October 2014

A Tribute in Paint to the Earth and Local Agriculture

Murals Adorn Old Hunter Ford Buildings in Española


Alejandro López

There is something magical about paint when it is applied to the surfaces of structures that comprise and define our immediate environment. It is all the more magical when we use it to create vivid representations or symbols of what is most cherished in life, whether it be our idea of the divine, of family or homeland, or activities that provide us with meaning and sustenance. To do this in a community that is broken and blighted and that each day struggles to draw its every breath is all the more magical. It is akin to lighting a roaring fire in a cold, dark and dank room.

The three large-scale murals that are being completed on the exterior walls of the old Hunter Ford buildings on Paseo de Oñate across from the Plaza de Española attempt to embody these collectively important values and concerns. The buildings on which the murals have taken up residence belong to the city of Española, though they are leased by Siete del Norte, an economic-development organization that is developing the site as a regional food hub and arts center. Created by Moving Arts Española and funded by the New Mexico Community Foundation and the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Area, the murals depict historic and contemporary northern New Mexico farming scenes and celebrate our region’s mountains, rivers, acequias, age-old communities and ancestral plants such as corn and chile, which have nourished the peoples and cultures of the area during times of plenty and times of scarcity. These monumental artworks also pay tribute to hard physical work with our hands and simple farm implements and to our young people, women and the elderly. Most of all, they pay tribute to the forces of the universe—seen and unseen—that make possible our existence on this trying but potentially bountiful land of great biodiversity.

Victor’s Mural” features the recently deceased, 16-year-old Victor Villalpando exuding an air of freedom and delight as he coolly struts through a field of chile and corn, listening to music on his headset while dropping seeds of future life (dynamic and sustaining youth programs, a well-trained and more sensitive police force?) along his trodden path. Animal images, painted by children of La Tierra Montessori School who knew Victor, surround the young man whose life was tragically cut short not far from where the murals stand.

Behind him, another young man of similar age kneels reverently while carefully transplanting a single chile seedling in a furrow that runs with water, both painted and mosaicked in a multitude of sparkling colors. He is framed by big, shady apple trees, a lounging cat and an alert-looking dog, as well as a harmless spider and reposing grasshoppers. In a distant plane we see an elderly gentleman—one of our unrelenting viejitos—sporting a low-brim black cachucha, white shirt and dark dress pants as he rests his lithe little frame on his beloved hoe while taking a breather from the grueling but rewarding labor of cutting weeds. The scene is crowned by the majesty of the mesas of the Jémez and Chicoma Peak, the guardian mountain of the Tewa world, clad in royal blue.

A second mural, depicting a high-altitude farm landscape such as those found in Peñasco or Chamisal, is titled simply, “Primavera” or springtime. Like one of Van Gogh’s paintings of his beloved Provence, done late in his life when he was confined to an insane asylum, this scene, too, is framed by bold, flowering fruit-tree branches that intersect the spaces and imbue the composition with a delicate oriental quality. Roger Montoya, a formidable artist, has created intoxicatingly beautiful areas in this mural, where exuberant pink and fuchsia apple blossoms and buds mingle with a turquoise and lavender sky in an ecstatic riot of color and movement that suggests the very moment when Earth was created and came into being.

In the foreground we see a young man with a shovel, who has just closed a side ditch from which water has flowed out to the distant fields where two tiny figures are planting crops. Beyond these fields, on a slight rise, an old-style pitched-roof adobe caserón or big house, typical of Nuevo Mexicano villages, presides with its resident grandma sitting on her porch, caressing her dog and watching the men perform the work that, once upon a time, she herself had done.

At the other side of this long horizontal mural, we see two young Pueblo and Hispano girls, one crouching and one sitting on the banks of the acequiacita. They are thoroughly engrossed, playing with the flowing water and handfuls of mud that slip through the fingers of their graceful hands. The consummate artistry and impressionist treatment of these figures by Trinidad-born Arlene Jacson are reminiscent of Mary Cassat’s sun-drenched painted canvasses of similarly distracted girls. Behind this scene are fields about to be put under the plow, and above them loom the Truchas Peaks, blanketed with recent snow.

The third mural, of a bountiful “Mother Corn,” features a cast of women within a primordial landscape of irregular landforms that include Black Mesa. The landscape is intersected by the Río Grande and is illuminated by two suns: one, a literal morning rising sun at one end and, at the other, a stylized Pueblo Indian version of the sunset. A huge braid of yellow corn seems to be dropping from the sky between two women, while a green corn plant, surrounded by a halo of light as if it were a divine being, shoots up out of the fertile ground. Its roots are not the normal, stringy-yellow roots of corn. A living human heart has replaced them, as if to underscore the symbiotic relationship that humans have with this plant and the humanizing effects that respectful farming of the land has on people. This element seems to be saying that plants are people too, in accordance with much of Native American belief and understandings. Artists Rose B. Simpson of Santa Clara Pueblo and Warren Montoya of Santa Ana Pueblo crafted the vision for this mural. Mike 360 of Albuquerque is responsible for introducing the genetically altered corn plant with the heart.

Many local children and youth applied a variety of interesting plant and animal life forms to the murals. Aside from honoring the land and reawakening the community of northern New Mexico to its potential for raising much of its own food, the organizers, who have moved this labor-intensive project forward brush stroke by brush stroke, hope the project will help spark a movement among the area’s young people to participate in other opportunities in the arts and service to community. Española will come alive if efforts such as this are sustained.


Alejandro López, a painter and photographer, is one of the six core artists who have brought the mural project to life. His imagery served as the basis for much of the murals’ composition and content. For several years López worked with internationally recognized artist Lily Yeh, from Philadelphia, whose training of nonprofit personnel in New Mexico in 2013 through the New Mexico Community Foundation gave the mural project its impetus.


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