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A Latina muralist brings walls to life in the Kansas City area and inspires young artists along the way

Artist Vania Soto is a prolific muralist and art teacher who was born in Juarez, Mexico. She now lives and works in Kansas City, Kansas. Lately she’s been making an impact around town — and not just on the walls she paints.

It's a cold day for painting a mural and yet artist Vania Soto is working high up on scaffolding. She’s painting a colorful graduation mural on the campus of Kansas City, Kansas Community College on State Avenue.

“My goal is to cover all of the base color first,” Soto says. “After I cover that I can go back and do the details and the fine stuff. ”

Soto’s bundled up against the cold and her long flowing hair is pulled back into a ponytail. She’s determined to finish before her deadline — when students return from the holiday break.

Graduation-themed mural at Kansas City Kansas Community College by Artist Vania Soto

“I try to make everything as colorful as possible. My sister calls it as magical as possible," Soto says. “My sister says, ‘It's like magic.’”

Home and hue

Soto was born in Mexico and her color palette is strongly influenced by her heritage.

“Everything that I do is cultural based because that is where all of my bright colors come from: Mexico. So definitely, my culture is the inspiration of my style,” she explains.

During the pandemic, Soto completed three large-scale paintings documenting the history of El Centro in Kansas City, Kansas.

In October when first lady Jill Biden visited the school which offers a dual-language early childhood education program, Soto's paintings were on full display. The first lady’s visit was a part of a national tour during National Hispanic Heritage Month.

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Tammy Ljungblad
When First lady Jill Biden, in red, made a stop at El Centro Academy in October to hold a “charla” or chat to listen to the concerns of Hispanic Americans Vania Soto's paintings took center stage in Kansas City, Kansas. Biden’s visit was part of a series of conversations with Hispanic communities across the country during Hispanic Heritage Month. Biden was seated next to Isabella Casillas Guzman , Small Business Administrator.

"During her speech she actually mentioned the murals and I freaked out," remembers Soto. "It's just reinforcement that I am doing what I need to be doing."

Recently, Soto painted another commissioned mural. Her 'Virgen de Guadalupe' can be seen just outside of La Posada Restaurant on Southwest Boulevard.

Soto’s young, petite and glamorous — even on a wintry day with a paintbrush in hand. She’s found being a woman can work against her.

“It is pretty hard to get jobs for sure, especially when it's me applying in person,” Soto says. “They will just totally judge me like, ‘You're not afraid of heights?' I always get those questions. I definitely had a lot of experiences where the sexism was there."

Virgen de Guadalupe by Artist Vania Soto

To get clients to take her seriously Soto beefed up her social media presence. She saturated her Instagram and TikTok accounts with videos of her creating art. She calls it the new resume.

“So that's why I started doing time lapses because I can actually show people that I am actually doing the job and capable of doing the job,” Soto says.

Across town, Soto is teaching the next generation of young, female artists. Today the class is painting a picture of a boat. She offers free drawing and painting classes twice a week at the Police Athletic League in Kansas City, Kansas.

A picture of the future

For Soto, art and entrepreneurship go hand in hand. She’s been selling her paintings since she was 13. It’s a lesson Soto shares with her students.

“They're already selling paintings, so their self-worth and everything is just through the roof because being able to help their parents or being able to buy their own phone or something like that really helps their self-esteem,” Soto explains.

Julie Denesha
Soto takes a picture of her students at work in her classroom at at the Police Athletic League in Kansas City, Kansas.

Isabella Brito Hernandez is 15, and she's been taking classes from Soto for five years. She says she aspires to paint murals, too. Soto cautions Hernandez to be patient as she finds an audience for her artwork.

“I got impatient and I was just worried that no one was going to buy it, but she helped me throughout the process and explaining to me how she said that your painting is worth something and people will value it,” Hernandez says.

Hernandez says she admires Soto’s work both in and out of the classroom.

“It's just very inspiring how she's helping people like us and like the Latino community and how we can learn how to create businesses and just help everyone else,” Hernandez says. “And so it's just inspiring how she does that in her own way.”

Back at Kansas City, Kansas Community College, Soto is thinking about what comes next.

“I feel like now that I have a base of work here in Kansas City, hopefully, it will give me more opportunities to actually tell the stories I want to tell,” Soto says. “You know being able to express that into living in the States, being Mexican, try to have both of my worlds in one. Living here, but still being Mexican. So hopefully, I'll get there and get the opportunity to kind of do my own thing and people will trust my art enough that it'll make an impact.”

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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