Daniel López doesn’t remember an exact time when he started taking an interest in art, but he does credit it for helping him with the transition to living in the U.S. His family came to Grand Rapids from Guatemala in 2003, when he was just 6 years old. “Art helped me cope with a lot of the challenges I had in the U.S.; it helped me express my culture,” López said. In high school López made immigration and culture a theme for his portfolio. “I wanted to express my culture and lived experiences and for people to understand a bit of it…with art I was able to tell something different about me.”

 In eighth grade, López realized after getting a lot of questions about his drawing of a Quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala, that people knew very little about where he was from. “That actually was a point where I realized people don’t know anything about my culture, so I took it upon myself to tell my story and the story of the country where I was from.”

López learned about the SmartArt competition from his high school art teacher. When his teacher saw a piece he was working on, she said it reminded her of the sun and encouraged López to add other elements of renewable energy. He didn’t intend to submit the piece, he was experimenting with different elements – lines, textures, and acrylic paint. López started looking into solar panels and wind turbines and other things related to energy.

“I decided to incorporate some of those things, for wind I did different circle patterns with brushstrokes and I made it represent the wind,” López said. “And I created triangles that were coming off the canvas to represent wind turbines, and then I added grass to symbolize earth. The yellow symbolizes the sun and also light bulbs and energy in general.”

López titled the painting “Illusion or Reality: Renewable Energy.” “I named it that way because when we think about the earth and minimizing our carbon footprint and thinking about sustainability a lot of it is action that people take. And we can make our Earth last if people take action and actually take care of it, but it could be an illusion, right? Where we tell ourselves that we want to take care of the Earth but don’t do it,” he said. “But we can make it a reality if we actually take action in protecting our Earth and our energy.”

López said he couldn’t believe it when he found out he won. “I honestly thought people don’t really enjoy abstract art, they are more likely to enjoy traditional art, realistic things.” Although he didn’t make the piece for the competition, everything lined up. He had won competitions before but this was the most money he had received, “It helped me realize I can make art and get paid for it, if I wanted to, and that people actually like it.”

Winning ArtPrize and seeing the banner displayed for the first time helped López believe in himself even more. “It enabled me to believe in myself in a way I had not really thought about it. Friends would tell me ‘you’re very talented, you have the skill,’ but part of me didn’t believe that until I saw that big banner.”

López believes the piece he submitted for the competition reflected his non-traditional approach to art, “The SmartArt competition really did reflect the skill sets that I have and the non-traditional approach that I have where I don’t really want to fit in, I want to stand out. The art that I created for Consumers Energy really reflected that where it did stand out.”

High school was a challenging time, but art helped López escape some of the reality he was going through. “Seeing my art in a banner showed that a lot of things were possible. The difficulties I’ve been through doesn’t compare to what I’m achieving,” he said.

López said the money awarded by Consumers Energy opened doors and allowed for things that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. “The $1,000 I got from Consumers Energy opened doors to other possibilities that I did not think about. One of them is getting scholarships from private institutions enabling me to continue my education at community college and then go to the University of Michigan,” said López.

In addition to escalating his timeline López also believed it helped him get the full college experience the first year. “If I had not entered the competition and won the award, I think I would not have been able to go to college full time,” Lopez said. “I was able to be involved and attend some events during welcome week; I was able to enjoy a lot of those things thanks to being financially covered my first semester.”

López spent three years at Grand Rapids Community College studying art education before transferring to the University of Michigan. At the University of Michigan, López studied sociology, but he continued to do art. He found it hard to relate to people at a primarily white institution. So López and a friend cofounded Latinidad Magazine, a platform for Latinx artists – both current Latinx students, staff, faculty and past alum where they could display their art. “Creating this space allowed people to have a platform and a space of belonging,” he said. “It’s really hard to express your culture sometimes around people when you don’t know what they are going to say or what they are going to do, so this platform allowed for people to truly express what they wanted and express themselves and at the same time encourage them to make art.” For López the magazine was a way for him to continue making art while not majoring in art. It also provided an escape from stress.

While López works in a field outside of art, he continues to pursue it as a passion. “I create logos or do photographs for people,” he said. “Art has always been a part of me.”

He’s also considering entering more competitions and sharing his art with more people. “I’ve thought about entering more competitions. It’s something I haven’t considered in the past; people have encouraged me to do it especially because there isn’t a lot of Guatemalan artists in the U.S. I’m at a point where maybe I’ll consider making my art public and sharing it with others.”

López believes the contest is making a big difference for students, “Thank you to Consumers Energy for giving students the opportunity to express themselves through the arts while talking about energy and things in our day-to-day life – and also for the $1,000 because it does open doors for people,” he said. “For students who might be pursuing a college degree after they graduate from high school or even giving them access to technology. Giving them an iPad or a laptop can get students far because some people don’t have access to technological resources. Having access to technology enables students to have an opportunity to achieve something they are working towards.”

Watch López talk about his experience here.