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Meet 2023 Forward Award Recipient Carlos Eduardo Gacharná ’17

From ceramics to glassblowing to black-light photography of colorful flames, fire has long been the animating force behind Carlos Eduardo Gacharná’s art.

Carlos Eduardo Gacharná ’17

UW Major: Art
Artist and Teacher, artworxLA

From ceramics to glassblowing to black-light photography of colorful flames, fire has long been the animating force behind Carlos Eduardo Gacharná’s art. His ongoing interest in forging and recasting raw materials and light into new forms is closely tied to his preoccupation with migration and identity-making in foreign or hostile places — a perspective that now makes him a deeply empathic teacher and community builder for at-risk youth populations in Los Angeles.

“Carlos Eduardo’s work exemplifies the Wisconsin Idea in bringing art education to communities that might not have as robust programming in their standard curriculum,” says UW assistant professor of glassworking Helen Lee. “His ability to reach students of all ages and all backgrounds is a skill he has honed over years of experience. Carlos Eduardo believes in the power of art to heal, and his work brings this to communities in deep need of this human magic.”

Since 2020, Gacharná has facilitated 450 art workshops, both online and in person, that have served more than 1,000 students across 40 sites in Wisconsin and California.

Born in Bogotá, Colombia, during the peak years of cartel violence, his family emigrated when Gacharná was seven years old. In Colombia, Gacharná was already a budding artist, using Sculpey clay to produce imaginative figures and scenes like tuxedoed polar bears and dolphins living together on tropical islands. But in Wisconsin, Gacharná’s adolescence was marred by culture shock, housing instability, and close calls with law enforcement. By the time he entered high school, Gacharná had switched schools six times.

“I believe immigrants share a mutual struggle, allowing me to connect with all who have walked through the volatile fire of human migration,” he says.

At 16, he took a ceramics class that changed everything. Gacharná spent all of his free time in the high-school studio, and his rekindled creative passion led to a precollege art program at UW–Madison, which tracked into a bachelor of fine arts degree. At the UW, Gacharná began to develop and teach workshops hosted in juvenile detention centers, youth shelters, and other nontraditional classrooms. With associate professor of art Faisal Abdu’Allah, Gacharná cofacilitated a workshop at the Madison Public Library titled “Making Justice” that was aimed at at-risk and court-involved teens and young adults in Dane County. Participants worked in black-light chalk, drip painting, screen painting, and Kokedama, a Japanese technique for crafting elegant plant containers from natural fibers. In addition to making art, participants also shared meals and hosted gallery events to showcase their work.

During his senior year, Gacharná studied abroad in Brazil and co-organized an art exhibition at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais that showcased local artists, musicians, and dancers. Hundreds attended the event, which collected more than 700 pounds of food donations. “After that, anything was possible,” Gacharná says.

In 2017, Gacharná moved to Los Angeles, where he now runs after-school teen programming at artworxLA, an arts nonprofit that annually serves 1,000 predominately low-income youth at sites across Los Angeles County in partnership with more than 100 cultural institutions. Gacharná also teaches weekly art workshops for third graders through the Angels Gate Cultural Center’s Artists in Classrooms program in the San Pedro neighborhood.

“I believe that mentorship and artistic practice can break down the barriers of communication for incarcerated and marginalized youth,” Gacharná says. “My career has been dedicated to alternative education that sparks the curiosity and spirit of the students I serve.”

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