw the excitement [for this project] in the community,” said Gonzalez, “but I didn’t understand how much of a necessity it was until we got started.”
Over 260 people logged on to discuss ideas and develop themes related to Latin heritage for the mural. Once the concept was created, Gonzalez hosted community painting days where over 100 people of all ages and experience levels gathered to help paint, meet and connect with other community members and talk to her about the project. In addition to community members, dozens of local working artists and small business owners came out to offer a hand offering everything from help with the painting process, lending equipment to bringing snacks to show their support.
“This project contributed to the community to make everyone involved feel seen, loved and help them to feel a part of something bigger than themselves,” said local artist Sydney Duarte. “The past year and a half has been a roller coaster ride for everyone. Not being able to be around others in the way that we used to has left many feeling alone and depressed, and as I watched each person at the wall, I saw all of their worries fade away. Soaking up the sunshine, laughing, hugging, coming together to create something beautiful.
“Even if they didn’t feel as though they were creative before this, they definitely left knowing that they contributed to something special.”
A Celebration of Charlotte’s Diversity
Artist Meredith Connelly, also a 2020 ASC Emerging Creators Fellowship recipient, also was deeply impacted by the experience.
“I chose to participate with my five-year-old daughter because I wholeheartedly believe in Irisol’s vision and the impact she will undoubtedly continue to make through her community work and murals,” said Connelly. “She has created an approachable platform for empowerment and expression, no matter your age, race, cultural background, or socioeconomic status.”
Connelly also mentioned that the age-inclusive nature of the project was an inspiration for her daughter and the next generation of Charlotte’s creatives.
“When we arrived home after our time at Compare Foods, my daughter was painting with water and a paintbrush on the side of our house as I gardened,” said Connelly, “When I asked her to tell me about her creation, she said ‘I am making a mural.’ Her [Irisol’s] work is planting countless seeds.”
The final product includes poetry in Spanish written by Margarita Dager-Usococvich, lettering by Carla Aaron-Lopez (also known as King Carla) and visuals inspired by the community discussions about cultural heritage and what it means to be Latin American. Gonzalez even included images of beloved community members who made an impact on the neighborhood where the mural is located and had all of her designs approved by both the community and Compare Foods to make sure that the mural was inclusive and represented the diverse nature of the area before they started painting.
“The community effort put together by Irisol is nothing like I’ve seen. I am so proud to support her and be a part of this unity mural project. I was there when she made her first marks on the wall and to see it come to life with all the support from the community is a tribute to the love we all have for Irisol and what she does,” said Charlotte artist Arthur Rogers.
Breaking Down Barriers
If you didn’t get to participate in Gonzalez’s first community mural project, it’s not too late. Gonzalez plans to paint two more community murals in the next few months, including one in the Sugar Creek area and one on South Boulevard.
Gonzalez sees community as essential to “breaking down the barriers that keep us from being our best creative selves,” and plans to incorporate creative placemaking into at least one of these projects in order to provide Latinx creatives of all types, from dancers to photographers to writers and fine artists, with a place to gather, share ideas and create.
“The Latinx creative scene in Charlotte is so dispersed, and it is so necessary to have a space where people can come and feel that there’s a resource for them, to have support” said Gonzalez, “[Access to] a physical space that supports your craft will make a difference in who will continue to do their art, as well as [supporting] those people who are just interested in pursuing a creative outlet.”
Gonzalez sees community-focused spaces as essential to ensure that the Charlotte creative scene is inclusive to immigrants also.
“New immigrants who were artists at home can feel that when they come here that that part of them has to die, because now they’re in survival mode and don’t know how they’re going to get into the scene in Charlotte when you barely speak the language and don’t know anybody,” said Gonzalez, “so we need a resource to will allow [immigrants] to continue to be creative here.”