From March to August of this year Cafe Con Leche, a Pittsburgh based Latin cultural influencer and pop-up cafe, hosted a Latino artist residency program. Ten diverse Latino artists from around the country, and also local to Pittsburgh, were chosen for the month long residency. Their challenge was to create art that reflected what it means to be a Latino in a place where there is not a large (yet still growing) Latino population. Using their own unique skills and perspectives, each artist created work reflecting their own experiences and heritage. One of the artists, Pittsburgh-born Alison Zapata, played off her Pennsylvania roots and Mexican-American heritage by creating traditional Pennsylvania Dutch Hex signs using symbols from Latinos living in the Pittsburgh area. This project was visually stunning and a unique way to demonstrate how we connect the American cultural traditions from the past to the America of the future. Read on below to learn more about Alison and this art project.
Tara: What are “hex” symbols?
Alison: About 300 years ago, groups of religious refugees from the Rhine region of Germany migrated to southeastern Pennsylvania. These settlers became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. Hex signs are a form of Pennsylvania Dutch folk art found in the Fancy Dutch tradition in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Barn paintings, usually in the form of stars in circles, mystical bird and floral designs grew out of the folk art traditions about 1850 when barns first started to be painted in the area. They are mostly decorative.
Tara: Why did you you choose to paint hex signs?
Alison: I love deep connection of this traditional style to Pennsylvania heritage and long history of immigration. Stylistically, I love the simplicity and beauty of this folk art in its circular form. My hex signs are similar to the tradition, but different because I asked 12 people of Latina/o heritage living in Pittsburgh to contribute personal symbols of their cultural identity to create my series for the Cafe Con Leche artist residency in Pittsburgh. My goal for this series was to fuse the Latino/a personal symbols with the hex sign tradition, fooling the eye with it’s familiar, repetitive, and traditionally symmetrical style; however, upon further inspection, they present the personal symbols of longing for a far away country while living in Pennsylvania.
Tara: What was your favorite part of this project?
Alison: My favorite part of the project was meeting some beautiful people active in the Latino/a community of Pittsburgh. I loved contributing to the conversation about the ever changing and evolving definition of what it means to be a Pennsylvanian.
Tara: What were people’s responses to your hex signs?
Alison: So far, the response to the painting series has been very positive. Initially, people were attracted to the imagery and color of the works. When they really started to dig in, they asked many questions about the symbolism within the design. That was my goal—to start a conversation about heritage, immigration, and what it means to be a Pennsylvanian.
Tara: What’s next for this project?
Alison: I would like to continue to develop at least three more hex signs to expand this series. I would also like to see these paintings on display throughout the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, possibly the state capitol.
Alison Zapata is a Pittsburgh-born, second-generation Mexican-American visual artist and art educator. She works in oil, acrylic and watercolor. Her expertise lies in painting, portraiture, murals, collage, and sign painting. She is the owner/lead artist of Zapata Studios. She has studied fine art/art education at Carlow University and is currently in the process of obtaining a teaching artist certificate at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She recently exhibited her work with Aquí, the Latino visual arts collective, in the Capitol Building, Education Department and the Vault Gallery at Susquehanna Museum of Art in Harrisburg, PA through the invitation of State Representative Leslie Acosta as a part of Hispanic Heritage month. Her Sea Turtle painting was the featured image for the children’s tents at the Three Rivers Arts festival. She assisted on the mural, Lend Me Your Ears, in East Liberty. Alison has developed engaging arts programming in classrooms throughout Pittsburgh over the past eighteen years. Yearly, she leads several visual art residencies for students, including an Autism Support Classroom. Alison has received art education training through Gateway to the Arts, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Lincoln Center’s Aesthetic Education, and Wolf Trap Institute. She is a resident artist in the Lifetime Arts and the Artists in Education program through the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. She was awarded participation in the Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad Art and Society: Brazil/U.S. Educational Partnership. She has professional experience in educational leadership. She is inspired to make art to build a sense of community and start conversations about identity and heritage. Check out more about Alison by visiting her website, www.zapatastudios.com.