Like many adopteees, Katie Avila Loughmiller grew up with questions about who she was and where she came from. Art helped. The 36-year-old, who was born in Colombia, sees the arts as a vehicle for piecing together her identity as a Latinx woman – and a way to connect those with minoritized identities. That’s one reason she was so rattled by the lack of Latinx representation in the Milwaukee art scene when she moved here in 2016 to work on the Beer Line Trail development project. “I thought, there have to be other Latinx women artists in Milwaukee,” she says.
So together with fellow artist Gabriela Riveros, Loughmiller founded LUNA – Latinas Unidas en las Artes – to cultivate a sense of community among Latinx artists who, like them, felt detached and unrepresented in their art endeavors.
Along with connecting Latinx artists with one another, the initiative provides a much-needed platform for women and non-binary people of color to collaborate and share their art with the community. “These artists weren’t getting shows, or they were getting tokenized at them,” Loughmiller says. “Creating our own exhibitions, we could control our story and the narrative of what we wanted to present.”
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The collective also aims to educate the Milwaukee community about their culture. In 2019, for example, LUNA hosted an exhibition celebrating the role of hoop earrings in Latinx culture. Their work also extends into the city: LUNA was recently hired to create three ofrendas, or altars, at Forest Home Cemetery to honor Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
LUNA also adds color and diversity to the city by collaborating on large-scale murals. In spring 2019, then-County Executive Chris Abele commissioned LUNA to paint a mural in the Milwaukee County Courthouse, and in July 2021, the collective collaborated with over 20 community members to create a mid-block street mural in the Walker Square neighborhood. Throughout the workdays, Loughmiller says, neighborhood residents came out offering up their own supplies to bring the mural to life.
That work, Floración, or Blooming, depicts a woman’s face surrounded by colorful flowers, representing growth and connection to her surroundings – similar to what LUNA has cultivated in Milwaukee. Says Loughmiller: “Those three days really nailed in my belief that art can bring people together and build community.”