Blumenthal Fellows Projects Will Bring 9 Local Artists’ Visions to Life at CIAF this Fall

June 11, 2024 / Blog
By Liz Rothaus Bertrand

The third annual Charlotte International Arts Festival returns to Charlotte September 13–29, 2024. Featuring incredible, interactive art installations and performances from around the world, the festival will also highlight artists from Charlotte’s own extraordinary creative and international communities.

Nine local artists have been selected for this year’s cohort of Blumenthal Fellows. The program includes project funding and professional support to these artists, whose work will be displayed at locations stretching from Ballantyne to Uptown Charlotte throughout the two-week festival. Last year’s event drew more than 150,000 visitors.

“Each year, the applicant pool gets stronger as the local artists’ talents continue to grow,” says Bree Stallings, Blumenthal Arts’ director of artistic experiences. “The nine projects chosen this year embody the principles of this program and our larger festival: art pieces that are interactive, joyful, and elicit a sense of awe… We can’t wait to see what these innovative artists create and how audiences enjoy their work during CIAF this year.”

This year’s Blumenthal Fellows class includes: Cat Babbie, Eliza Dunaway, Heather Kostell, Emily Núñez, Kortney Paloalto, Paige Reitterer & Will Rudolph, Aguinaldo Santos, Lori Schember, and Laura Sexton.    


(2024 Blumenthal Fellows)

This cohort brings the total number of Blumenthal Fellows projects to 41— with overall funding reaching $415,000 since the program’s inception in 2021. Members of the Blumenthal Fellows Class of ‘24 received funding for their projects, in amounts ranging from $5,000 to $15,000, thanks to a generous gift from Wells Fargo.

Stallings says being a Fellow at CIAF is also an important growth opportunity for artists, through which they have the opportunity to learn from other national and international artists and see what types of projects align best with a high traffic festival.

Last year’s festival has already served as a stepping stone for several artists from the 2023 cohort:

  • Artists Mike Wirth, Anuja Jain, and Laurie Smithwick all had their projects selected for exhibition and competition at ArtFields in Lake City, South Carolina, one of the largest and most prestigious festivals in the Southeast.

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  • A photograph of fiber artist Claire Keister’s project was selected as part of this year’s juried ArtPop Street Gallery cities program. Her work will be featured on billboards and digital displays throughout Charlotte and beyond.


  • And Greg Urquhart’s rubber duckie artwork led to several other sculpture commissions.


Here’s a closer look at two of the projects coming this fall and the artists behind them.

“Echoes of Thought: Constructing Spaces for Reflection”

Multimedia artist Emily Núñez grew up in Charlotte with strong family roots in the Dominican Republic. A 2020 graduate of Appalachian State University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, her murals have been popping up around the city, including a recent work on North Tryon Street near NODA. Her artwork usually focuses on her Dominican heritage and revolves around themes of connection — opening up opportunities for viewers to get to know Núñez and others through it.

“Most of my life has been here but… my heart and my soul are in the Dominican Republic,” says the 24 year old artist, who spent about three years in that Caribbean country in her youth, and later attended high school at Phillip O. Berry and Harper Middle College.


Her installation project for CIAF, “Echoes of Thought: Constructing Spaces for Reflection,” takes the form of a greenhouse, measuring approximately 8’ wide x 10’ long, that looks like it's made of stained glass.

The greenhouse will be built from PVC pipes and incorporate clear plastic vinyl and tinted window material. Núñez will decorate the space by layering these colorful pieces to create portraits of people, representing a variety of backgrounds and ages.

“Echoes” is pushing Núñez to try some new techniques, while working at a large scale. She usually works with acrylic paints and draws with soft pastels. In those mediums, she says, she blends her colors. But for this project, she has to think in shapes, which she layers on top of one another to create the illusion of certain colors.

The space will also be filled with flowers made from recycled materials and feature questions of self reflection for visitors to consider, like “Where do you see yourself in three months?” and “Where do you see yourself in society?”

As in her other works, Núñez says this piece is about connecting with yourself and finding others with whom you can connect. A QR code will be available for visitors to share their own reflections, if they choose.

She’s excited to get to know people in Charlotte and see what they are willing to share either through the codes or with photos they post on social media.


“Leaf of Light”

Brazilian born artist Aguinaldo Santos, Jr. is the first artist to be selected for a second Blumenthal fellowship. His “Project 1839” was part of the inaugural group of local artist creations (then known as Made in CLT) to receive funding in 2021. His artwork was a giant replica of an old-fashioned camera that visitors could walk inside to learn about the evolution of photography and Charlotte’s history in photos.


This fall for CIAF, Santos is exploring links between technology and nature with his unique project, “Leaf of Light.” His giant sculpture in the form of a leaf will include solar panels.

“People can get inside and charge their phone, using the energy captured by the solar panel on the top of the leaf… just like the same idea of the leaf in nature,” Santos says.

Every project he undertakes begins from a place of curiosity. He keeps an idea notebook that he returns to often for inspiration. That’s where he rediscovered the leaf he had observed back in 2020.

Back then, he was brand new to Charlotte. He had come to study interior design and English at Central Piedmont Community College, pursuing his childhood dream of living in the U.S. He had a pizza delivery job and one day on his lunch break, he stumbled upon something that caught his attention behind the shop located in the university area.

It was a leaf, lying among others on the street, but something about its form stood out. It was as though it was whispering: “Hey — take me!” Santos recalls.

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He admired its form and contemplated the beauty with which leaves move. Then, on a hunch that someday it would be useful, he took photos of the leaf from various angles, imagining it at a large scale with people walking through it. Now, that vision can finally be realized, thanks to CIAF.

“Leaf of Light” is the first time Santos will work with solar energy, but he’s not afraid of trying something new. It’s exactly what he loves about art and creating. He says he spends considerable time meditating, trying to find solutions to creative challenges.

He has a friend at Duke Energy who’s helping with electrical calculations so his artwork can provide a fast charge for up to four visitors' mobile devices simultaneously.


“Every time when I think [of] something, I know I'm going to get [it] but I don't know how or when,” Santos says.

Santos grew up in poverty, without his parents, and found any means he could to create his art growing up in Brazil. By age 13 he was collecting cans on the streets to support himself. Any extra money he had would go toward drawing or painting supplies. And when he didn’t have materials, “I was scratch[ing], I was using ketchup, I was using anything,” he says.

“If you don't have it ... find a way to make it happen,” he adds. “If you don't have red, use blue.”

Getting the opportunity to come to the U.S. and make art is everything he’s ever dreamed of doing.

For him, creating is a necessity: it’s how he expresses his emotions. Thanks to projects like CIAF, he’s coming closer to his goal of working full time as an artist.

“Before 2020 nobody knew about Aguinaldo’s art,” he says.

Now, he’s got work in two local galleries, he’s participated in multiple festivals, he’s made many friends through Charlotte’s arts community, and he’s in the process of applying for permanent residency through a Green Card reserved for artists of “extraordinary ability.”

He says being an artist has given him everything.