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North Denver Program Helps Immigrant Artists Take it to the Next Level

Rosario Weston has always been a skilled painter. She loves to create pieces that beautifully meld her Latin roots with her North American upbringing. She moved from Chile to the United States with her family of nine when she was 10 years old. She received an offer for a full-scholarship to study painting in college, but her parents weren’t convinced a career in the arts would provide financial stability. Weston became a successful Human Resources professional, instead, and climbed the corporate ladder. Painting on the weekends, she kept her passion alive while supporting her three sons as they grew up.

“I was always very creative,” says Weston.“It was painful from the artistic perspective in that I wasn’t able to paint the way I am today.”

Everything changed in October, 2019. Her father grew gravely ill, and she opted to stay home to help her parents. 2020 began with the loss of her father and the start of a global pandemic. Despite being surrounded by feelings of uncertainty and loss, she found hope.

“It was like the universe was saying, ‘All this change is for a reason, maybe you should change too,’” Weston said.

And change she did. She began painting full-time back in October of 2019. Fast forward to today, and she is one of 15 artists selected for the Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program: Denver which began in late February 2021.  

This program is the result of a partnership between North Denver’s PlatteForum and New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA). Although 2021 marks its debut in Denver, IAMP is a NYFA program that has provided over 450 artists from 76 countries and regions with mentorship, community and exposure. 

The three-month program partners well-established, professional artists with emerging immigrant artists to provide guidance and support as they navigate the art world and work to further propel their careers. By fostering a local community of artists sharing the immigrant experience, PlatteForum is hoping to give these creatives the opportunity to focus on their craft and gain support for their work while maintaining their distinct cultural identities.

Eriko Tsogo moved from Mongolia when she was just 8 years old. She serves as program facilitator for IAMP: Denver.

“Our main goal is definitely to make space for the underserved, underprivileged artists,” Tsogo said. 

An established artist, Tsogo has had numerous shows, curatorial projects and residencies throughout the United States and Mongolia. But despite all her success, she wishes she had a program like this at the start of her career.

“As immigrants, often we feel alone or abandoned, misunderstood,” Tsogo said. “So for them to have a mentor who’s been through it… showing them the way and helping them connect to other people, for example, that really changes their lives.”

Michael Gadlin is Weston’s mentor. He is a well-established visual artist who’s also seen success in television as host of Rocky Mountain PBS’ former show “Arts District.” He considers himself an “accountability partner” for Weston.

“In the arts, it’s especially hard because you sort of work in a vacuum,” Gadlin said. “So many of us are like these lone creators who hope to get recognition, but nobody knows how it works, and there’s not a real science to it.”

Above all else, Gadlin hopes he can help these immigrant artists build community within the traditionally white, privileged art world. Community, he  says, is just a useless term until people actually take action to achieve it.

“Creating these little round tables or community circles… or mentorship programs, that’s what’s effective,” Gadlin said. “We’ll probably create lifelong friendships.”

A part of creating those lasting relationships comes from these mentees sharing their unique stories with one another. Some of her colleagues’ experiences were full of hardship, but Weston said she had a “very protected walk” in her assimilation to become an American. Her parents, both educated in the U.S., decided to leave Chile because of political problems. Her father, an engineer, and her mother, a nurse, had no problems continuing their careers in the states.

Lio Bumbakini was born in Brussels to Congolese immigrants. He moved to the U.S. in 2001. Inspired by his African descent and European upbringing, Bumbakini hopes his final exhibition for the program can showcase his “silhouette in today’s world.” His experience with IAMP has been both educational and collaborative – learning from mentors and mentees while sharing his own expertise.

“It’s just an aggregate of collective creatives,” Bumbakini said. “An open forum for resources to be shared.”

The 27-year-old multidisciplinary visual artist has already seen a lot of success with Crush Walls, numerous public commissions, two solo exhibits and artistic partnerships with prominent companies. But he says rare programs like this one can really open doors for people without citizenship – especially since many program and grant applications require citizenship.

“Us, as immigrant artists, we’re trying to get in the door of American institutions, and [IAMP] is kind of like the guiding light to helping us get to the next level in our creative paths,” Bumbakini said. 

Tsogo says the goal is for the pilot program to continue from year to year – but that depends greatly on funding. Two of this year’s biggest contributors were the Arts in Society program, which is administered by RedLine Contemporary Art Center and funded through a cohort of Colorado foundations, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. 

“We want this to be recurring,” Tsogo said. “Even just from this first pilot trial, I can see that it’s revolutionary.”

For participants like Weston, the program has been about vulnerability and synergy – the effects of which she expects to trickle into the community at large.

“Within that safe place, what happens is we become aware of each other… it’s all about being honest with our experience and that is the core of the enrichment,” Weston said. “We have one common denominator, one common string that ties us together, which is a genuine pursuit of the creative language, and being around all the supporters it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re safe, and we’re in a good place finally together.’”

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I'm a freelance journalist based in Denver. I graduated from the University of Richmond with a B.A. in journalism and a minor in creative writing in 2019.

Latest comments

  • Excellent journalistic portrail. And inspiration to us all! Thank you!

  • Probably due to a combination of their harsh way of living and varied European ancestry Chileans intertwine seamlessly within the fabric of American society and rarely experiment any kind of misfitting. The ethnic elements in Rosario’s paintings express deep love and care for her characters but not her heritage whatsoever. Had she started painting when her parents foresaw no good prospects in that endeavor she should now be a mature and surely well known artist. That makes this program welcome for her to boost her career thus making it up with those years waiting for her art to see the light. Thanks for that.

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