Activism through art: Self-taught, Latin artist highlights mental health and politics through her work

By Rachel Patel, Staff Reporter

Alongside working on a canvas, Carolina Romo paints on sheets taped to the wall, with a painting technique of harsh vertical brush strokes using acrylic paint as her favorite medium of choice. Irvin Ibarra

With stained hands, brushes laid across the floor and walls saturated in paint, Carolina Romo, a junior fine arts major, works tirelessly in the studio to finish her latest piece.

As a self-taught fine artist and muralist, societal issues are Romo’s muse. Romo pulls inspiration from politics, civil rights and mental health advocacy while experimenting with her favorite medium: acrylic paints.

Based in Chicago but hailing from Milwaukee, Romo said she started painting in the first grade after finding a book about Frida Kahlo at her school’s book fair. Now she works through her art to uplift the importance of subjects people may not at first be comfortable discussing.

“I had no idea who Frida Kahlo was before, so after I read this picture book, it just inspired me to make art,” Romo said. “I saw the illustrations, and then I started researching and learning about her, so I thought it was exciting … and I thought I would enjoy it, too.”

In a work in progress, Carolina Romo uses red and blue acrylic paint, blending them harshly with lines that bring the eye to the figure in the middle of the canvas. Irvin Ibarra

For Romo, creating art has been a therapeutic experience and provided a place of comfort through which she can channel her experiences and emotions — which also happen to be her biggest influences next to incorporating foreign objects and infusing societal issues into her work.

Her piece “Kids in Cages” references the child migrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2019. Another brings light to the dark side of the fashion industry in “Work Labor,” a three-piece line drawing encouraging viewers to consider who exactly makes their clothes. Romo said she wants her audience to think critically about these issues that are happening every day, without forcing personal ideas onto them.

Back home, Romo has worked on a multitude of murals in Milwaukee, valuing community and its big role in her art. One of her murals illustrated for the Garden Homes neighborhood reflects its history, the Great Migration, redlining, industrial work being done at the time and faith. Her other mural, “Tejiendo Raices,” was a project she participated in with muralist Isabel Castro in an effort to cultivate a safe, creative and inclusive space through the arts to empower the communities of color in the city. Romo said she is currently working on a mural for her grandpa’s bakery.

“I brought him the idea of what I was going to do, and I even showed him my portfolio. … He liked the idea, and he said it was cool,” Romo said. “I love [community]. I want to be a part of it as much as I can, and I like talking to people. I think it just helps people be together.”

Carolina Romo often goes to the open studio on the 8th floor of Columbia’s 623 S. Wabash Ave. building and works on two paintings at the same time with a wide view of the city. Irvin Ibarra

Through Columbia, she has gotten the opportunity to intern with the NYCH Art Gallery and have her work put on display at the POROUS Salon Exhibit. Romo said these opportunities taught her about the business and marketing side of art while still having a community to express creativity with. Outside of school, Romo’s work has been featured at the Lolita’s Bodega event at Navy Pier and Art & Edibles at the Pilsen Art House.

Throughout her years at Columbia, her artistic dreams have become further elevated due to the outlet the college has provided, and Romo said in the future she plans on fully immersing herself in her work through opening a small business of her own within the community to share her art and painting tips.

Through her experience in the art field, Romo has learned the value of uplifting artists, shopping small and supporting others within the community.

“It’s just important that [people] help each other out,” Romo said. “I think people need to think about other people, even if they don’t know them like that. It just shows how kind one can be.”

Those interested in keeping up with Romo or supporting her work can follow her Instagram and Redbubble and visit her website for updates and information on commissions and upcoming appearances.