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Artsemble Underground immortalizes moments in time with spray-painted murals across SWFL

Brian & Cesar pose outside of Oak Hammok middle School before finishing a cafeteria mural.JPG
Rendy Ramos
Brian Weaver and Cesar Aguilera pose outside of Oak Hammock Middle School before finishing a mural in the school's cafeteria.

Two artists in Southwest Florida wield spray paint cans to enact social change and demographic inclusion through the power of public art.

Cesar Aguilera and Brian Weaver created the arts organization Artsemble Underground with one goal in mind: to bring art to the people. Their passion for making art more accessible in Southwest Florida manifests itself in many forms, and the spray-painted murals depicting themes of inclusion, love, honor, and diversity allow the duo to make a permanent mark on the community.

Artsemble Underground formed in 2017 to help Southwest Florida businesses attract traffic with outdoor murals, sculptures, or public art events. Aguilera credits his desire to break out of the confines of a traditional gallery space as their launching point.

“With Artsemble, I always wanted to do something with art that was more than the gallery, because art was so inert just on a wall," said Aguilera. "So, with art, I wanted to create action. I wanted to create a difference in the city.”

Weaver says frustration and a lack of diverse artistic representation also motivated the two to get organized.

“I guess you could say Artsemble was born out of frustration with what was happening in the Southwest Florida art scene, especially in the Fort Myers art scene," said Weaver. "We were both really frustrated with trying to get our artwork out and also make change in the community. We wanted to affect people through our art on a major level.”

Artsemble painting IWMF wall
Tara Calligan
Cesar Aguilera (left) and Brian Weaver (right) use spray paint to add finishing touches to one of several murals they are creating at the IWMF.

Though their art styles differ, the two divide and conquer each mural, painting various sections simultaneously. Aguilera's solo work features intricate portraits and striking paintings with poignant social justice themes. Weaver’s art is known for his whimsical, pastel color palette focusing on issues of environmental conservation and the natural world. In the end, Aguilera says the result is a cohesive melting pot.

“Because mine and him...very different in its own, but when it is combined, it creates this different monster," said Aguilera. "It’s colorful, it’s vibrant, but it has the message and it is very recognizable.”

Weaver agrees.

“When you're painting next to somebody, and you're doing lots of murals, and you have to work as one, you start to learn a lot about what that other person brings to the table," said Weaver. "So, through our creative process, all of our artwork has been so different, but it flows so well together. Then as you're creating all of that, that whole entire, you know, beautiful piece of work, you get to learn from the other person.”

Brian Weaver Artsemble
Tara Calligan
Brian Weaver attended the School of Communication Arts in North Carolina, graduating with a degree in Graphic Design and Computer Animation. He says using spray paint to create the SWFL murals is a freeing experience. "It's definitely a very high pressured medium, which I think is what we found in such love with. You can do a lot in a small amount of time. But at the same time, it's also extremely delicate. With the pressures of the can and the nozzle and the different gaps, you really have to finesse the nozzle, the tip of that can. I think it's the most free experience of a medium that you can have of just completely losing yourself and putting all of yourself into it."

Artsemble Underground has created 20 public art murals across Southwest Florida. More are expected. In downtown Fort Myers on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, they are completing murals at the I Will Mentorship Foundation.

The nonprofit I Will Mentorship Foundation empowers local youth to make positive life choices through E-STEM based learning and mentoring programs focused on increasing academic achievement, strengthening community, and providing exposure to opportunities to improve socioeconomic mobility.

The foundation’s founder and CEO Dr. Jesse Bryson says he chose Artsemble to paint murals at the Foundation’s Urban Community Farm in the historically Black community of Dunbar.

Dr. Jesse Bryson
Tara Calligan
Dr. Jesse Bryson harvests kale in the community garden. IWMF’s Urban Community Farm was initiated in 2018 with the goal of advancing urban agriculture. It was inspired by innovation and technology, driven by a sense of duty to address community wellness and ecological issues facing our agricultural system, and motivated by a foundation’s penchant for challenge.

“We chose Artsemble because we're out of the box type of foundation," said Bryson. "We tell our kids, think out of the box, think what the possibilities could be. Let's stretch your imagination. Let's be creative. That's what engineering, that's what innovation is about. And I didn't want a traditional artist. I didn't want to go with a traditional mural. I wanted something that was going to grab the people.”

It does just that. The murals use every spray paint color imaginable in a pastel, pop art style. One side depicts images of prominent African American icons like Kamala Harris, the first Black, Asian American and woman vice president; American memoirist, poet, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou; and 44th U.S. President Barack Obama.

Bryson says the reaction from passersby to that side of the completed mural was mixed with both awe and anger. Bryson is constantly asked the same question:

“The anger was, why did you choose these people? I think it’s very important because they're not recognized," said Bryson. "And I think through history, we have not recognized a lot of the great accomplishments of African-Americans that have contributed to the American dream. So, why not showcase them? We have plenty of murals downtown and other places, so why not start in your own community and start with that education there?”

Tara Calligan
Cesar Aguilera, originally from Quito, Ecuador, has been a staple in the SWFL art scene. In 2015, he received the Gulfshore Life Emerging Arts Leader award. He is the art curator of the Sidney and Berne Davis Art Center’s Grand Atrium and Capital Gallery. He says spray paint has become a staple, even in his personal art, "Especially the backgrounds of my paintings, I use [spray paint] because it gives that depth and dimensionality on the background that I can't achieve with a brush. So, whenever I'm painting now, all of my backgrounds are done with spray paint."

The other side of the I Will Mentorship Foundation wall celebrates youth, and the next generation of creators and visionaries. Aguilera and Weaver say educating, inspiring, and uplifting young Southwest Floridians is the other half of what Artsemble hopes to permeate throughout the community to enact positive, social change.

“A big motivation for creating public art has been how the youth, the kids get amazed first, you know, of how it’s created, but then how they can get related to the figures in the murals," said Aguilera. "That’s what we’re trying to do with Artsemble.”

“I feel like we've figured it out," said Weaver. "And that's what I want to share with the younger generation, too, is pick something that you feel like it's a passion inside of you and, you know, practice it and get good at it, and work on it every day. And I really feel like you won't work a day in your life.”

Bryson says working with Artsemble has been more than he ever expected, because they are not just painting murals, they’re contributing to the betterment of community inclusion and representation.

“They're willing to also give back," said Bryson. "So, they've come back and said, we'll hold art classes here. I'm happy that they're willing to come and let this be not only a STEM, but also an art area for youth. And art can change lives, so that's what we need in this community. And we want to be able to put art in a perspective in which they can see themselves in those murals.”

Other Artsemble murals can be found throughout Southwest Florida, including the LaBelle memorial wall honoring fallen Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation officer Julian Keen, on walls inside Oak Hammock Middle School cafeteria, and the exterior of the Cape Coral Art Center.

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