For many artists out there, to make a living from art is the dream — the end goal. For Rosalia Torres-Weiner, however, reaching that goal still left a void.
Though she once made good money as a commission artist, painting pieces for NASCAR drivers, businesspeople and judges in fancy office buildings and million-dollar homes, she wasn’t happy. In 2012, she stepped away from the commission art trade and followed her heart, coining a brand of activist art she calls “ARTivism.”
Now, Torres-Weiner has integrated technology into her work, launching an app through her studio that allows users to go deeper into the true stories that inspire her paintings.
One part of Torres-Weiner’s job as an artivist includes traveling around Charlotte with an art truck, from which she hosts art activities and sessions in underserved communities — mostly targeting children in neighborhoods that don’t have the same access to art that the city’s more affluent kids do.
The Papalote Project, for example, aims to help children with one or more parents who have been deported through the creation of paper kite art.
During her tours of Charlotte, however, Torres-Weiner noticed that other demographics needed help. Families, especially the older generations, were cut off from accessing more than art.
“Going to the neighborhoods, I realized that they’re not just in need of the arts, but technology,” Torres-Weiner said.
In 2018, through a matching grant with the Arts and Science Council and Google Fiber, Torres-Weiner purchased enough iPads to bring to these art truck sessions and teach all ages about using technology for art.
The mixture of tech and art wasn’t something Torres-Weiner has always been familiar with. In fact, she rarely used technology in her art until 2014, when she traveled to Mexico to care for her ailing mother and left her art supplies behind.
It wasn’t until her husband shipped her an iPad preloaded with a sketch app that she discovered the benefits of drawing on a tablet with her finger.
She used the app to create a multimedia piece titled “I wish that I was dreaming and when I woke up the wall wasn’t there.” The digital piece depicts a young girl closing her eyes as the beautiful landscape behind her is slowly obstructed by a wall and eventually blocked altogether. It’s a clear commentary on the Trump administration’s promises to erect a wall across parts of the southern border of the United States.
And therein lies the other half of her ARTivism: documentation. Although her pieces are large and colorful, the stories behind them are much deeper and often carry a deeper melancholy tone. Torres-Weiner gets inspiration from true stories that she reads in the news and hears about in her community.
One piece Torres-Weiner created, “Uprising Against ICE,” is a reimagining of one of famed Mexican artist Diego Rivera’s 1931 painting “The Uprising.”
The painting depicts Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers struggling with a family of four in the same style as Rivera’s depiction of Latinx workers clashing with uniformed officers.
“Uprising Against ICE” was initially displayed at the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Community Museum as part of the Gateways/Portales exhibition documenting the experiences of Latinx migrants and immigrants in Baltimore, Maryland; Washington, D.C..; Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte. The piece currently resides in the museum’s permanent collection along with a commissioned mural and a piece titled “Madre Protectora” by Torres-Weiner (pictured in the background of the photo at the top of this story).
The museum’s chief curator, Samir Meghelli saw the impact that the reimagined Rivera piece had on the exhibition that curator Ariana Curtis created and noted that the cities highlighted in the exhibition are mostly overlooked in the conversation around immigration in the United States.
“‘Uprising Against ICE’ was a reimagining of the famous Diego Rivera piece, yet it modernized and recontextualized it and spoke to the urgent issues around immigrant and the harrowing experiences of many who try to immigrate to this country,” Meghelli said. “People were, on the one hand, intrigued to see the reimaging of this historical Diego Rivera piece but also moved by how movingly Torres-Weiner made that piece relate to the political-social context of today.”
Torres-Weiner strongly believes that documenting the stories of immigrants and the Latinx community is important for future generations. During a time of public outcry against detention centers, she gave herself the job of documenting what is happening at the border and in Charlotte.
“I say we have to learn from our history so we do not do it again. This happened to different groups, different people, like black people, Japanese people, the Jewish,” Torres-Weiner said. “And there were people documenting this like photography, like stories or anything, and now we’re able to learn and not do it, not to make those mistakes again.”
Taking her role of documentarian one step further, Torres-Weiner has created an augmented reality app that allows users to interact with Dreamers, a series of portraits that depicts local community members who are here under the DREAM Act, which allows a path to residency for immigrants who came to the United States as minors.
The RedCalacAR app — a play on her studio name, Red Calaca Studio — allows users to point their phone at each portrait and hear the subject of the painting tell their own story.
One painting of longtime Charlotte activist Oliver Merino plays his voice through the app: “Hello my name is Oliver, I am 29 years old, I’m originally from Mexico, but I’ve been living in the United States for 19 years now, mostly in North Carolina. I recently moved to D.C. — Washington, D.C. — to be closer to my partner, but I consider North Carolina my home.”
Merino goes on to state his desires to continue doing community work despite an uncertain future as an undocumented immigrant in America.
To hear his whole story, download the app and point it at his portrait (pictured left).
One of Torres-Weiner’s paintings, “Silencio” was inspired by the true story of a little girl whose parents were deported. Although she’s an American citizen, the girl was so afraid of being deported that she refused to speak. In the painting, the girl covers her mouth with her hands, while flowers cover much of her body. White letters spell ICE on a black background, looming large behind her.
Torres-Weiner has since sold the piece, and was able to track down the girl who inspired the art and gift her half the money she made from the sale. “And I cried, I cried because it was like finding a lost child,” she recalled.
Torres-Wiener is no stranger to the struggles that the Latinx community faces. She came to the United States from Xochimilco, a borough in Mexico City, not to run from violence, but to escape government corruption, racism and sexism.
“I came here because more opportunities,” she explained. “Then later in my life, art found me and then from there that’s all I’m going to do. But I love this country and I’m very happy to be American. My kids were born here, I don’t think I would go back. This is my home, Charlotte is my home.”
Another facet of her work is advocating for immigrants that live and work in the city. When she lived in Los Angeles, her rights as a worker were violated consistently, she said.
Despite the struggles that immigrants face when they cross the border and how difficult it is to immigrate to the United States for a new life and opportunities, she still understands why people do it.
But the Trump administration makes it difficult for Latinx immigrants to find safety, compared to other ethnic and national groups in the past. “Before, they welcomed the Italians, the Irish,” Torres-Weiner said. “But why not the Central Americans, why not us?”
Charlotte could follow the lead of other sanctuary cities in the country and be more welcoming to immigrants looking for asylum, according to Torres-Weiner.
“We should be a sanctuary city, that’s what we need to do. Remember, there were Latinos that built those buildings in Charlotte. They’re the ones who are mowing the grass, the ones who are feeding us, there are ones like me who are painting your walls and making your city beautiful,” she explained. “I think we should go for that. Show this administration that we’re not part of that deal.”
In the meantime, Torres-Weiner is picking up bigger brushes and fighting against racism and xenophobia through her art, especially public art. She hopes that her murals give a sense of home to those who view them while she files her art away in the landscape of American documents.
“Public art is free and anybody can see it and enjoy it, giving our Latino community that feeling of belonging, like, ‘This is my home too, this is where I am,’” Torres-Wiener said. “Public art is so important, it just makes you feel safe in your community. For a mural I painted on Central Avenue, they said, ‘This is a good place to paint a mural.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, because there have been deportations that happen right here and we need to document that.’”
Then on Aug. 2, Torres-Weiner will speak at Providence Day School about her ARTivism in the community as part of Creative Mornings Charlotte’s monthly series centered on justice.
As a fixture in the Latinx community, Torres-Weiner is open to speaking about her experiences and her art, while finding joy in discussing complex social justice topics with younger generations.
“I love talking to young people because they ask me a lot of questions, they want to know, and if I made a little difference in one or two students, I’m really happy,” she explained. “When they go to vote, they know a little bit of the background of the things that are affecting the Latino community.”