Who should decide what art is displayed in a community? What is the relationship between public art and a community’s identity?
Murals are perhaps the best-known type of public art, and in the Four Corners region there are plenty. If you make a point to visit “The City of Murals” of Delta to see the 15 murals in a town equal in size to Cortez, you’ll be treated to large visual displays peeking around corners or stopping you in your tracks because they are so real.
If you just happen to stop in Cuba, N.M. (pop. 700), for a taco at Bruno’s, you’ll be treated to an image of a woman with a basket of peppers and another mural on the side of a church down the road. There are murals in Durango, Farmington, Ouray, Aztec, Cortez. Ignacio, Colo., another town with a population of 700, has three.
In Delta, the murals range in style and content, depicting real-life images of a contemporary citizen sitting on a park bench, local wildflowers with names for identification, street scenes from the old West, cattle drives and scenic vistas, or an homage to diversity and a fruit-company label. The town received funds for “urban renewal” in 1986 and set aside a certain amount of that money for murals.
Since then, public art has proliferated and grown to include sculpture and other art projects, administered by the Delta Public Art Forum, a community organization begun in response to the positive feedback the original mural project generated.
Debbie Laity, a real-estate broker in Delta, said the murals “add a lot of personality to this little town,” and have generated an increase in tourism, with people singling out Delta as a destination due to its dedication to public art.
Kathleen King is the artist who created both the “Water Equals Life” mural on the west wall of Slavens True Value on Linden Street and “The Rancher” on the side of Mr. Happy’s Bakery and Café in Cortez.
King said that public art has the potential to uplift and educate citizens, noting, “Great cities have great art.” But what is involved in bringing “great art” to a community? Who decides what and where a mural should be?
In Ignacio, the town participated in a Rural Philanthropy Days project in 2006, which led to a successful application for funds from the Colorado Council on the Arts. Three murals celebrating the community’s cultural heritage were designed and painted on downtown buildings by local students, teachers and artists. The resulting panels – “It’s All About the Ride,” “Ancient Symbols,” and “Restoring the Land” – each depict a different segment of Ignacio’s community, including the motorcycle rally, Utes, and the Southwest Conservation Corps.
This diversity and public display of art by local artists “really demonstrated excitement and pride,” according to Town Manager Patricia Senecal.
In Dolores, Town Manager Ryan Mahoney said there is general support for public art and murals, adding, “I would love to have some neat murals in town.” King was excited about designing a monochromatic mural on one of the “rougher historic walls in a modern petroglyphic style” in Dolores, but unfortunately, she was still in negotiation with the owners of the Hollywood Bar when it burned down.
Mahoney said that any artist wanting to paint a mural in Dolores should submit a proposal to the town board, and that the only rules are that the mural cannot contain any obscenity and should clearly be a work of art, not an advertisement.
The distinction between art, advertising, and community values is key to the development of a mural project. If a mural is on private property, generally the owner can decide the style and content of the art. However, there is a dynamic tension between what is private and what is public when the private property is in a place with an open public view, visible to all passers-by.
Generally, cities and towns have regulations limiting what can and cannot be displayed. The most common regulation is, reasonably, a ban on obscenity, and most towns also do not want public murals to be private advertising, unless it fits specific regulations regarding historical and/or community values.
Like Dolores, Mancos has only a no obscenity regulation, and encourages public art. “We are pretty liberal,” stated Town Clerk Heather Alvarez.
In Durango, a display on the side of the Everyday Convenience Store on Eighth Street highlights the complexities involved when balancing art, community, and regulations to get a mural on the wall.
Convenience-store owners had not contacted the city when their wall on a busy intersection became a site for some graffiti mural art (including a robot, an Indian chief and Felix the Cat) sponsored by the Durango Arts Center.
Durango has some strict regulations for murals, which have to be painted with “muted colors and earth tones” and reflect Durango’s cultural heritage. The mural, in violation of the regulations, was slated to be destroyed last June, in spite of being muchloved by community members.
In response, local artists and residents came up with a proposal for the Durango Design Review Board, and now the Everyday gas station has a rotating display. The first mural, “Pony Boy,” an enlarged blackand- white photograph of a boy gripping the reins of a horse, was created by the artist known as Jetsonorama, who creates photographic murals all over the Four Corners region using a technique known as wheatpasting. The Durango Design Review Board has to review all murals on commercial property, according to Nicol Killian, City Planner, and in this case gave special approval for temporary murals to be put up. Each mural will stay up for 4 months, so in fact the community did not lose a public art forum, but instead gained a new site for continued displays.
According to King, rules such as Durango’s are restrictive and can hamper creativity. King believes that “city public art should raise the level of sophistication” of both the viewers and the artists. When art is confined to certain specifications, such as Durango’s regulation that murals be painted in muted colors and earth tones, the artist’s hands are tied, and the ultimate effect is a limitation on the freedom of expression.
Cortez, in King’s opinion, “has set a really good example for the region. It sets the bar high” with its positive attitude towards murals.
“They want to see the most interesting art they can find,” she said. She believes this approach, which does not restrict the style and content of a mural, fosters greater community awareness and dialogue.
King mentioned a couple of examples of how art generates public reaction, taken from her experience painting the walls at Slavens and Mr. Happy’s. She said she received comments from people passing by all the time. Several of these interactions broke her own stereotypical assumptions, and provided her with a new awareness of the community, something she hopes all public art will do.
“When you start shackling the artists, it’s the death of your cultural growth. If you are forcing your art into a very narrow idea of your city’s identity, you’re growing a theme park, not a city.”
The examples she provides are two different reactions to her murals. One day a woman dripping with turquoise jewelry jumped out of her late-model SUV to hurriedly tell King that her mural “Water Equals Life” was not “Southwestern” and did not belong in Cortez – even though this mural was a collaboration between King and highschool students from Cortez, Mancos and Dolores. The woman went on to complain about King’s other mural “The Rancher,” noting that it was not “Western” at all.
King and the woman exchanged ideas about what the art represented. “What is your idea of a cowboy? Of a rodeo?” King asked. Obviously the resident had an idea of these things and thought she knew what was appropriate for Cortez, and the murals didn’t match her own vision.
However, this did not upset King: the mural made that woman think about her own ideas, challenging her preconceptions. King said this is what is beneficial about public art: It expands people’s world view.
“No great city allows its art to stagnate,” she said.
In contrast, King mentioned that on the same day another Cortez resident approached her. This time it was a tall lean man who slowly emerged from an old Ford pickup truck wearing cowboy hat, boots, spurs, and checkered shirt. He spoke politely, telling her in a quiet drawl how much he liked her art. In their subsequent conversation he told her how much he loved both of her murals and appreciated the different styles and content.
“Obviously a cowboy, he didn’t need to see horses or Navajos in a mural, while the other woman wanted howling coyotes and cactus!” laughed King.
These reactions thrilled her. She said she was surprised to discover that the community of Cortez, known to be conservative, was more open to freedom of expression than Durango, a wealthier and supposedly more liberal place.
Just the act of painting the murals broke King’s own stereotypes, and yet more importantly, generated thought provoking conversation among community residents. Local citizens were actively engaging and responding to the art, which was helping them to refine and define their own identity within a greater communal and regional context.
Cortez boasts several murals in addition to King’s.
Local residents Brad Goodell and Dave Sipes collaborated on “Working for a Living” at Blondie’s Pub and Grill in 2010, and Goodell completed his “Peach Harvest” on the side of the Rent-A-Center in 2011. This one is a nice complement to the annual Farmers Market held across the street in the parking lot of the Montezuma County Courthouse, since it honors McElmo Canyon’s agricultural roots. Ask any participant at the Farmers Market about the mural, and they will happily tell you how much it has added to the community.
The first mural painted in Cortez was completed in 1991 by Buford Wayt on the side of the Cortez Cultural Center. Wayt, a longtime Cortez resident and teacher, died in 2003. He painted the entire north wall of the Cultural Center to resemble an Anasazi pueblo, and it is so realistic that sometimes it even fools locals who catch a glance of the pueblo as they pass by. It takes the viewer to another time and place.
Wayt painted the mural when he was 70. He believed that it was important to give back to the community and chose painting a mural as one of many ways to do so.
This is perhaps the most important message: that art builds community. It provides residents – artists as well as others – with a forum to express their collective identity.
At times, especially in the multi-ethnic communities of the Four Corners region, the articulation of a community identity is a challenge, because it is constantly changing, and, as noted earlier, different people have different ideas about their hometown.
However, the creation of a mural can become a focal point for the positive expression of this tension between who lives in a community and how they want to be represented. Communities open to public art, such as Cortez, have a healthy diversity, which adds to the quality of life.
“If you do something really great on your wall, you will attract attention,” King said.