When I started college two months ago, meeting a lot of new friends and catching up with a lot of old ones, we talked about our summers. From yachting to camping to visiting family, most people seemed to enjoy their vacations. When they asked me what my favorite part of the summer was, my answer came easily: “working, of course!”
This summer I had the opportunity of a lifetime–being paid to paint a landmark mural.
Since joining the Working Classroom in November 2014, I have participated in a variety of art workshops and formed meaningful relationships with mentors and peers, but the thing I looked forward to most was the mural program that Working Classroom sponsors every summer. I wanted to be on a mural team because I wanted to work with a crew of other dedicated student artists under the guidance of an amazing muralist. Better still, Working Classroom pays student apprentices for their time, talent and work. For the first time, I would be making a living as an artist!
The lead artist of our mural was none other than the renowned Joe Stephenson, longtime South Valley resident and the founder of Working Classroom’s mural program. Joe has painted many of the most recognizable murals in Albuquerque and surpasses everyone I know of in skill, experience and artistic integrity. The mural we painted this summer was Phase II of La Corriente del Valle, a long and brilliantly colored image depicting the history of the South Valley—from the Pueblos’ Emergence Story to the present day. Phase II chronologically precedes Phase I; so we painted the story of the emergence of the Pueblos up to the Spanish settlers.
Joe Stephenson is an artist who prides himself in accuracy and accountability, so it was not surprising that we spent the first three weeks doing research. Our chief place of research was at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, where we spoke to Native art and history expert Deborah Jojola, who provided us with many primary historical and artistic sources. We also visited Coronado Pueblo and went inside a kiva.
Creating a mural of this caliber was made possible by having a talented team. Adriana Ortiz, a gifted artist, was our project manager. With the experience of at least three Working Classroom murals behind her, she painted some of the La Corriente del Valle’s most striking features and helped us newbies stay organized. Other team members included Angel Pavia, also a Working Classroom veteran, who painted all of the portraits; and Lora Werito, a first-time muralist like me, who was responsible for painting iconic imagery such as Popay’s warriors and Coronado’s horse. Jonathan Burciaga-Cruz drew Columbus’ ships on-point before we started painting; Elijah Chavez was only 13 years old when we started but also has prior mural experience with Working Classroom. Isabella Ortega, only 12 years old, was possibly the most precise painter of us all. I had the honor to design the storytellers and paint some of their clothes. Joe Stephenson shared at least one fascinating fact every day. The team formed fast friendships. We accumulated so many inside jokes over the summer that we can hardly be in the same room without laughing.
The mural did present some tough challenges. Heat and rain were common factors. For two weeks the storage pod where we stored our supplies was surrounded by two feet of water. We painted five hours a day, Monday through Friday, in full sun— on top of other jobs that several of us had in the afternoon. I tragically dropped my phone in a bucket of paint. But these and other trials made it much more rewarding, and we all acquired useful work skills.
By the end of the summer, we were exhausted but sad for the project to end. But not only did I help paint a huge work of art that has my name next to the names of my friends on it; perhaps most significantly, I learned so much about problems that many American history books tend to glaze over. As someone who uses art for activism, it was very important to me to be able to learn about problems of discrimination and paint them where anyone can see them. We created with a colorful and powerful narrative of lives interrupted and how blending cultures affects those lives today.
At this point, the paint has been put away, the brushes cleaned, the scaffolds disassembled. Everyone involved has taken away something important and added to their resumes, work skills and life lessons. Thank you to Joe Stephenson, our team, Working Classroom, Bernalillo County and everyone else who made this possible.
“La Corriente del Valle” is located just south of the South Valley Library, adjacent to the Río Bravo Skate Park.
Tarynn Weeks is a freshman at UNM in the Honors College, where she is majoring in studio art. Tarynn has been a dedicated student at Working Classroom for the past year. She was featured in the Bernalillo County’s Arts Crawl and also placed fourth in the final qualifier for the Indie World Poetry Slam.