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UNC artist receives climate art award for short film on humanity and the environment

As Alexa Velez puts it, her home state of Florida is the center of hurricanes, lightning storms and all kinds of environmental activities. 

Florida is where her passion for the environment began, said Velez, a multidisciplinary artist and digital lab manager for the UNC Department of Art and Art History. 

And through this passion, Velez recently earned the Frankenthaler Climate Art Award for her short film “Of the Air.” 

She and two other winners — Maurício Chades of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Douglas Tolman of the University of Utah — received the award. Each winner received a $15,000 grant for their respective projects. 

Velez's recent project, titled "Of the Air," examines how humanity is both dependent and disconnected from the natural world and environment. 

“On a grander scale, with Mother Nature herself, we are sort of at the mercy of all of these elements,” Velez said. 

'Of the Air'

The short film, part of Velez’s thesis project for her Master of Fine Arts in visual arts at Washington University in St. Louis, was made in response to the planet's climate crisis. 

For "Of the Air," Velez choreographed a four-minute dance piece, which she described as a duet between herself and the breeze from the air conditioner in her kitchen. 

“It kind of started off with my sort of annoyance with this AC unit," Velez said. "This big machine that's really loud and really sort of overwhelming the space too, and how I was kind of relying on it for relief from the summer heat."

Velez said she wanted to play with the idea of the wind manipulating her body rather than her controlling the air temperature and flow. She angled the camera in a way that captured her personal view of how humans can box themselves in. 

During her final semester of graduate school, Velez's classes were remote due to COVID-19. Because of this, she felt it was only appropriate to film in her kitchen because that is where she came up with the idea.

As an emerging artist, Velez said she is very honored to receive this award. 

She considers "Of the Air," along with many of her other projects, to be $0 budget projects. Through the award's funds, she can explore additional locations to film future projects, as well as the type of equipment she can use. 

“I’m really excited to explore my practice further,” Velez said. 

Patricia Olynyk, the Florence and Frank Bush Professor of Art at Washington University, was one of the primary advisers on Velez's thesis committee. 

“I think that it is unusual for a performance artist to be drawing from such a strong sort of sedition of dance in their work,” Olynyk said. "There are a few artists doing that, but she's really found this incredible, interstitial space between dance performance and performance art."

Olynyk, after working with Velez for the two years she was in her graduate program, said the pandemic had very little effect on the creativity of Velez’s art. 

She said Velez is adaptable and resilient in her ability to retreat into a studio space and make a film from her apartment. 

"I think this is extraordinary," Olynyk said.

Work at UNC

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As a multimedia technician at UNC, Velez oversees the digital lab and maintains equipment within the Department of Art and Art History. 

She was drawn to North Carolina for its landscape. She cited her love for the mountains, sea and coast, as well as the art scene the state has to offer.

Lindsay Fulenwider, the department business officer and manager in the Department of Art and Art History,  appointed Velez last year. She said the department was changing for the better. 

“We have a lot of diverse faculty now — which is good," Fulenwider said. "We have art history and studio, so we have two curriculums that work together, and I think we work together well. We are a small department but we are strong and we have good leadership.”

The department has worked to expand and strengthen the core of the program through department leadership, connections between other departments and more, Fulenwider said. 

Velez said she is currently trying to figure out what her next project will be. She said the grant is encouraging to her future artistic endeavors, especially as a young artist. 

Olynyk said her program at Washington University was incredibly fortunate to have Velez. 

"I think that graduate school can be challenging in a way that it's difficult for the students to take on the challenges of a very very high level of critical inquiry as well as production, and I just have to say Alexa was always really clear on what her role was,” Olynyk said. “She was a model student.”