Meet The Artist Behind Two Colorful South Side Murals

Isabel Castro’s deeply symbolic paintings showcase her love for the community that continually lifts her up.

When Isabel Castro was designing her most recent mural at the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center last spring, she didn’t account for installing it with a broken foot. But the fishing-accident injury didn’t stop her from creating the 18-foot-high, 52-foot-wide love letter to the healers who work there and neighbors who frequent it. Instead, she enlisted volunteers to color in panels of the mural like a giant paint-by-number project.

The final product, later named National Ave. Mural, takes inspiration from Mexican folk art and is dripping with symbolism. She used cardiac muscles to demonstrate the clinic’s mission to be at the heart of the South Side, calming colors to imply a sense of peace and real people from the neighborhood to give a feeling of community.  

National Ave. Mural: Castro wanted human emotion to project from the mural, including illustrations of people young and old from her community; Photo by Sara Stathas

Castro, now 22, says she got her start drawing on her grandparents’ walls, but high school is really when things got serious. Youth arts programs honed her skills, with an internship at ArtWorks for Milwaukee, where she designed a mural with fellow students, and a gig at Artists Working in Education, where she assisted local muralists with their projects. At Still Waters Collective workshops, she discovered her love for storytelling through poetry, realizing she could use those techniques in her visual art, too.
As a senior, she was already the lead artist for a mural at her high school, Escuela Verde.  

“Each project has pushed me,” she says. 

Anatomy of a Mural

Tejiendo Raíces at 1023 S. Cesar E. Chavez Dr.; Photo by Aldo Gonzalez

The hands are a welcome, opening the neighborhood up to everyone. They also represent the many hands and stories that went into developing the mural.  

The ojos de Dios, God’s eyes, symbolize protection. Castro helped families make the diamond-shaped folk-art symbols in her workshops and included the design for protection over the neighborhood.  

The flowers were inspired by a woman she met who made and sold paper flowers to everyone in her community
for celebrations.

The grid marks in the background show the fabric of the city, an unlabeled map of streets that commuters of that neighborhood know well.

In 2018 – still a teenager – Castro was selected to be the Artist in Residence for Clarke Square Neighborhood just south of Mitchell Park. Wanting to share access to her studio, she opened it up to teach art classes. There, she began to collect stories for her first large-scale exterior mural, Tejiendo Raíces (Weaving Roots), a colorful work that stitches together accounts from her neighbors and family with her own experiences.  

“Murals speak of the people who live here… and they become a part of showcasing stories, feelings.” 

-ISABEL CASTRO


“Not only do murals become landmarks, but they speak of the people who live here and who exist, and they become a part of showcasing stories, feelings, people who tend to not be seen in mainstream society,” she says.

Next month, Castro will finish her degree at UW-Milwaukee – the first in her second-generation Mexican-American family to graduate from college. Her next project is a mural at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, where she had her first painting displayed in a gallery as a kid.  

“An artist has many roles. We’re not just the creator. We’re the facilitator. We’re grant writers, advocates, storytellers,” she says. “We try to hold the space that is necessary for whatever initiative or mission we are striving for.” 

Photos:

National Ave. Mural; Photo by Isabel Castro

 

Tejiendo Raices in progress; Photo by Aldo Gonzalez

 

Tejiendo Raices details; Photo by Isabel Castro

 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s April issue.

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Brianna Schubert is the Associate Digital Editor at Milwaukee Magazine.