Deacon Profile: Zac Contreras

The senior’s artwork is on display at the stArt gallery until March 12


Courtesy of the stArt Gallery

Senior Zac Contreras’ artwork lines the halls of the stArt Gallery.

Chase Bagnall-Koger, Features Editor

In downtown Winston-Salem, senior Zac Contreras’ eye-catching and distinctive artwork hangs behind glass windows at the stArt Gallery, the ghoulish figures in the frames eyeing passersby. The paintings undoubtedly give you pause, and Contreras deliberately designed them that way. 

“I want people to be somewhat uncomfortable,” he said, “but in a good way. I want people to think about why certain exaggerated features make them uncomfortable and interpret the exhibit in a way that is personal to them.”

The exhibit, titled “Hypervisibility” was inspired by how aspects of one’s identity can warp others’ perceptions of you, creating many “selves” with infinite diversity. The exhibit also drew on the idea of everyday human interactions as performance art — artistic exhibitions that involve human interaction with participants.

“There’s no one true version of yourself that exists in the world,” Contreras said. “You only exist as you understand yourself, and that can be so different from the way that you view your body.”

You only exist as you understand yourself, and that can be so different from the way that you view your body.

— Zac Contreras

As such, much of the work focuses on changing and distorting human figures to mimic how one may be “distorted” when interacting with others on a daily basis, especially when that person belongs to marginalized communities. Contreras found his own experiences as a Mexican-American to be a source of inspiration for the piece. 

“It’s something that I’ve always thought about — not being within the dominant culture and existing in this space. I’m comfortable, but at the same time, I’m uncomfortable,” Contreras said. “And I think that goes for any person who exists at the intersection of different identities, like whether you’re a woman or a queer person, those identities complicate your relationship to other people.”

“Hypervisibility” opened to the public at the Wake Downtown stArt gallery on Jan. 6, but some of the pieces date back to 2019, when Contreras was a freshman in college. Since he came to Wake Forest, Contreras knew he wanted to take part in stArt gallery’s exhibits. 

According to the program’s website, its exhibits intend to “provide local college and university students with an opportunity to gain immersive experience and transferable skills in the visual arts market.” The gallery is open to the public at no cost and boasts two locations: one in Reynolda village and another in Wake Downtown, which is where Contreras’ work is displayed. 

In December 2022, Contreras submitted his proposal for “Hypervisibility” to stArt Gallery with 10 completed works. Though he was approved, the curators of stArt gallery requested that he more than double his existing work within the next month. After a particularly busy winter break, Contreras was ready to hang 22 pieces of art on the walls. During this time, he also drafted an artist statement explaining his inspirations for the exhibition, which ranged from the work of artists Frida Kahlo and David Hammons to his personal experiences.

“I am particularly concerned with the concepts of androgyny and body dysmorphia,” his statement reads. “Much like viewers at a museum can look at the same painting and focus on different aspects of the work, each person we interact with perceives us differently.” 

To promote the show to the public, Riley Phillips — a Wake Forest alumna and the gallery manager at stArt gallery — created a poster featuring one of Contreras’ drawings and had them hung around Winston-Salem and Wake Forest’s campus. As the exhibition opened, Contreras’ works were also listed for sale.

“Somebody bought one of them, which was really exciting,” Contreras said. “It was interesting because the one she bought was actually one I didn’t love. It’s helpful to know that some people like certain [works] that I might not like.”

In addition to pursuing art, Contreras is double majoring in sociology and political science. He plans to attend graduate school to earn a master’s degree in public policy, with an emphasis on refugee and immigrant policy. During his time at Wake Forest, he has been involved in the Student Association for the Advancement of Refugees, completed research in Mexico City on 18th century Mexican paintings and studied abroad in Morocco to polish his Arabic language skills.

Though the social policy focus of Contreras’ academic interests and his artwork may appear to be distinct disciplines, he explains that, as he has continued his education, the two have become easy to integrate. 

“Growing up, I always felt like I had to choose between being an artist or doing more academic, serious things,” he said. “But now, because my art is very much commenting on society, I can use things that I learned in sociology and politics.”

Subject matter is not the only thing that has evolved in Contreras’ art throughout his years at Wake Forest. Whereas his previous work was often more technical and realistic, he has branched out to developing his personal style and using experimental techniques in art — such as in “Hypervisibility,” where he used the side of his arm, covered in ink, to create the basis for one of the paintings. Though pen drawings remain his favorite, many of the works in “Hypervisibility” integrated different mediums including various paints, pen, ink and sculpting materials.

Contreras’ artwork will be on display at stArt Gallery until March 12, 2023, when another temporary exhibition will be installed. 

“I absolutely would recommend getting involved with stArt gallery, whether it’s by submitting a proposal or applying to be an intern,” Contreras said. “I had a really good experience with everyone there, and the process taught me a lot about myself.”

Correction Feb. 24, 2023: An earlier version of this story misstated the gender of the person Contreras said bought art from him. That error has been corrected.