UMO Student Uses Art To Heal And Inspire

Celeste Aguirre Oñate talks with First Lady Phyllis Croom about the process in which she created some of her recent ceramic artwork.

UMO Student Uses Art To Heal And Inspire

“Creating art means expressing myself in visible form,” said Celeste Aguirre Oñate. “It means putting my interpretation of my experiences on display for others. Creating art also brings me great joy, satisfaction, and healing.”

Onate is a senior fine art major at the University of Mount Olive. Although today her world is filled with vibrant colors, happiness, and the expectation of a promising future, her life has not always reflected such optimism. Onate recalls an unstable childhood resulting from frequent moves and new schools due to her father’s employment. “At one point we were living with relatives,” she said. “During those years, I went through some difficult experiences that negatively impacted my emotional and mental health.”


Celeste Aguirre Oñate painted a series of males and females of Mexican decent to depict cultural oppositions.


To cope, Onate used art to express herself. “One of my earliest memories is of me making art,” she said. “Throughout my good and bad years, art is what has fueled me to continue.”

A move to Goldsboro when Onate was in high school provided a fresh start and a clean slate. “I began accepting myself and becoming who I am,” she said. “Somewhere through that process, art became more than a hobby. It became a major piece of my identity.”

The first in her family to earn a high school diploma, an associate degree, and soon to be the first to earn her bachelor’s degree, Onate has worked hard to achieve her goals. Her diligence and determination have paid off. In the spring, she was awarded the honor as UMO’s Visual Arts Student of the Year.

Professor Cheryl Hooks said, “Celeste is a hard-working and determined student. She is creative and insightful. Her art work is reflective of her self-awareness and cultural sensitivities. Working with her has been a joy!”

Whether throwing clay on the pottery wheel or mixing paints in the art studio, Onate tries to find inspiration in her everyday life. “But, sometimes,” she said, “I find it is better not to focus too much on inspiration and just do it! The end goal is simply to create.”

Onate recently had the opportunity to talk about her artwork with UMO President and First Lady Dr. and Mrs. H. Edward Croom. Onate described a series of canvas prints that she had painted depicting both male and females in her native Mexican culture. “Men and boys are brought up to be tough and never to show emotion,” she said. “In these images, I have painted men in my life surrounded by flowers as a means of expressing a sharp contrast to reality.”

Onate also painted a series of females of Mexican decent covering their eyes, their mouths, and their ears. “Unlike the men in our culture,” she said, “women are told what to think, what to say, what to do, and even what to wear. I wanted these paintings to depict that sense of cultural opposition.”

Described by her friends as caring, hardworking, and a talented young woman who enjoys her Mexican culture, Onate is on track to graduate in December of 2021. Her future plans include teaching art to elementary school children and possibly continuing her own education.

Ultimately, Onate wants to be the kind of teacher that students look up to. “There are a lot of UMO instructors that have impacted my life including recently retired Professor Larry Lean, Chair of the Fine Arts Department Bob Murray, and Professor Cheryl Hooks. In particular, Professor Hooks has not only impacted my educational journey, but she has also profoundly impacted my personal life. Until I met Mrs. Hooks, I didn’t have a solid role model.”

Onate aspires to be that kind of positive example for others, and she plans to use her art to make that happen. “Art is what I have always enjoyed doing,” she said. “Nothing else lives up to the happiness and fulfillment that it gives me, so how could I have chosen anything else for my future career?”


Celeste Aguirre Oñate, second from left, shares the inspriation behind her art series on display at UMO. Also pictured are (l-r): UMO First Lady Phyllis Croom, Art Professor Cheryl Hooks, Chari of the Fine Arts Department Bob Murray, UMO President H. Edward Croom, and Allied Faculty of Ceramics Frank Grubbs.