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If one were to walk in the streets of Boston and see a colorful mural, there’s a big chance Silvia López Chavez created that masterpiece.
López Chavez is a Dominican-American visual artist changing the meaning of advocacy.
Throughout her career she has created many murals with bold and vivid colors capturing Latino traditions and culture while emphasizing the intersection of art design and community issues like the environment and healthy food.
“I think that as an artist, I feel the responsibility of being someone who is not only creating art, to change and transform spaces, but also people,” López Chavez said. “And I think that my goal is to be able to connect as much as possible using art as a vehicle for connection with others to myself, to others and also to our environment. Like the only planet we have.”
Becoming a Visual Artist
For López Chavez, studying art was destiny.
Since she was a little girl, López Chavez always felt a passion for becoming an artist.
Growing up in the small island of the Dominican Republic, to a musical family, she was drawn to studying music and visual arts while in high school.
“Many members of my family either play an instrument or sing, and we love dancing. All of us,” López Chavez said.
Having family support during her upbringing was really paramount for her.
After high school, López Chavez decided to focus primarily on visual arts, as it was too consuming to focus on many subjects at a time.
“And that’s how I continued my drawing, painting, and sculpture, eventually printmaking and really being able to focus on all sorts of visual arts,” López Chavez said.
Eventually she came to Boston, where she currently resides, to continue her art studies.
Coming to the U.S.
Moving to a new country is a huge ordeal and can seem intimidating.
For López Chavez, even things that seemed simple were difficult, especially the first year she came to Boston.
One of those things was processing a new language, especially when accompanied with a thick Boston accent.
“I thought I knew a little bit of English, but all the stuff that you learned in high school doesn’t apply, necessarily. And it was Boston, too. [It’s] challenging to also understand the accent and, and you know, it’s another patient process,” López Chavez said.
Though there were rough moments in the transition period, the whole experience was humbling for López Chavez in a lot of ways.
“I also had some family here who helped me settle in at the very beginning and figure out a way to like, work and make some money to make a living as well,” López Chavez said.
By climbing over obstacles, López Chavez was able to find herself again.
“I feel really proud of myself that I’ve been able to find my voice again and truly become who I am—as part of this dual cultural identity that I’m today because I’ve [now] been here in the United States as long as I had been at home,” López Chavez said.
López Chavez saw an opportunity to be creative in Boston through murals, and she began to run with it.
López Chavez’s Defining Mural
It is hard to count the many murals López Chavez has painted over the years.
When asked to choose the most defining mural of her career, López Chavez mentioned the mural she did in tandem with an organization in Boston called Now + There.
The mural is located at the iconic Charles River Esplanade in Boston—a location very trafficked and characterized by the highly utilized bike path along the river.
“It really was like my very first time that I was painting a mural outside. It was such a prominent place; this really was the right setting for me, because not only was I painting in a place that I always love hanging out, because it’s like by the water. I love being by the water in general, it’s a beautiful place,” López Chavez said.
Now + There helped López Chavez by teaching her the various things muralists normally have to learn to do, such as how to get approval from the city and funding.
Due to its location, the team also had to get approval from the Historical Landmarks Commission. Even though the Charles River Esplanade was like a ramp, it was considered a historical land.
López Chavez was also able to get volunteers to help prep the wall.
“I had the ability to hire other artists to assist me on this project. I had a big enough budget to do that. And I hired like, a bunch of women artists who wanted to do this work, too. So that was like, really cool,” López Chavez said.
Ever since this project, López Chavez has been on the map.
“[The mural] was so visible, and happened in 2017. Actually, it’s not that long ago, and it really [opened doors] for me, where I started getting a lot more phone calls and emails and contacts through social media to get other murals. I called it Pattern Behavior—that’s the mural I would highlight. It was a lot of fun to paint,” López Chavez said.
Challenges During Her Career
As a muralist, López Chavez spends a lot of time working on the street, in the public realm.
With that, comes the difficulties of the other aspects of visual art.
“I think that it’s the challenge of scheduling and planning and permitting and all that logistical paperwork. Nobody wants to deal with, like, budgets, and you know, like numbers and like that business aspect of it, it’s so like, it takes up so much time in space, that when you get to finally be painting that wall, it’s like, oh, okay, like, I can actually do this thing,” López Chavez said.
In addition to navigating the aspects of logistics and planning, visual artists also need the ability to work in a team.
“Not a lot of artists are able to do that. They like to work in their silos, and that’s OK, like my studio work is my personal work. And that’s different, very different than the work that you do in community or in the commissions or collaborations with institutions or organizations,” López Chavez said.
Down the road, López Chavez learned that being an artist is like having your own business.
She had to be her own entrepreneur to reach the point where she had people working for her.
“It’s really becoming a little bit of a jack of all trades, like you have to learn about being organized and how to archive your artwork and document your work. You have to, you know, be knowing how to deal with your budgeting and planning, estimating for your projects,” López Chavez said.
Having patrons, like what used to happen before, doesn’t really exist as much anymore, according to López Chavez.
“It’s not as easy as being discovered by a patron and hoping somebody is going to be taking you into this world of fame. There is a lot of self-education needed in order to make a living with a career in visual arts,” López Chavez said.
Though she faced these challenges, López Chavez persevered by giving it her best.
“Something I learned is that in life, you have to go around living the best you can and be the best person you can be for this world and, and leaving it you know, whatever they say you do your best work, you do the best of your ability and dealing with places or things better than what they were before,” López Chavez said.
How López Chavez Got into Accessibility to Fresh Healthy Food
When people see murals, what they don’t see is the hard work and physical toll it takes on a painter’s body.
“There’s a lot of unsexy things about painting murals and being outside for 15 hours straight standing on your feet. You have to be good to yourself,” López Chavez said.
López Chavez grew up eating tons of fruit from trees in the backyard of her home in the Dominican Republic.
She could just go grab an avocado whenever.
She understands the importance of knowing where her food comes from. Her father has always been a big advocate of sustainable farming and growing healthy foods as well as the importance of feeding ourselves with healthy food.
With her upbringing in mind, López Chavez became concerned with the limited access to fresh, healthy food in the Boston area.
Latino neighborhoods across the United States often lack of access to supermarkets and farmers’ markets. Instead, there are more fast food and corner stores, which leads to overconsumption of unhealthy foods and sets the stage for high rates of obesity, according to a Salud America! research review.
“That’s the part that I find difficult, [having] access to healthy, good, organic food [that] is not filled with chemicals [and] not changed in any way or form. It requires money and accessibility and is not for everyone. So I think it’s important and I just did my best to try to eat as healthy as possible,” López Chavez said.
COVID-19 Fueling Awareness of Environmental Inequities
López Chavez lives in a town about 30 minutes outside of Boston, in Chelsea, Mass.
Chelsea is known to be a city welcoming to immigrants.
“It’s been home and it’s considered a sanctuary city where a lot of immigrants are helped and welcomed. And because of that status, the majority of people who are coming here and are currently living in Chelsea are people who…work temporarily or maybe permanently, but then also they don’t all have access to health,” López Chavez said.
When COVID-19 hit, Massachusetts was a hotspot. Immigrant communities were most affected.
Unfortunately, Latinos have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
People of color and immigrants have frontline jobs such as working at supermarkets, the delivery and transportation sector, and construction.
Many people faced difficulties, ranging from lacking access to healthy food to even facing displacement from their homes.
“I became very much aware of my neighborhood and I got much more involved both civically and artistically within my neighborhood to help get donations for people and families,” López Chavez said.
Several organizations in Chelsea took charge to help people during the pandemic, because a lot of people were homeless and could no longer pay for food anymore since losing their jobs.
“I started checking up on friends and other people, specifically the elderly, who had been identified as people who cannot even go to grocery stores [because it was] too dangerous for them, to go buy groceries and bring them home to them,” López Chavez said.
Seeing these disparities, López Chavez turned to art to engage citizens and make people aware of the socioeconomic inequities facing communities of color.
“On the art side, I think I saw people realizing how much art is necessary, especially art that is accessible on the street level and the public realm. And there was this surge of people…seeing that everything [including] the only access to art they could have (concert halls, museums, and galleries) was shut down,” López Chavez said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, people were in turmoil. Their daily activities would have to change to meet safety guidelines.
As a result, many individuals turned to the outdoors to relieve the stress coming from isolation.
“I started painting outside, like these sea walls, Artist for Oceans mural, that brings awareness to the environment and the oceans in particular,” López Chavez said.
COVID-19 was highlighting the disparity between who has access to resources and who doesn’t.
“I think art in general is now viewed in a very different way. We are seeing things happen more digitally, concerts, music and virtual tours of exhibitions or whatever it is. I painted so many murals last year and also this year, way more than I ever had before COVID started,” López Chavez said.
The pandemic has created a whole new appreciation for murals.
Looking into The Future
Although Chavez has been very focused in Boston, she did an artist residency in California for Google, and even painted a mural in New York City.
Since, she has been expanding her art in the hopes of creating more murals in future locations.
“My hope is actually to create my first mural in the Dominican Republic. I have been so focused here in that work, and I have not yet created a mural there. So I’m excited to maybe someday soon do that. That would be cool,” López Chavez said.
Chavez hopes to continue to inspire and educate people through her artwork.
“I hope that people…are brought to an awareness of some subject matter that perhaps has been addressed in the mural. But also they are uplifted by the murals and my imagery,” López Chavez said.
Her murals have a diverse theme, ranging from social issues to environmental issues, but most importantly, they evoke a call to action.
“It’s leaving us a hint of hope and enjoyment in the midst of all of it, because without that, we are just in this sad world…and everything is broken,” López Chavez said.
Chavez does not want her work to be this shallow preview picture.
“It’s really my intent to have a lot of backbone to my work. So when people see the beautiful bold colors, they’re attracted to it, and they get closer and the imagery, the pen, as they get closer, they’re realizing there’s all of these elements or symbolism or things that are bringing other layers of information. But my hope is that it actually educates, celebrates, and uplifts,” López Chavez said.
How Can I Support Visual Artists?
There are so many ways to support visual artists today.
Businesses that own buildings can list and provide artists with accessible walls as a sort of blank canvas.
There is this notion of “the starving artists”—artists will always do art for the love of art.
While this may be true, art is a profession just like any other and should not be viewed as less than, and should be compensated accordingly, López Chavez said.
“I think that people can stop asking artists for free things. That will be a start, and adding value to what artists bring to society,” she said.
It’s time to view artists more holistically. They contribute to the fabric and the cultural fabric of a city or community. Art and cultural practices can help boost social cohesion and overall community wellbeing, according to a recent report. For example, Gilberto Lopez of Arizona State University worked with artists like Lalo Alcaraz to create COVIDLatino.org, a site where Latinos can access culturally relevant art and information about COVID-19.
Artists are giving back to the community in real ways.
“Artists need to get paid, we need to eat, we need to pay advance. We need to be able to have a life based on doing what we do,” López Chavez said.
There needs to be a better understanding of what it takes to do this type of work.
“I would appreciate it if people actually started there,” López Chavez said.
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By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.