A storybook depicts a little boy unfurling a kite to release the sorrow of losing his father. A portrait of an immigrant advocate emerges from the confluence of vibrant colors. A multi-hued public mural celebrates a community. These are just some of the stories Rosalia Torres-Weiner tells through her art.
The Mexican-born multidisciplinary artist is best known for her boldly colored, animated murals that depict immigrants, neighbors and friends as fellow Americans. For Torres-Weiner, her work is as much a calling as a career. Creating and sharing stories at the intersection of art and activism — a storyteller with a mission — years ago she coined the term “artivist” to describe her work.
“I’m a reporter like you,” Torres-Weiner tells me. She’s also a dynamo, a whirlwind of activity who approaches her life’s work with infectious energy and enthusiasm.
When I call the artivist at her Charlotte home, she’s working on multiple projects at various stages of completion. If the city’s art scene is experiencing a pandemic-induced slowdown, there’s little evidence of it here.
Each Friday, Torres-Weiner partners with master puppeteer Hobey Ford to give a puppet workshop to North Carolina school children via Zoom. The virtual residency integrates puppets, performances and storytelling while teaching children to make their own puppets.
“I love it, because I’m also learning,” Torres-Weiner offers. “The children who look like me, they are probably thinking, ‘This lady’s Mexican. She made it. I can make it too!’”
Concurrently, Torres-Weiner is creating a group of commissioned paintings for the Moore & Van Allen law firm. Focusing on themes of inclusion and diversity, the artwork will grace the firm’s annual report.
Torres-Weiner is also collaborating with two Latinx activists, Moises Serrano and Cornelio Campos, for a June 2021 exhibition in Greensboro. She’s currently painting a portrait of one of the activists, queer and undocumented Latinx advocate Serrano, for the exhibit as part of her ongoing series of “Dreamers” portraits.
At the exhibit, Torres-Weiner’s subject and former Yadkinville resident Serrano will be screening Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America, a 2016 documentary about his plight.
The paintings Torres-Weiner is bringing to the exhibition will feature augmented reality. RedCalacAR, a free app developed by her husband Ben Weiner for her “Dreamers” series, allows people to hear each painting’s subject speak.
Two murals have also been added to Torres-Weiner’s “to-do” list. In the Belmont neighborhood, she’s prepping the side of a Seigle Avenue building for a characteristically colorful mural. The project, which she took on after winning a competition, was set for last year, but then postponed due to COVID-19. Torres-Weiner says she can’t wait to get started on the mural in February, one of two she has slated for the month. The second is at a private residence, a historic home in the Elizabeth neighborhood.
As if that’s not enough, Torres-Weiner has also been in touch with the owners of the Metropolitan in Uptown Charlotte for more work. After checking out Torres-Weiner’s Instagram account, the owners there requested a custom design for their headquarters.
Abuelo’s flute & the pretend camera
Given all this activity, it’s ironic that the project proving most challenging is a task she’s undertaking not for others but for herself. Torres-Weiner is learning to play the flute.
To be accurate, she’s re-learning the instrument. As a 5-year-old she played flute in Mexico City’s first children’s orchestra. Soon after, she was gifted a wooden French flute from the early 1900s that had once belonged to her grandfather Benito Canales, a conductor for a Mexican military band. Torres-Weiner brought the flute with her when she left Mexico for the U.S., but as marriage, kids and career happened, she stopped playing.
Her interest in playing was rekindled when she spied the flute in her studio. The problem, Torres-Weiner says, is that she learned all those years ago to play in Spanish. Now she’s relearning in English.
“It was, ‘do re mi fa so la ti do,’ and now it’s B flat and F sharp,” Torres-Weiner says. “It hurts my head.”
She started lessons with Charlotte-based music instruction company Bold Music and created flashcards to illustrate the fingering positions for notes. As she speaks to Queen City Nerve from her home, Torres-Weiner is facing the flashcards set next to the sheet music on her music stand, which in turn stands alongside her easel where she is working on a portrait of Dreamer and longtime Charlotte activist Oliver Merino, who currently lives in Washington D.C.
“I just want to play the flute again,” Torres-Weiner says. “My grandfather would be so proud of me.”
Torres-Weiner grew up in Xochimilco, a formerly independent town 15 miles from Mexico City.
“City people would come to my town to buy flowers,” she remembers. “Since I was a little kid, I wanted to be an artist, [but] I didn’t have a choice.” With one sister going to school to become a lawyer and the other studying to be a doctor, Torres-Weiner earned a business administration degree in Mexico City, but she fell back on art throughout her childhood.
Torres-Weiner says her father had a weakness for firearms and alcohol. When he came home in a dangerous mood, Torres-Weiner would duck under a table, where she would hide with her two sisters and younger brother.
“The table was covered with a big tablecloth, and I would entertain my siblings by making cartoons of them,” she remembers. “I pretended I had a camera and I would take pictures of them.”
Torres-Weiner placed the drawings in a matchbox and pretended to develop the photos. This kept the children occupied and unafraid until it was time to emerge from hiding.
“My art was a way of survival for me, a necessity,” Torres-Weiner offers. “It has been with me — my best friend.”
Torres-Weiner left home to manage the housekeeping department in a large hotel in Cancun, and even there, her proficiency as an artist proved useful. Her primarily Latina staff could never remember the foreign names of their repeat customers, so Torres-Weiner created a series of humorous cartoons to enable the staff to learn the strange-sounding names.
Foreign visitors to the hotel instilled wanderlust in Torres-Weiner. When her eldest sister died, Torres-Weiner felt there was little to keep her in Mexico. She left for California. In Los Angeles, she met and married her husband, Ben Weiner. After he completed his degree in technology, the couple, along with their children Paloma and Brandon, moved to Charlotte.
“We thought it was a beautiful place to raise the kids,” Torres-Weiner says. “I remember seeing a church on every corner, baseball fields, kids playing and parents attending their games.” At the time the young family moved to the Queen City, Torres-Weiner was a flight attendant for US Airways. “I wanted to see my family [in Mexico] again, and I wanted to visit Paris,” she says.
When the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks stunned the nation in 2001, Ben Weiner asked his wife to stop flying. He suggested that she pursue her interest in art.
“He supported me,” Torres-Weiner remembers. “So, I started making murals in the kids’ rooms.” In short order, business boomed. Torres-Weiner went from painting murals in friends’ and neighbors’ houses, to creating art for NASCAR drivers, judges and doctors. “I was making good money, and providing jobs to other artists who worked with me,” she remembers.
Then Wall Street malfeasance crashed the economy in 2008, inspiring Torres-Weiner to go in a different, more impactful direction.
Artivism, papalotes & puppets
Torres-Weiner began using art to document the stories of fellow Latinos in her community, she says, and that’s when she coined her new epithet. “I redirected my commercial art to artivism,” Torres-Weiner says.
She opened Red Calaca Studio in NoDa. She painted murals for exhibitions at McColl Center for Arts and Innovation, Levine Museum of the New South, UNCC’s Projective Eye Gallery and many more. “[The murals] talk about Latinos in the South, how the South is changing us and how we’re changing the South,” she offers.
One mural graces the cover of a National Geographic American history textbook.
Though much of Torres-Weiner’s work is exuberant and vigorous, boasting bold colors that represent her Mexican heritage, there is more to her murals than energy and celebration. A melancholy undertone threads through many of her paintings, stemming from stories told among her friends and neighbors. They are tales of a community under siege: the dread of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers pounding on the door, the cruelty of deportations, and the sorrow of family separations.
Perhaps her hardest-hitting protest against America’s barbarous immigration policy was her mural “Uprising Against ICE.” Now in a private collection after being displayed at the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Community Museum, the piece reimagines Diego Rivera’s 1931 social realist mural “The Uprising.”
Bursting at the seams with anxiety and motion, Torres-Weiner’s painting depicts ICE officers attacking a family. Here, in contradiction to much of her work, Torres-Weiner leaches the warmth from the scene by switching her colorful pallet to an icy blue. It’s as if the sunlight is being eclipsed by a cruel twilight.
In reaction to ICE’s assault on immigrant families, Torres-Weiner reached out to her besieged community with The Papalote Project.
“I asked myself ‘What can I do to help?’” she remembers. “My art was my only tool.”
Papalote means butterfly, which Torres-Weiner symbolizes with a kite. Torres-Weiner initially envisioned writing a book about the son of a deported father writing down his thoughts, emotions and fears, and then attaching them to a kite. Once the kite is airborne, the child enters an environment where he can express those emotions. Flying the papalote sets him free.
Torres-Weiner realized no one was going to publish a book by an unknown author. The first iteration of the project was a lively mural she created at Manolo’s Bakery on Central Avenue. She also decided to invite children into her studio where she would teach them how to heal through art. She found her children at Iglesia Guadalupe Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe.
Initially, it was hard to reach the traumatized children.
“The kids were dead inside,” Torres-Weiner remembers, but she didn’t give up. She felt that ICE’s actions against families were unacceptable. “These were just children!” she says. Torres-Weiner decided it was important not just to document their stories but also to share them with the community.
“I have this friendly approach to tell these sensitive but powerful stories,” she says
In 2016, after Torres-Weiner published her book, The Magic Kite, the story was adapted and staged by Children’s Theatre of Charlotte.
After the show completed its run, Torres-Weiner wanted to keep telling the story. She cut it down to a 10-minute scenario, secured permission to use Theatre Charlotte’s accompanying music, and adapted the tale into a puppet show.
“I wanted kids to see how easy it was to tell a story,” she says.
Torres-Weiner found a vintage suitcase and created a portable mini-theater. Everything —scenery, characters and even the theater proscenium — came out of the suitcase. The Magic Kite, a short film starring Torres-Weiner as the puppeteer, can currently be seen on YouTube.
An artivist on wheels
Determining that her art needed to leave the studio and go to the public, Torres-Weiner closed her space in NoDa. She bought a truck and took it on the road as Red Calaca Mobile Art Studio. Obtaining a grant by the Arts & Science Council, Torres-Weiner brought her art to the community for three years.
“I noticed [people] were not just starving for arts but also for technology,” Torres-Weiner says. In 2018, she received a matching grant from ASC and Google Fiber to buy iPads so she could bring technology and digital art to the communities that needed it.
She says her favorite stop was the Tyvola Senior Center. There, she introduced residents to a free art app called Brushes Redux. “They were so proud that they were learning,” Torres-Weiner says. “There was a lady who said, ‘I never in my life thought that I would learn how to use this iPad.’”
While visiting communities across Charlotte, Torres-Weiner had a brainstorm. She would create 100 small paintings of flowers, place them throughout Charlotte, and whoever found the canvasses would get a bag of pandemic essentials, including a mask and hand sanitizer. She asked a friend who is also part of Charlotte’s Latinx community what she thought of the idea. The answer shocked Torres-Weiner.
“She said, ‘What our people need is food.’” Torres-Weiner remembers. Partnering with Compare Foods, Torres-Weiner devised the means to distribute food along with pandemic supplies.
First, she produced 100 floral paintings on 8-by-10-inch canvases, then placed the paintings in different neighborhoods. On the back of each painting, she wrote directions to one of several Compare Food stores, and told people to go there with their paintings. Once there, they received a $50 certificate for the grocery, as well as a bag of pandemic essentials.
Torres-Weiner says the idea was inspired by a Claude Monet quote.
“I must have flowers, always, and always,” she recites. In a way, Torres-Weiner had come back full circle to Xochimilco, the small borough that drew people all the way from Mexico City with flowers.
In September 2020, Torres-Weiner traveled to UHill Walls, a walkable art exhibition with over 40,000 square feet of murals on 15 contiguous acres in Durham. Masked and socially distanced, she painted alongside national and international artists to create one of the largest consolidated collections of murals in the southeastern U.S.
As 2020 drew to a close, Torres-Weiner flew to Mexico City. There, Alfredo del Mazo Maza, governor of the State of Mexico, honored her for her contributions to the arts.
On Dec. 15 and 16, Gov. Roy Cooper’s office sponsored a two-day arts and culture conference. Torres-Weiner took part, painting live from her studio during the conference. Prior to beginning the project, she had solicited drawings to inspire her from children across the state. The theme was moving forward in 2021.
Despite the variety of projects and commissions she’s undertaken, Rosalia Torres-Weiner says her main work continues to center on immigration and social justice. She remains a storyteller, drawing a community together with a vivid mural, exposing injustice with an impactful painting, helping a child process his heartache with a whimsical puppet show, or remembering a little girl keeping her siblings safe until danger has passed.
“Mexico prepared me with the necessary tools to survive,” Torres-Weiner says. “Those tools include art.”
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