November 4, 2009

An unexpected sunrise: Artist, students create mosaic mural to shine light on neighborhood


By Ramón Rentería / El Paso Times

EL PASO -- The sun is forever rising in Buena Vista.

An ordinary concrete embankment in the West Side working-class neighborhood has been transformed into a public art mural composed of recycled marble tile remnants.

The mural was designed and erected a few days ago by Buena Vista artist Roberto Salas and students and faculty associated with Land Arts of the American West, an interdisciplinary field program based at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

The program's founder, Bill Gilbert, and his students recently camped out at the hillside neighborhood and spent a week erecting the mural -- an image of the sun rising from the middle of a 200-foot-long and 6-foot-wide marble tile mosaic -- just below Buena Vista Grocery, a popular neighborhood icon at the intersection of Racetrack Drive and Torres Street.

"We try and show students a whole bunch of ways to be an artist," said Gilbert, a professor in UNM's Department of Art and Art History. "It's amazing what can get done when you've got 15 people working together."

Students enrolled in the program spend a semester in the field doing public art projects and interacting with the landscape throughout the Southwest. Chris Taylor, an architect teaching architecture at Lubbock's Texas Tech University, also helps operate the program.

Salas, an artist splitting his time between El Paso and San Diego, figures the mural represents another significant step toward redevelopment in Buena Vista, a Mexican-American community isolated years ago when the El Paso section of Interstate 10 was built. The mural will be dedicated at a future, still undecided date.

"What they've left here is a little island. Our concept is preservation, maintaining this barrio as a historical area and making it a public art destination," Salas said. "These students created a beautiful object, a gift to the community."

Lucy Livingstone, 32, an exchange student from England studying sculpture in Scotland, is eager to return to El Paso after spending almost three months creating art and embracing a range of different experiences across the Southwest.

"It's fascinating," Livingstone said. "This has given me amazing insight into American culture, the other side of America, not just the side you see in the movies or television, but the real Old West."

Israel Armendariz, 24, a recent fine-arts graduate at the University of Texas at El Paso, volunteered to help students with the University of New Mexico project.

"I'm getting experience working with students from another university," he said, "and I'm trying to help this community, too."

Scott Williams, 29, a senior studying sculpture at UNM, described this semester's field work in Utah, parts of New Mexico, and El Paso as a positive experience.

"It takes art away from this really personal thing and takes us some place where we can do something with other people and for other people," he said.

Jeanette Hart-Mann, an assistant professor in the Land Arts in the American West program, applauds the program for helping students link studio art practice with the real world.

"By bringing students around the Southwest, we can really identify with what is place, and so we reconnect with our communities in lots of different ways," Hart-Mann said. "By being involved in a large community project like this, they're also learning how to work together for a unified reason."

Ramón Rentería may be reached at rrenteria@elpasotimes.com; 546-6146.

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