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New vinyl art in Chapel Hill aims to inspire diversity and community resilience

Renzo Ortega poses for a portrait with his work "Successions". The new mural at TOPO Distillery pays tribute to family bond dynamics, especially those of family members that have left and have yet to return.

Downtown Chapel Hill welcomed the installation of four new vibrant pieces of vinyl art last week, featuring work by local artists Renzo Ortega, Luis Franco, Antonio Alanís and Kiara Sanders.

Melissa Bartoletta, Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture marketing and communications coordinator, said once the pandemic hit, the division was looking for ways to reallocate money and brighten downtown spaces while highlighting the art of people of color in the community. They put out a call in the fall of 2020 for pieces that would reflect inclusion, diversity and community resilience to display on the walls and windows of downtown businesses.  

Artist Antonio Alanís created a vinyl piece called “We, Too, Sing America,” a homage to Langston Hughes and his poem “I, Too,” which for Alanís embodies the idea of a metaphorical table and who gets a seat. Alanís said this conception of opportunity is well suited to an existence in the United States.  

“I chose this specifically because the African American community along with the Hispanic Latinx community has been fighting for equality for centuries,” Alanís said. “I was thinking really closely about what it means to belong in the United States and to have a seat and opportunity. I chose it to really pay my respects for the African American community.”

Community, for Alanis, means fighting for equality and for social justice.

“What I do in my work is think about ways that we as community members can engage in conversations about equality and social justice within a diverse community,” Alanís said.

As an artist and an educator, he is critical of performative activism and instead encourages crucial conversations about real change. Additionally, Alanís used the opportunity to acknowledge the essential workers that worked tirelessly during the pandemic.

“It was just an encompassing work to talk about the meaning of humanity, the meaning of living and surviving through some of the hardest times ever,” Alanís said.

For his vinyl piece, Alanís illustrated individuals from diverse backgrounds in hopes that his piece will give those who don’t normally see themselves positively represented in public artwork the opportunity to see art featuring people who look like them.  

Alanís said he doesn’t know many Latinx artists who have the opportunity to be commissioned for public art like this, so he hopes to reassure young people that being an artist, regardless of what society says, is doable with hard work and dedication. 

Artist Renzo Ortega created “Successions,” to depict the cycles and transitions that families go through over the years and said he was looking forward to the opportunity to integrate his drawings with the community space.

“I believe we are just part of a continuation of life," he said. "We are part of a transition.”

He emphasized that family history and traditions influence who you become and you can't separate yourself from that. He finds qualms with a society that perpetuates self-reinvention and lack of care for the past and tradition.

“Before you reinvent yourself, you should try to figure out about what your grandparents were doing, and then continue with that line,” Ortega said. 

To Ortega, public art is all about accessibility and creating conversations between the artwork and its audience. In the creation of “Successions,” he added symbols that tie into the ideas he captured, including allusions to diversity, immigration and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I don’t have to write it in my mural because the messages are already in the pictures,” Ortega said.

Ortega expressed concerns about the frequent utilization of public art to attract people, developers and buyers.

“Unfortunately, artists become elements of the gentrification process,” Ortega said. “In many cases you have random artists placing images on top of buildings without thinking about the location.”

In this case, however, he sees the function of public art as serving a different purpose. 

“The mural is part not only of the building but also part of the community. I really wanted to do something that is connected with the area,” Ortega said.

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