Viewers will be forgiven if after seeing the eye-popping new show "The Art of Franco" at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History at UNC-Chapel Hill they assume the artist is African-American.
"People think that way before they meet me," said Luis Franco, a Latin American from Puerto Rico. "I've had people say they would love for me to speak at their school since there are issues there between Latin Americans and African-Americans. They figure I would be a good example of being able to show another culture and its beauty even though I am not African-American."
Many of the 35 pieces of large digital art in the exhibit, which runs through Jan. 20, portray prominent black Americans: Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Gil Scott-Heron, Pamela Grier and Eldridge Cleaver. Others are created around the "fist pick" that became an icon during the civil rights movement.
Franco began making art when he could first hold a pencil. After he got a job as a graphic designer at SAS Institute in Cary 15 years ago, he focused on applying his knowledge of color theory, typography and layout in brochures, signs and fliers.
"But about five years ago I felt something was missing," he said. He realized it was making his own art.
Franco knew he wanted to blend his fine art skills and graphic design - a mix that had drawn him to love Pop Art, especially the work of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
"I wanted to make sure that whatever I did was going go have a voice and make a statement," he said. "I decided to address what is close to me, which as a minority is this issue of race."
One thing that concerns Franco is inner racism or valuing lighter-skinned members of one's race over darker skinned.
"I see it with Puerto Ricans and African-Americans," he said. "We are still Latino regardless of our complexions, and I question why races divide themselves within their own race."
The graphic design part of him wanted to create an element for his pieces, and the fist pick popped into his head and stuck.
"I redrew it so it is very Cubist-looking. I thought it would set the tone for what I was going to put out there. It screams revolution," he explained. "I wanted to scream revolution, hope, change, peace and love."
One of the exhibit's pieces, "Box of Reality," is a play on a carton of crayons. Instead of crayons, it holds five fist picks, one black, one brown, one red, one yellow and one white with "5 Colors, Same but Different, a Box of Reality" printed on the box. Franco wanted to express that despite this inner racism, we all are human.
The racism he encountered in Texas where he was born and when he attended Northern High School in Durham, where most of his friends were black, affected Franco, but he said it was his time as an art student at N.C. Central University in Durham that gave his experience a voice.
"Friends at Central were free thinkers that influenced me and got me to read a lot of different materials that helped me develop ideas and see the world differently," he said.
Viewers who miss the Stone exhibit can see some of his new work at the Strickland Building at Durham's American Tobacco Campus, Jan. 13 through Feb. 29.
Asked what impact he hopes his art might have, he replied, "That we will all come together and we will not see color or race."
Meyer: 919-942-3252 or email@example.com.