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Published December 20, 2021

By Leah Esslinger

There’s a fresh mural, finished just last October, on the north wall in Virginia Humanities’ new Dairy Market headquarters. The color palette features warm earth tones–browns, oranges, reds–an almost perfect contrast to the cool blues and creams in the surrounding decor. But for the subgroup of Virginia Humanities staff and board members that made up our Community Engagement Committee, the most important aspect of the mural wasn’t how it would make the space look, but how it would make the space feel. 

For many at Virginia Humanities, changing headquarters from the Boars Head to the Dairy Market felt like an opportunity to intentionally create a space that reflected the organization’s shifting values. Improved accessibility was a high priority. But if improved accessibility was going to be worth anything, people must want to spend time at the new location and feel welcome there. Fostering connection within the community was the committee’s highest priority. 

Artist Federico works to complete the mural in Virginia Humanities Lemon Lounge in October 2021. Photo by Pat Jarrett

“Physical space can make you feel good or like you don’t belong, and I think there were a wide variety of people who did not feel welcome at the old office,” says Sarah Lawson, who is the associate director of our Virginia Center for the Book and a member of the Community Engagement Committee. The colonial plantation history of the old office was a big part of the problem. But it was more than that. The Community Engagement Committee thought that a large, colorful mural by a local artist, could be a way to send a signal to everyone who comes to the new office that they are welcome, regardless of who they are or how they identify.

Finding an artist capable of grappling with history, whose work reflected themes of inclusivity and warmth, but who also came with experience and a strong vision was no small feat. In search of help, the committee reached out to the Alan Goffinski, director of the Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative and the Charlottesville Mural Project, for a list of references. 

Physical space can make you feel good or like you don’t belong.

Sarah Lawson

“We’re an organization that does art. And we’ve got the connections to muralists,” says Goffinski. He also understood the potential murals have to transform space. “Of course, we like murals because they’re beautiful,” he says, “but we also make murals because they contribute to a broader, ongoing story about Charlottesville, the people who live here, and the ideas they have. It’s not always something revolutionary or mind-blowing, but every mural that’s displayed communicates value.” 

On Goffinski’s shortlist was Federico Cuatlacuatl, an Indigenous Mexican artist who had already completed three murals with the Charlottesville Mural Project. Cuatlacuatl’s work displayed the themes the committee was looking for, and his experience as a muralist made him an ideal candidate. 

By the time he was in high school, Cuatlacuatl was winning national competitions, and eventually an artist residency that took him away from home. It was exciting, but the pressures of that early success were also alienating. By graduate school, the tensions between external definitions of success and Cuatlacuatl’s own artistic motivations could no longer be ignored. “I felt so conflicted,” he says, “Here I was getting this degree that operated in galleries, museums, and institutions. But I was still a part of a community, part of a family that was dealing with more pragmatic issues that felt more real than theory.”  

Artist Federico Cuatlacuatl stands next to his mural in Virginia Humanities Lemon Lounge. Photo by Pat Jarrett

Murals became a way for Cuatlacuatl to bridge the gap between his artistic career and his commitment to his family and his community. A form of social art practice, public art allowed Cuatlacuatl to use his skills to address community urgencies through artistic practice. Another form of Cuatlacuatl’s art practice is more direct, taking on aspects of civil protest to unjust immigration policies in an unusual way. 

“I’ve been building kites, smuggling kites, from Mexico. I’m working with one of the best kite makers and doing this as an act of self-preservation,” he says. “But also as an act of protesting immigration issues, reminding ourselves that seven children passed away at the hands of immigration detention officials. Let’s not forget who those kids are and what happened.” 

If you look closely at the mural, you’ll see an allusion to a kite. This is how Cuatlacuatl addresses the history of place, gently but clearly and firmly too. In his work he finds ways to acknowledge the weight, the heaviness, of a people with a long history, but who still find reason to celebrate. In the mural, Cuatlacuatl’s Native figure isn’t crying or lamenting. He’s dancing, celebrating. In this way, Cuatlacuatl’s mural shows how we might reflect on our own history, reminding us that it’s possible to both acknowledge inequity, and to celebrate at the same time.  

Justin Reid, Sarah Lawson, and Jennie Taylor gather for a meeting in front of Virginia Humanities newly finished mural. Photo by Pat Jarrett

So far, the new mural has gotten good reviews. Lawson says that soon after its completion, one intern went from never wanting to spend time in the office, to expressing a wish to come in regularly. “To come in and see this really warm and dynamic mural that has this energy, that is so alive… she was just in awe,” reports Lawson.   

For Cuatlacuatl, the best review came from two people who work in the office after-hours. Late one evening while still finishing the mural, he ran into two Honduran women who clean the offices. After trading migration stories, the conversation shifted to the mural and what it meant to each of them. “The conversation was that we belong here, and we need to be here. We kind of saw each other, and we were like yeah. Yeah. We need to claim and reclaim that assertion, that we belong here,” says Cuatlacuatl. 

Virginia is filled with diversity, filled with stories, histories, and cultures that sometimes seem to compete for legitimacy. If there’s one seed that unites us all, it is probably this: the need to be seen and to belong. 

Our work brings people together and honors our shared humanity.

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