On day three of her painting project, Chichi, who as an artist is known as Chinòn Maria, bubbles with friendly energy. The tagline on her website, chinonmaria.com, reads “delivering smiles with buckets of paint,” and in person, her paintings are as bright and colorful as her spirit. On Wednesday around 3 pm, while their cars are stopped at the traffic light in front of Wilmington’s town offices, several drivers call out to Chichi. “I love this!” yells one woman. Chichi waves happily and yells thank you in return.
“I love Vermont!” she says, noting that strangers have been calling out from their cars throughout each day she’s been working on the murals. Some have walked up to greet her as well; one man even gave her a hug and thanked her. “Having the support of the community and their enthusiasm just brings out the beauty of the project,” says Chichi.
Chichi, who now resides in Manhattan, attended the Putney Grammar School and Stratton Mountain School, where she was a skier. She went on to have a professional career in skiing. “I was always an artist and it was a dual life I lived, of artist and skier,” says Chichi. “But I realized when I was young that I would not be able to have a skiing career when I was 40, 50, 60 years old. So I always took advantage of the time that my body could still allow me to ski. Even in college I was on a division 1 team while studying art. After university, I put my skis away and decided it was time to focus on art.”
In the past several years, Chichi has gained recognition for her street art and murals. In the next few months, she’ll be working on a project for the UN High Commission of Refugees, which will be a 200-foot-long mural in downtown Manhattan, a block away from the 9/11 memorial. Another upcoming project is for a shelter for women who have been victims of domestic abuse. “A lot of my work is very community oriented,” says Chichi.
Chichi says that following a visit to the valley last spring, she decided she wanted to do something to give back to the community she was raised in. “Part of my process as an artist is I’m a big social activist,” says Chichi. “I love to get communities involved, especially schoolchildren. Last spring I was visiting and I said I would love to do something for the community here.”
Chichi met with the Rotary Club, and the idea of doing something at the Wilmington Home Center building came up. “They said, listen, we have a space that we need your help with,” says Chichi, gesturing to the empty building with a laugh. “It was this whole idea of a beautification project here in downtown Wilmington with a building that has, for so long, been neglected and is an eyesore for this beautiful community. Especially when so much has been put into revitalizing the whole community.”
Chichi was given four windows on the front of the building. “Immediately I thought that one of my favorite things about Vermont is our four seasons,” says Chichi. “So it only made sense to represent the four seasons through different color palettes in a similar design.”
On the side of the building, three smaller windows will display murals created by Twin Valley students, who brainstormed their art after meeting with Chichi on Tuesday. “I spent the whole morning with them talking about the power of the image and street art and what that means, and letting the kids see someone from here that is now giving back,” says Chichi. “We worked all morning on different designs. They came up with all their own ideas.”
Chichi is accompanied on her trip by her boyfriend and assistant, Sebastian Mitre, who, although he hails from Mexico City, has connections to the valley himself. One of the cars that rolls up to the center of town to admire Chichi’s progress is driven by longtime Wilmington resident Julie Lineberger. It turns out that Chichi and Sebastian are staying with Lineberger and her husband, Joseph Cincotta, while they’re in town. “These are my part-time godchildren,” says Lineberger, gesturing toward Chichi and Mitre. “And I introduced them.”
“She was the matchmaker,” confirms Mitre, saying that Lineberger introduced him and Chichi at a party she hosted in New York. “And it wasn‘t so subtle. Julie grabbed me and put me right in front of Chichi. She said you two are very special to me and you have to meet. She was hardcore Cupid,” he says with a laugh.
Lineberger knew Chichi from the valley, and meanwhile, Mitre’s mother was her best friend from college. “Julie was there the day Sebastian was born,” says Chichi. Mitre’s mother, who is Mexican, was in the United States for college when her and Julie’s paths crossed as dormmates.
“And because of Julie, (Chichi and I) met,” says Mitre. And although Chichi and Mitre were introduced in New York, they may very well have crossed paths here years ago. While Chichi was growing up in the valley, Mitre was visiting.
“I came here for soccer camp as a kid and stayed with Julie,” says Mitre. “That was the longest time for me to be outside of Mexico. It was for a whole month, and for me this little town is like out of a story, compared to Mexico City. I love it here.”
Chichi says the project in the center of the town she and Mitre both love wouldn’t have been possible without the Rotary Club. “They had volunteers here at eight o’clock in the morning on Monday, helping me stretch canvases,” says Chichi. “Everyone has been so involved and so supportive.”
And although Chichi originally said she would donate her time to the effort, she received a card of thanks from the Rotary Club which contained a donation for her. “It was really unexpected and very, very kind.”
Eventually, if the building becomes occupied and a new chapter unfolds within it that requires the windows to be, well, windows again, the paintings will be auctioned off, with 50% of the proceeds going to the Rotary Club and the other half going to Chichi.
Until then, the bright colors of Chichi’s work will breathe new life into the center of town, delivering, as her website says, smiles with paint.