Tuesday, 08 October 2013 00:00

Latino art struggles to be seen in East Tennessee Featured

Written by Eric Harris
Artist Mouzer Coelho hopes to become a filmmaker. Artist Mouzer Coelho hopes to become a filmmaker. Courtesy Mouzer Coelho

When you think of Latin American art, what do you picture?

While some may have a specific idea in mind, there’s really no way to define an artist’s style simply by looking at their heritage, as artist Mouzer Coelho – whose drawings can be seen throughout the article -- points out.

“A lot of people think that if you’re a Latin artist, you automatically do Chicano art, and I don’t do anything like that at all, so I wanted to show people that Latin Americans do all kinds of different things, not just that kind of style,” he said.


 Stereotypes like this continue to exist because Latino artists struggle to find outlets for their work. This had led to mixed opinions regarding the presence of Latino artists in the area.

Rolando Flores is a junior majoring in Exercise Science at East Tennessee State University. He  used to work with ETSU’s Language and Culture Resource Center coordinating the Open Art Exhibition at the Corazon Latino Festival in downtown Johnson City.

Flores said that the festival has revealed a portion of the local Hispanic artists.

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“Corazon Latino has definitely made the community aware that there is a Latino art movement in our area,” he said. “Though small and expanding, it is present.”

Christina Romero, senior Spanish major, assisted Flores in finding artists for the Exhibition. She said that it was very difficult work that required her to network with people through community service projects.

 “I made sure to have a strong presence on campus and in the community before inquiring about possible artists. I did this to be sure that when the time came to inquire, people would be willing to help,” she said. “It sounds really simple, but it wasn’t something easily done.

Despite her difficulties in finding contributors, Romero believes that there are many Latin American artists in the area.

“The problem is that many of these artists have no outlet for public display,” she said.

Karlota Contreras-Koterbay, director of the Slocumb Art Gallery on the ETSU campus, admits that the Tri-Cities isn’t really an ideal location for aspiring artists, especially those with non-Caucasian ethnic backgrounds.

“We’re not as diverse as other places and we’re not exactly the center of the art world… but hopefully it will improve." 

                          -Karlota Contreras-Koterbay

Contreras-Koterbay explains that this may be why there’s a lack of a visible Latino art community, and is precisely why outlets like Corazon Latino are so important. They give artists more opportunities to display their creations and connect with one another.

Coelho is an artist who recently graduated from ETSU with a degree in Digital Media. He’s contributed photography and pen and ink sketches to the last two Open Art Exhibitions and is planning on using his experience to pursue a career in film.

Coelho, 24, moved from Brazil to Maryland when he was two, but he’s lived in Tennessee for almost 10 years. In his time here he’s connected with plenty of other Hispanic artists. He thinks that a lack of encouragement from their friends, family and the community has led to them mostly practicing their art in the dark.

“They think that their parents might think: ‘Oh, this is a cool hobby that you have but is it going to put food on the table?’ So, eventually in life they shift away from it and go do other things.”

Luckily for Coelho, who came from a family of musicians, he was never lacking in encouragement to pursue his creative interests. When he heard about the Corazon Latino Festival, he decided that it would not only be a great venue to display his creations, it would also be a great opportunity to expose the stereotypes that imply Latino artists are restricted to one style of art. Coelho himself draws inspiration  from pop culture and film noir. 

In the picture below, he's recreated a scene from "Pirates of the Caribbean."

Pirates of the Caribbean by Mouzer CoelhoAs a kid, Coelho learned to draw from watching “The Simpsons” on television. As a teenager, after realizing that he wasn’t able to shade very well, he found the “Sin City” graphic novels, written and illustrated by Frank Miller, and discovered a style that suited his artistic sensibilities.

“I was like, OK, I can do this. I can just block everything,” he said.

Coelho’s love of drawing eventually led him to an interest in digital media, special effects and storytelling.

“As a kid in elementary school I learned how to draw, and then in high school I got really into photography and I felt like neither one of the two could be loud enough, so that’s how I got into filmmaking, because you could just do anything,” he said.

His heritage mostly played a part in his desire to tell stories.

“I’m the middle of about 30 grandchildren,” he said. “I’m always a listener and I always like paying attention to what people are doing more than having people pay attention to me.“

Coelho credits filmmaker Robert Rodriguez as his inspiration for wanting to go to college. Though he started with mostly digital effects, films like “Doubt” and James Bond’s latest outing had him shifting his focus to the drama of film rather than the spectacle.

“After I saw ‘Skyfall,’ I was like, OK, I’m leaning more towards this,” he said. “It was very character-based and it only had special effects when needed. Very few movies make it to that level.”

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 In filmmaking, collaboration is essential, and Coelho acknowledges that it isn’t unique to making movies. Artists should feel encouraged to connect with each other to promote each others’ works and cultures.

“One thing I liked about Corazon Latino is they weren’t just trying to promote a Latin festival only for Latinos, they were promoting it for everybody, to get everybody involved,” he said.

For Romero, though, it’s going to take more than just the festival to convince these artists to come forward.

“I think more could be done to encourage Latino artists to come out into the public light and show their work. If we had a consistent way for the art to be displayed and consistent community involvement from schools and from the city, perhaps we would see more artists showcasing their talents.”

Contreras-Koterbay agreed that the community should do more to promote diversity, and the best way to do that is to take initiative. She suggests artists find each other through venues like the Johnson City Area Art Council, Slocumb Galleries, Nelson Fine Arts Center or the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts.

“There are certain institutions where, if you want to connect, they have networks… we need to build a personal relationship. When people find the merit, it’s easier to gain their support," she said. 

All photos courtesy of Mouzer Coelho

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