UW-Madison student Carlos Gacharná knows how much art can play an important role in social justice education, community building, and social activism.

“In terms of my own personal success as an artist, it’s not necessarily having my own one-man show in a famous gallery in New York City. That’s not success to me. That’s a very specific kind of success,” Gacharná tells Madison365. “Success to me is that I’m a leader and a mentor in a thriving community that is addressing social issues in a creative manner.”
Gacharná, manager at 100Arts in downtown Madison, is an event producer and local artist who uses art events to bring together artists who create pieces to inspire change in our community.

“When I first got started at 100State, I noticed that there wasn’t really any place at the university for young artists to show their work,” Gacharná says. “I asked 100State if I could use this space – it was the third floor of the old Madison Children’s Museum – to do an art show there. We did our first show called ‘100s’ which led to another show called ‘One Night Stand.'”

100arts is the arts-focused component of local co-working space and startup hub 100state that was founded last year. They are located at 30 W. Mifflin St. on the Capitol Square.

“We will have four art shows here over the course of the year at 100State,” Gacharná says. “Our next exhibition ‘Intimate Systems’ will open Saturday, Feb. 6 of next year here at 30 W. Mifflin. Moving forward, we want our exhibits to be issue-driven and this first one we will be focusing specifically on the intersection between art and science.

“The gallery – just like the laboratory — can often seem so opaque and unapproachable. I feel like this has so much potential; especially in a place like Madison to explore and invite people to see all the potential we have,” Gacharná adds. “I’m looking forward to utilizing 100State as a platform to give voices to people and organizations who might not necessarily have had it before. Using the arts as a form of democratizing a very privileged space.”

Born in Bogotá, Colombia, Gacharná came to Madison when he was 7 years old.

“I kinda consider myself a clay kid. Back when I was a kid in Columbia, I always played with little colored plastic clay. That was my thing. That’s what I was super into,” he remembers.

Gacharná's artwork: What a semester's worth of successes (and some failures) looks like.
Gacharná’s artwork: What a semester’s worth of successes (and some failures) looks like.
His junior year of high school at Memorial High School in Madison, Gacharná took a ceramics class and he was soon hooked. “I was spending all my free time in there,” he remembers. “I think took 7 or 8 semesters of ceramics in two years … every opportunity there was.”

Gacharná landed an internship at Midwest Clay Projects on Madison’s near east side. “The owner of that happened to be the wife of the head of the ceramics department, so that opened some doors very quickly,” Gacharná says.

That led to a glass blowing internship at Studio Paran with Richard Jones. “Glass-blowing has a very specific rhythm to it because you’re working with such a volatile material so essentially you can’t take your eye off it until you are done,” he says. “It’s a very intense 45-minute thing.

“Whereas with ceramics you can just make a pot and poke at it for four hours,” he adds.

At UW-Madison, Gacharná was taking a course called “Service Learning with the Arts” when he got involved in RestART Madison.

“RestART is about kids in different community centers around the city who had gotten in trouble with the law … instead of paying a fine or getting further into the legal system, they would work on community mural projects and exchange that for getting their charges dropped,” Gacharná says.

Nine months later, he became the community partner for RestART Madison. “I ran that for two different semesters. I would get a different student from that class to work with me on these projects and we set up art workshops every week in various sites around campus and at 100State,” Gacharná remembers. “It would be a different medium and a different professional artist every week showing what they are about. I worked at the Lussier Center and over at Goodman Center, specifically with Girls Inc.”

He also worked with kids at from the shelter at the Madison Bubbler at Central Park Library and kids from the Juvenile Detention Center. He was also able to teach the art classes at Toki and Orchard Ridge middle schools for a day.

One of Gacharná's most recent pieces
One of Gacharná’s most recent pieces

“The hidden concept around it – since we were working with at-risk youth primarily from the edges of town – was bringing youths to all of these community spaces and make them feel invited,” Gacharná says. “Realistically, the only reason to come downtown is to go to school or spend money. So these kids don’t have any of that … and they don’t even know that we have this world-class institution right downtown. By inviting these kids to these spaces, it’s so much easier for them to envision themselves going to the university.”

Gacharná, who also spent a year studying art at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil, says that he is interested in an educational approach that focuses on fostering awareness of social injustices and how inequalities impact youth.

“Personally, I didn’t even really know any college students who were Latino until I was 16 years old and had gotten in trouble and I was doing community service at Centro Hispano. That was the first time I had ever had contact with a positive Latino influence outside of my family,” says Gacharná, who is going to be a teaching assistant for social justice and the arts course next semester. “So, I understand the need for young people to see those role models and I have been very proactive to come back into the community myself and fill that gap.

“I’ve talked to friends in Chicago and LA and other large cities where they have it much worse economically than we do here,” he adds. “But they have mentor programs, active community centers, and this support system that has been very lacking in Madison.”

Gacharná's artwork
Gacharná uses ice, molten glass and fluorescent dye to explore the relationship between energy and our physical world.

As he intertwines art and activism, Gacharná says someone he really looks up to is Theaster Gates, a Chicago artist committed to the revitalization of poor neighborhoods through combining urban planning and art practices. “He’s addressing social and urban blight in a manner that empowers a community that is already residing there instead of displacing them through gentrification,” Gacharná says. “I’m really trying to focus on creating experiences for people, creating culture, and building community through the arts.

“I feel like it’s very easy to be reactionary when it comes to these tough society issues,” he adds. “But the next step is: How can you create something that works to improve the situation from the start? That’s much harder to do.”

Gacharná, who will graduate from UW-Madison next May, finds it tough sometimes juggling being a student, an artist, an event planner, and an activist. “It’s been a wild ride. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at the juggling over the years,” he says. “It’s definitely really worn down on me in the past. But it’s also such an incredible outlet for me. No matter how bad things can get, I can always put my head down and get to work on my art and then maybe in a month or two things kinda clear up and you realize that you just made something.”

Gacharná’s intermediate goal is to get back to South America for six months or so to reconnect with people there and work on art. But he also has immediate and long-term goals on his mind.

“Short term, my goals are for these next four 100Art art shows to be really successful and hopefully they open up some dialog in the community,” he says. “We want to have a sense of continuity. We don’t want the conversation to stop after the art show. We want to set up programming that goes on before and after the shows.

“Long term, I would love to make a profession out of arts organizing and possibly going back to grad school for urban planning,” he adds.