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Reach out and touch…

by Wayne Johns

When I first met Edwin Gil, at the Green Bean in downtown Greensboro, he asked me to extend my hand — not to shake, but as if he were about to read my palm. Instead, he placed his hand, also palm up, a few inches below mine and took a picture with his phone.

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I must have seemed surprised because he said it’s one of the ways to promote his current project, Flag of Hope. I asked him, what does it mean?

“The hands? It’s very important because when we see a friend, we give our hand, shaking hands,” Gil says. “So the significance of the hands is very strong. Like an artist, if I don’t have my hands maybe I cannot paint. In our hands we have our identity.”

Although he has painted all his life, Gil says he is an untrained artist. In Colombia, he studied administration and did post-graduate work in psychology, later working in business consulting with his partner.

Everything changed in 1998 when he and his partner were kidnapped by guerillas. Gil was released but they shot his partner in the head twice. After that, he made the difficult decision to leave Colombia. When a friend who was supposed to meet him at the airport in Miami never showed, Gil made his way to a hotel room that he couldn’t bring himself to leave for 15 days; during that time, he said, “I was doing my duello” (mourning). He stayed in Miami for four months. “It was very tough because I lost my career, I lost my life, I lost everything. Like in one night, you can lose everything.”

When he found out that one of his cousin’s father was in the process of buying an art gallery in Charlotte, he moved there immediately and began working in restoration and in the print shop. It was good, Gil says, because his cousin spoke to him in Spanish and “I didn’t have to speak with anyone else.”

Because he could not communicate, and because he was in a lot of pain, he turned to art. The first thing he painted in America was a series that he describes as “very gray, very dark.” But the owner of one of the largest restaurants in Charlotte, Blue Restaurant & Bar, was selecting art from different galleries to display in his restaurant. He went to Coffey & Thompson Gallery, where Gil used to work, and from the whole gallery picked two paintings — both by Gil. After the event at the restaurant, the owner, Alex, came back to the gallery and told Gil that if he wasn’t painting he was wasting his time; he had been the only artist who to sell any art in the restaurant. Both of Gil’s paintings had sold the same night.

“That was the first step,” Gil says, “because after that my boss starts believing in what I was doing.”

His first solo exhibit was called 100%, featuring 100 paintings for $100. “The first night, the night of the opening, I sold 96 paintings,” Gil says. So his boss, and Gil himself, started believing more and more.

He also saw a need in the city. “When I came to Charlotte, the Latino culture didn’t have any expression. Just dancing, that was it.” So Gil set out to change that. The projects he has undertaken have followed the same line as his life. When he did “Home Sweet Home,” for example, it reflected where he was at that time. After arriving in the United States, he tried to look for his new home and to be part of a community. This led to the “Home Sweet Home” project, which resulted in a mural in one of the largest Latin supermarkets in Charlotte. Filmmaker Catalina Echeverry created a documentary, in conjunction with the project, that centers on the idea of “home” as described by four

Latino children living in Charlotte.

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For his next project, “Nuestra Bandera, Nuestro Hogar” (Our Flag, Our Country, Our Home), Gil visited 25 cities around the world and collected 25,000 handprints and signatures of displaced and expatriate Colombians. In 2010, during Colombia’s bicentennial celebration, he presented the 35-by-70-foot flag to President Alvaro Uribe. The flag was to be housed Museo de la Memoria in Medellín, but since then the museum said it does not have the space to take care of a work of art of that size. So the flag is still looking for a home.

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For his current project, “Flag of Hope,” Gil will travel to nine North Carolina cities (including Greensboro, at the Greensboro Cultural Center March 4-5) collecting signatures and handprints, that serve as a reminder of our common goals and shared humanity. More than 150 people attended opening day at Gil gallery in Charlotte. There was something interesting and unexpected about the experience.

You’re given a marker to sign the canvas, then Gil swabs your palm with paint (in this case blue) to make your mark. That’s pretty much it. Oh, and there was a sink in the back to wash the paint away. But the feeling of warmth and camraderie that permeated the gallery lingered, even after all the blue tinted water had swirled down the drain and my palm was clean.

wanna go?

First Friday Art Hops happen the first Friday of each month in Greensboro along Elm Street and in Winston- Salem emanating from the corner of 6th and Trade streets.

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