“Everybody has their own beliefs, but, to me, the only eternal entity is energy. It can’t be created or destroyed, only shaped and transformed. I want others to understand how it changes and transforms through my art” – Carlos Eduardo Gacharná
Hello and Welcome Carlos! Thank you for doing this interview. Tell me a little bit about your life.
Hi there! My name is Carlos Eduardo Gacharná and I’m a Colombiano. I was born in Bogotá, Colombia, but my family moved to Madison when I was 7 years old. We’ve got a funny family history: my grandpa was of Irish origin, but was born and raised in Green Bay (Wisconsin) as the youngest of 10 children. His father was a pig farmer, but he didn’t want that life for himself, so with the help of his family he enlisted in the army to fight in the Korean war. Because of this, he later got the opportunity to go to college for free and graduated with a geology degree. He got a job at Texaco and they sent him to Colombia to look for oil. His original plan was to make enough money to buy a car and return to the US. However, he soon met my grandma, they got married and he never moved back to Wisconsin. He just stayed in Colombia. Later, in the 90’s, because of the violence and poor economy in Colombia, a large part of my maternal side of the family moved over to Wisconsin. We went directly to Madison. I grew up in Madison, studying in different schools around the city. I ended up in the PEOPLE Program, which is predominantly a pre-college scholarship program for low-income students and students of color. I completed the program, graduated from Memorial High School and got accepted into the art program at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
I spent all my free time in the ceramics studio when I was in high school. I took like 8 semesters of ceramics in 2 years, honestly. Then I started working at a ceramics studio on Willy Street, where I landed a job as a studio technician in exchange for college credits. Once I was in there, I found out that the owner was the wife of the head of the ceramics program at the UW. From there, doors started to open right away. I then landed another gig working as an assistant in a glass blowing studio and started working more with glass. I entered the glass program at UW Madison, which is the oldest university program in the country, and assisted the professor running the studio.
When I was 20 I started participating in workshops for court-involved youth. I originally took a course called Service Learning and the Arts to interact with the city through art. I started working with the director of RestART, which focuses on restorative justice, Students who find themselves in problems with the law can participate in these programs, and, for example, work on collaborative mural projects to ultimately drop their charges. It was a way for them to pay their debt to society constructively, instead of punishing them and making them pay fines. Plus, it prevents their names from entering the judicial system and accumulating a criminal record. I personally got in a whole bunch of trouble when I was a teen, but I got lucky, so because of those experiences I find it really interesting working with these kinds of kids. Also, as a Latino, I feel really connected with the problems of my students, who are generally poor, of color and from the outskirts, where I grew up.
The director of RestART ended up having to step down from the position so I decided to take over the program. I worked with another student from Chile as well as Central Library and the Bubbler Program, which was totally new at the time and their staff were still figuring out their direction. I started running different workshops in collaboration with the Goodman Center as well. I was already really connected with the artists in Madison, so, each week, we featured a different lead artist that would teach their medium to the kids. The idea was to invite the students downtown to places like UW – Madison so they could get familiar and learn that these types of places exist, and that they’re the kind of place they’re welcome to return to. I ran RestART for one year, hosting weekly workshops.
Afterwards I left to study in Brazil for another year. I lived in Belo Horizonte, studying at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in the Fine Arts program. I met lots of people and got involved with the downtown art scene. I consider myself an arts organizer, but, since I was still learning the culture, I didn’t do too much in that sense those first 6 months. Once I felt more connected, I set up an art exhibition. It took 6 months, but we pulled it off the night before I left the country. We had a great location, with 40 participating artists and live music, where over 300 people attended. Afterwards, I left to spend the rest of my summer vacation in Colombia.
I returned to the US and went through the depression of coming back. As a result I spent my last year of college tucked away in the glass department, as well as learning how to make neon lights. I’ve always been interested in liquids, colors and lights, but in Brazil I explored my curiosity about religions. I got to know four different religious communities, all of them some kind of Christian, but very different styles. I went to an Evangelical church ceremony, which had always seemed a little intimidating, so it hadn’t appealed to me too much. I also visited a community built around a woman who claims to have been receiving messages from the Virgin Mary every sunday since she was 12 years old. Nobody in the community pays for anything because it’s all ran through donations. This trip was at the end of my time in Brazil because I got sick with the mumps which is super contagious. After 9 or 10 days of laying in bed, a friend who had been trying to take me to this community all year convinced me to come along since it was also known as a community of healing. So, we took a bus for 5 hours and we stayed in a house where around 15 orphans live. I went to one of the services, and also met the woman, but it all seemed pretty standard and Catholic. Nothing too crazy. I don’t know if the woman really receives messages from the Virgin Mary, but I believe that she’s doing important spiritual work in her community. I think that maybe, to be accepted as a female spiritual leader, she needs to display some kind of direct connection with God in order to seem credible, even if it isn’t totally true.
I also participated in a Candomblé ceremony, which is an African religion that’s also practiced in Brazil. I’d compare it somewhat to Santeria. It was a really strong experience, somewhat dark, in a marginalized part of the city. I caught a little bit of what you would call ‘catching the spirit’. People all took turns talking to a spiritual guide. I talked to a woman wearing a hat almost covering her eyes, smoking a cigar. She gave me a black candle to light whenever I felt the need and sent me on my way. I heard screams on my way out, from what I assume was someone catching the spirit, but I didn’t even look. I just kept going, full of questions and no answers.
I later got to know the Fraternidade do Kayman, which practices a religion called Umbanda, that mixes African, Native and Christian components. A key element of their practice is the use of ayahuasca, which is a drink taken at different intensities. It is consumed within the context of a specific ritual. I participated in the ritual, which at one point led me to talk to a ‘Preto Velho’. You’re supposed to ask questions and at first I didn’t have any questions for them, but after a while came up with something. I’d been getting to know all of these different religious communities, but didn’t really have any answers, just curiosity. I come from Catholicism where if you’re not Catholic you’re going to hell, so I asked if it was ok and of value to explore these different groups. The Preto Velho told me that, yes, it was ok, that nothing had to be logical or make sense right now. The important thing was that I was on this path of learning to expand my understanding of the world.
So I went through all of these experiences, but when I returned to the United States, I didn’t really know how to take it all in. Everybody is so disconnected from spirituality here. Or, at least, spirituality here doesn’t have much context to it since people here don’t respect that kind of thing.
I took a class on shamanism during my last year of college with a really knowledgeable professor. He’s got a greater connection with Wisconsin native peoples, while my experiences were rooted with South American communities and religions connected with the African Diaspora. Nonetheless, the course explained a lot of what I had seen, from a more objective lens, analyzing different types of ceremonies and their impact on the human brain. I learned certain things that stuck out, like that every religion has three main components, that we can define as: The cosmology (beliefs), the rituals (daily practices) and politics. In the United States, nobody cares about those first two parts, they care about who you are in relation to them. We’ve lost that spiritual side and religion has become mainly a political identity. This society has plastered it’s spiritual side because there’s no context provided for it.
Another thing I learned is that the practices of shamanic communities, whether in Siberia, the Amazon, or Africa, have been scientifically proven to increase the rate of healing in patients. So I set up an experiment, essentially inventing a ritual. I constructed it using elements I’d already seen, without appropriating from any particular culture. I arrived with a mask, a block of ice and some black lights. Then I asked a graduate glass student to cover the block of ice with molten glass while we played a drum beat. The block of ice was made of fluorescent dyes, so when the glass hit all of the colors started to glow. Everybody watched this phenomenon that was pretty out of the ordinary. The final result was that the participants felt a little bit better, so you could say it was a success!
What type of art do you make?
The majority of the work that I make these days explores the use of different materials (neon, glass, lights, and liquids) to manipulate energy as a metaphor for spirituality. Fashion also really interests me. My art can be converted into a lot of different things, such as clothes. It’s a step beyond just the photograph taken.
What do you hope to communicate and what are your inspirations?
Everybody has their own beliefs, but, to me, the only eternal entity is energy. It can’t be created or destroyed, only shaped and transformed. I want others to understand how it changes and transforms through my art.
In these last five years, I’ve lost a lot of really important people in my life, my mother, my grandma, my roommate and close friends, which has allowed me to help and support others during times of loss. Through art, I want people to understand that everything changes and transforms. To embrace change, instead of focusing on maintaining everything the same. A lot of what I do these days is capture moments of transition. I’ve also really been interested in manipulating color, energy and fire.
You’re the director of 100arts. What is it? Who started it? What for? What’s your mission?
100arts is the creative branch inside of 100state. We’re part of an organization that values the intersection between art, education and entrepreneurship, and we push to create space for artists in the professional world. As independent educators, mentors, and organizers. All artists need resources. We organize art exhibitions and offer an artist-in-residence program. We work with artists who are out of school and taking those first steps towards converting their art into a profession. We’re a place of support for these artists. 100state is for the folks that really want these resources and the idea of creating infrastructure that incentivize these talented young people to stay in Madison, even if it’s just for a little bit longer. Right now, we’re developing the new art studio. We also push a social message with our exhibitions.
How much and how does being an immigrant influence your art and the events that you organize?
It’s got a lot to do with the social services that I offer. I spent a year working as a translator for legal cases. I also worked as a spanish GED instructor for 2 years. I’m always thinking not only of my Latinx community but about immigrants in general. I aim to elevate everybody while I go through my own personal growth. For example, we organized Motherlands (an exhibition focused on works by immigrants and artists of immigrant descent) to amplify the voice of immigrants around Madison, which is really important to me. Plus, not only myself but a lot of the folks around 100arts are also immigrants.
On your website I read that art is a vehicle to teach. Can you clarify and elaborate on this concept?
Well, to me, art is a vehicle for education. I use it to teach because it’s a universal language that everybody can understand. For example, a workshop that I love to teach is how to make black light chalk. It’s super simple, it’s just mixing highlighter water together with plaster. That’s it. Then it hardens and it’s ready.
But, through this simple project, I get the opportunity to teach youth about different states of matter. I talk about solids, liquids, fluorescence, chemical actions and reactions, about kinetic energy. You can teach about a whole bunch of topics just through art. It’s a universal language that one can use with any person, regardless of social class or race, because art moves the soul.
Plus, art, to me, whether a poem or a canvas, allows you the opportunity to talk about certain topics that are almost impossible to bring up in an everyday conversation. If we think about the topics of existentialism, about death, the truth is that our society doesn’t teach us how to talk about these things. Through art, however, it’s possible. This is what I’ve learned through sharing my own traumas and scars. It helps people to open up a little bit.
How is your art and the events you organize received here in Madison?
Lots of people come to the events and lots of folks congratulate me on my work, but when it comes to the topic of financing, that’s where the problem lies. I grew up here and I understand that Madison doesn’t really have a materialistic culture. People with money here don’t buy fancy cars or a crazy luxury house, so it’s hard to convince these folks to spend money on a piece that costs thousands of dollars. What I’ve learned is that people in Madison spend their money on experiences, or on utility items for traveling (a boat, a cabin…) So I’ve turned art exhibitions into experiences, into parties. I’m Colombiano after all! Plus Madisonians pay to go to parties and they’re well-received. It’s easier to sell 25 prints of a piece for $10 each than the original for $250. If someone wants to sell art, there’s not much of a market, that’s the reality. Because of that a lot of what I do as an artist is provide services. I have four different streams of income and selling art is at the bottom. Honestly, artists don’t have a lot of reasons to stay in Madison. The city government provides almost no support, the state doesn’t support, Dane County does what it can, but with very few funds and less so every day, thanks to the federal government. Something has to change soon.
What projects do you have for the future?
At the end of September I’ll be leaving to start a new life in California, so I’m here making my last rounds, exhibitions, and projects, to leave everything ready for whoever will carry on after me. We’ve raised like 2 thousand dollars for the art space in 100state. It’s the only shared art studio downtown that’s independent of the university. it’s my gift to the community in a sense.
I hope to stay 10, 15 years in California, after which I would love to return to live in South America. I’m not from here, and honestly, the values here aren’t ideal for me, but I can’t return there empty handed. I need to reach a certain point where I can leverage the resources accumulated here. That’s my long-term plan.
Thank you for showing me the spiritual side of your art, for sharing your art, your traumas, your scars and your history. That’s how one grows, changes and improves every day. I hope that the city of Madison realizes how important it is to provide resources and support so that Latinx artists feel stimulated to keep moving forward