For the last few months, the campus of UNC and the landscape surrounding it have been dotted by some very odd, very colorful visitors. If you’ve walked through the campus, you probably witnessed students, children and their parents alike hopping on board these huge, vibrant sculptures to go for a giggle-inducing spin.
The sculptures, which resemble giant spinning tops bearing the colors of a Day-Glo adorned circus troupe, are called “Los Trompos” and are the work of a man named Nacho.
Ignacio Cadena, or Nacho as his friends call him, spent the first few years of his life in the Sonoran Desert in Mexico. Born into a military family, he learned order and discipline early, but thanks to his mother, he told me, he learned culture and creativity as well.
He moved to the United States while still a teenager and attended college in Los Angeles, before moving back to Monterrey, Mexico, where his design firm is now based. To date, Cadena has worked in over a quarter of the countries on the planet.
“We do a variety of projects. Sometimes it’s redesigning the inside of a small café, sometimes it’s interior design for a high-rise apartment. But, you know, you take the projects that come your way because they fund what you really care about. For me, that’s projects like ‘Los Trompos,’” Cadena said.
For Cadena, “Los Trompos” is an extension of his vision of what art should — and can — be.
“When I think about how I want to design a room, create a sculpture, or really create anything, I focus primarily on the impact I want it to make on someone. Do I want it to make them smile, make them question something, or make them feel at ease? This is why I love injecting art and thoughtful, creative design into people’s everyday lives.”
Nacho said he wanted to ensure that his art was always approachable, never intimidating and allowed people to engage it on their own terms. For Nacho, art should not exist simply for the sake of existing — it should give something back to people.
He said “Los Trompos” was the perfect actualization of this belief. The spinning tops are beautiful, even breathtaking, to be sure. But they also serve as benches, as cozy lunch spots, as makeshift meeting rooms and, of course, merry-go-rounds.
“I love public art installations — and when I say that I don’t just mean art exhibitions which are open to the public, I mean art that is in the public space. When you free art from the confines of a museum or a stuffy gallery, you make it more relatable, you make it more widely enjoyable,” Cadena said.
It was in this spirit that “Los Trompos” was created, but Nacho said there was an earlier project which served as a springboard for the idea.
“The project that really got me engaged with this idea of truly public art was one called ‘Mi Casa, Your Casa’. I began the project in order to solve this problem the High Museum in Atlanta was having — not enough people were coming, and when they did, they weren’t sticking around.”
Nacho said the High Museum of Art has an expansive, gorgeous pavilion in front of the building which was intended as a public meeting and leisure space. But for some reason, people just weren’t coming; so they hired Nacho to bring them out.
The project seemed simple enough – create an art exhibit that would get people back on the pavilion. To tackle this, Nacho decided to put his maxim that art should be simple and approachable into practice. He decided that to achieve that, he would draw inspiration from the drawings of children. So he collected drawings from a kindergarten class and struck gold.
“What I found was that the most common thing for a child to draw was a house — and almost always in the same way. Always a very similar shape, and the tone of the images was always that of love, happiness and safety,” Nacho said.
So Nacho created about a hundred simple, red metal house frames and put them on the pavilion. And immediately, people started showing up. So Nacho began experimenting. He first introduced swing sets inside of the houses, and then hammocks. As soon as he included these signs of invitation, the already sizable crowds he had drawn grew to swarms of families, young professionals, older couples and just about every other kind of person you can imagine.
“It really affirmed the role that interaction plays in art. The more a person feels involved, the more the art feels accessible, as if it is really part of a person’s life and not just something pretty to look at — that’s what creates changes. By simply changing the physical space people are moving through, you can fundamentally alter the social space — feelings, thoughts; you can really make someone’s day with a metal frame and some fabric,” Nacho said.
It was with this belief in mind — that art can transcend its physical form and become a psychological, even spiritual, experience — that inspired him to create “Los Trompos.” He began the project just like he began “Mi Casa, Your Casa.” He went back to the minds of children.
“I wanted to come up with a children’s toy — something familiar and fun — and blow up the scale. And I thought ‘Why not spinning tops?’ So we went to work. Building the frames, hiring weavers, choosing the most durable and safe materials for construction. I have to be honest though, when I first conceived of ‘Los Trompos,’ I didn’t really know how many adults were going to love them. I probably should have started off with stronger threads,” Cadena said, laughing.
Cadena wasn’t just surprised at how much adults loved his creations, he was overjoyed. He described the deep happiness he felt as he watched as students, professors, children and grandparents spin around on “Los Trompos.” His visit to Chapel Hill to see the sculptures in action was his first to the state of North Carolina, and he seemed impressed.
“It is absolutely beautiful here. Amazing weather, gorgeous skies and friendly people. An absolutely perfect backdrop for ‘Los Trompos,’” Nacho said.