Written by Rob McCorkle Photography by Steve Macintyre
Colorful. Controversial. Eye-catching. Enlightening. Historical. Provocative.
Those words and more describe the more than 200 public murals splashed across retaining walls, adorning massive water towers, and breathing visual life into the drab exteriors and interiors of schools, community centers, restaurants, and bars throughout the Mesilla Valley. Rendered in acrylic paint, spray paint, or tile, Las Cruces murals represent the outward manifestation of the soul of our community.
Since 2015, the Murals of Las Cruces project has endeavored to track down and visually record the sometimes ephemeral public artwork of known and anonymous muralists—both resident and transient artists—who have left their mark on the city. Murals that capture the Mesilla Valley’s unique history and multicultural makeup have been documented on the project’s website and social media outlets over the past few years.
Murals of Las Cruces sprouted from the seeds of a public history seminar in New Mexico State University’s Department of History in which graduate students Norma Hartell and Jason Weisensell proposed to document federal Work Progress Administration murals and other public murals throughout the Mesilla Valley as their end-of-semester project.
Top: Day of the Dead mural by VELA at the corner of Hwy 28 and Union Ave.
“It started as a university project, but quickly moved to a community project,” says College of Arts and Sciences Assistant History Professor Peter Kopp, director of the Public History Program. “We spent the first summer of 2015 meeting at my house and inviting artists from the community to join us.”
Right: SABA creates his next masterpiece.
The first challenge for the group was defining what exactly is a public mural. They agreed a public mural is “an original piece of two-dimensional artwork in the public domain.” Norma, who received a master’s degree in anthropology at NMSU, further explains that unlike graffiti, a mural creator has “artistic intentions.”
The Murals of Las Cruces website describes the project as a “community-based project that explores and preserves public art.” It goes on to speak to the impermanent nature of some murals, stating, “Because murals tend to be ephemeral, we see our work as an important way of preserving public art.”
Visitors to the website can peruse more than 100 photographs of public murals throughout Doña Ana County by selecting a particular category, whether it be “water tanks, Mesilla, Doña Ana, or one of seven different neighborhoods, such as Alameda, Bellemah, or Mesilla Park. (Hover your cursor over an image and information about the artist, the date, title and location, if known, appears.)
“We’ve documented about 250 murals so far,” Peter says. “A bunch of us would walk or drive around a neighborhood and document the murals. It was a beautiful way to get to know the city because each neighborhood has a different style.”
Murals in Las Cruces differ in look and content from those found in El Paso, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe, according to Norma, who has studied the various styles. She explains that El Paso’s murals tend to be a bit more political due to the city’s proximity to the border and its ties to the Chicano movement of the 1960s. Las Cruces murals, however, tend to reflect the Mesilla Valley’s agricultural roots, its Mexican-American, Anglo, and Native American heritage; and a deep appreciation of the high desert environment depicted in murals celebrating the preservation of the Rio Grande, the Organ Mountains, and the Chihuahuan Desert’s unique flora and fauna.
Some were created by internationally-known local artists such as Tony Pennock, whose historical and Southwestern motifs on water tanks greet motorists along the interstate. Others of note bear the names of Juarez-born Werc Alvarez, known as the “Shaman of Graffiti,” and itinerant muralist Vela. Still others are attributed to local “muralisimos” like Saba (see page 8) and Preciliana Sandoval, two of the city’s more prolific local mural painters.
Left: VELA’s mural for the Rio Grande Theatre.
Preciliana, 59, quit her receptionist job 24 years ago to dedicate herself to painting. She’s lost track of how many murals she’s created over the years—from Isleta to El Paso and communities in between.
“I have such fun painting,” she says. “Walk into almost any bar or restaurant in Mesilla and you’ll see my murals. I restored a 1940s mural inside El Patio of an Aztec warrior. I even painted a tree stump.”
One of the murals of which she is proudest is one of St. Seraphim, a saint of the Eastern Orthodox Church, painted on the exterior wall of a private residence in Mesilla. In January, she was preparing to launch another project at a private home in the Alameda historic district—a mural paying homage to the birds and medicinal plants of the Southwest.
The latest addition to the Las Cruces mural scene debuted downtown in January on the north-facing exterior wall of the Insta-Copy building at a ribbon cutting attended by representatives of three chambers of commerce and the Downtown Las Cruces Partnership. The brilliantly colored 16-by-20-foot postcard-themed Color Me Cruces mural features hot air balloons silhouetted against the Organ Mountains and numerous icons of the city and the desert Southwest.
One of the artists, Aaron Valenzuela of Atom Bomb Studio, has been painting murals around Las Cruces for years and sees them as a way to bring color outside and dress up drab, brown buildings. “It’s nice to introduce a little color,” he says, “and make it pop, creating a community landmark.”
While many public murals in Las Cruces endure through the years despite harsh weather and changes of ownership of private property, where many murals appear, others exist for only a short time by default, or in some cases, by design.
“The question becomes when you put art in a public place, does it belong to the public or to the property owner or to the artist?” muses professor Kopp. “Some murals get painted over by the property owner or when property changes hands. When they do, some in the community feel a loss, but others feel the artwork is organic in nature and always changing. It’s an exciting tension.”
A drive through Las Cruces reveals murals addressing a host of subject matter: religious icons such as the Virgin of Guadalupe, Spanish conquistadors, Aztec warriors, indigenous peoples, roadrunners and hummingbirds, Day of the Dead skeletons, and even representatives of pop culture such as Prince and the Kardashian sisters.
The Mural of Las Cruces website pays tribute to long-lost public murals in its Mural Graveyard section that includes a visual record of what once was. Why is documenting the city’s murals and artists so important?
“Murals express our shared identity as Las Crucens and sense of community, history and culture,” replies Norma, a historic preservationist who serves as curator of the City of Las Cruces Museum System.
She and Peter are so excited about what the community project has achieved in Las Cruces that they are taking the mural preservation story to the next level by presenting at national public history conventions, and working with smaller New Mexico cities to develop their own mural projects that Norma believes will “build a sense of community that’s needed today more than ever.”
Peter foresees a day when the project becomes a non-profit organization that can apply for grants to further expand the Las Cruces murals initiative and further beautify the city.
“It helps you see the built landscape and community in a different light. We want to connect property owners with mural artists to get more paint on gray and brown walls,” the NMSU professor says. “Through this project we want to show people that places like Las Cruces, not just art centers like Santa Fe, have plenty of artistic originality, too.”
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Explore these and other moving artworks around the Mesilla Valley at: