Age 25 • Lives and creates University Heights • Learned BFA in drawing with printmaking emphasis from Cleveland Institute of Art

By Amanda Koehn

For Orlando Caraballo, it all begins with gathering. Gathering snippets of drawings, poems, thoughts and themes that eventually, in no rushed manner, become vivid, emotionally-driven artwork.

Caraballo’s art, most recently focused in digital prints, offers both a window into his familial, religious, grieving and emotional experiences, and an entry for viewers to connect their own experiences and self.  

As any one Caraballo piece may be digitally comprised of different “puzzle pieces,” it may also offer seemingly opposing emotional elements, he says. 

“A lot of my work tends to have … this duality between something sort of anxious and sort of like frenetic with something calm or hopeful,” he says.

The resulting works aren’t planned, but rather at some point, the sketches, writings, life experiences and memories come together.

“All of that is materials,” he says. “And the moment of creating is when it makes sense.”

Growing up in the West Boulevard neighborhood of Cleveland, it was an honors English class at St. Ignatius High School that set Caraballo on his path. Although he says he was an artistic kid – “it was always a part of how I communicated even to myself” – the shift happened when a teacher pulled him aside after reading one of his papers. The teacher, Dennis Arko, told Caraballo, “You’re an artist … I need you to see it all the way through.”

Arko recommended Caraballo look into the Cleveland Institute of Art, where his daughter went. And although Caraballo once saw himself as a psychologist, he went on to graduate from CIA in 2018.

“Almost May” (2021). Archival print on Hahnemüle Photo Rag paper 308 gsm, 16 x 20 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Starting with his Bachelor of Fine Arts project, Caraballo began deeply exploring his lineage in his work, focusing on his late father and grandfather, what they left behind and their Puerto Rican heritage. Starting to come into his confidence as an artist, he changed the project’s focus – with less than a month to redo it – to better hone in on his family history. But, he’d been gathering the parts for years at that point, he says.

Starting with his BFA project, the story of “The Little Prince” often shows up in his work. Caraballo sees himself as a “little brown boy” version of the prince, or an avatar for traveling to different times and places through history, he says. 

“It’s sort of a lesson of what you can learn from revisiting your youth and revisiting that childlike wonder for the world and that innocence as an adult,” he says. “I think a lot of my work is about lineage, but also bringing back that useful intelligence into that new life, like your older life.”

Photo by Amanda Koehn

Asked about his successes thus far, Caraballo notes a show he was part of a few months ago at the Morgan Conservatory, “Cross Generations: Bridging the Gap of Artists,” held jointly with the Museum of Creative Human Art. There, Caraballo says a school principal bought one of his prints to hang at her school. 

“They put it there so that students from that school can know there are brown artists who are making work – that can be a viable thing. … That was awesome to me,” he says.

Shows like that also offer an opportunity to connect in person with viewers of his work – something that was lost during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Caraballo isn’t looking for compliments, but rather if others can respond to his work, he explains.

“I’m constantly putting the time in – there’s always technical things to be better in, but that comes with time,” he says. “But the thing that I’m always interested in is, is it emoting? Are you connecting?”

Above: “…and we both sat alone” (2021). Archival print on Hahnemüle Photo Rag paper 308 gsm, 16 x 20 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist. Opposite page: Orlando Caraballo holds “Almost August” at the Cleveland Print Room.

His job as education director at the Cleveland Print Room also has helped his practice become more socially engaged. It helps him naturally meet the right people and continue to do meaningful work, he says.

Now, he’s in position to do some gathering on a different level. Although digital printing was relatively accessible during the pandemic, he’s hoping to get back into mediums that offer textural elements. He sees a new phase for his work that incorporates the layered emotional and spiritual aspects he’s known for, but adds literal layers.

He’s also become increasingly concerned with using “discernment” to evaluate potential opportunities.

“I think discernment is huge, especially for younger artists, because there are a lot of people in the arts who are looking to benefit themselves,” he says. “As a young artist – especially as a young brown or Black artist during this time – there are a lot of people who are seeking to, like, use us as material without really respecting the craft.”

He cites shows bringing together artists of color with no specific vision other than making work that fits into a narrowly defined category – like brown, Black or Asian art – and doesn’t necessarily benefit the artists. Noting these “politics of the art world,” especially during this time increasingly focused on equity and inclusion, he says defining art too finitely can end up preventing real creativity and individual-informed work. 

He says he’s taking opportunities with a “slow and steady approach.” The gathering process is not to be hurried or conform. It’s about true connection and identity. 

“There’s an expectation of a box that you should fit into, and so when you make something that doesn’t fit that, they don’t know what to do,” he says. “That’s the challenge. How does one stay true to their vision without falling into the trap of ‘This is what people want of someone like me. That’s how I can make money fast or have some notoriety or attention.’ … I think that can be soul crushing.”   

“Two adjectives emerge for me when I think about Orlando as an artist and a human being: connection and curiosity. In Orlando’s macro-practice as the Cleveland Print Room education director, he works to weave the socially engaged art model first written about in Paulo Freire’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ in 1968, into an everyday practice drawn from his ‘backpack’ of personal life experience. Through this work, he strives to improve community conditions by his innovative use of relatedness with others in group settings, and by engaging individuals in an ongoing dialogue that challenges our place in the natural order. It is through Orlando’s practice that the personal and the political mesh.”

– Shari Wilkins, co-executive director, Cleveland Print Room