New Mexico Stories and Tips

Public Art as a Birthright

Sculpture - National Hispanic Cultural Center Photo, Albuquerque, New Mexico

It’s plausible to argue that growing up the Southwest is to grow up with art as a birthright. This was certainly true of my New Mexican childhood. Mother Nature herself provided the paintbrush—there is even a wildflower called the ‘Indian paintbrush’—and the deserts and mountains of the region provided the canvas.

The stark drama of the landscape lends itself to thinking in artistic terms. Mesas and buttes have been sculpted into fantastic shapes by wind and water. The desert really does bloom during the brief and infrequent rainy seasons, with the local flora providing a profusion of color. And the colors of rock and soil lend themselves to other forms of painting—producing painted deserts in many places, not just the one carries the name in eastern Arizona. The map itself often reflects the colors of nature and her marvels: White Sands, Bluewater Lake, Red Rock State Park, Tierra Amarilla (or ‘yellow earth’), Red River, Rainbow Lake, and the Turquoise Hills. Even the word Albuquerque has colorful natural origins, commonly translated to mean ‘land of the white oak.’

Human activity has been creating public art for millennia throughout the Southwest. Petroglyphs and pictographs are common in many areas, and as with other forms of public art, they provided rich fodder for an active imagination--in both adults and children. I grew up in close proximity to what became Petroglyph National Park, and seeking out these ancient etchings and paintings was as natural a pastime as picking wildflowers and chasing jackrabbits.

In modern times, the local Indian tribes gave us pueblo-style architecture complete with vigas (timber beams often with ornamental elements) and native motifs for decorative accents. They also reached into their cultural heritage to give us Navajo blankets, Pueblo pots, and turquoise-and-silver jewelry—all of which enhanced our lives and our homes even for those of us who couldn’t afford the best-of-breed items that found their way into shops on the Plaza in Santa Fe. The Spanish colonial influence added vibrant colors, carved doorways and enclosed courtyards, milagros and santos, tin-work ornamentation, fiesta traditions, and luminarias. Cowboy culture gave us tooled leather belts and bags, cowboy hats, and the "Anglo" vision of the Wild West.

With all these influences swirling around us, it’s easy to see that art was an integral part of our lives. Add the artist colonies in Santa Fe, Taos, and the northern mountains, and you have a perfect storm for producing generations of New Mexicans who took for granted that some form of public art should be part of their lives.

In Albuquerque, more official forms of public art started with Art Deco (or Pueblo Deco for a regional twist) buildings—like the KiMo Theater in Downtown. The KiMo opened in 1927, and its interior and exterior surfaces are covered with Native American motifs. The Owl Café on Eubank is in the same tradition but came along later. Built in the 1990s and modeled after an older building, it is shaped like a large adobe owl—the owl being one of many birds common in pueblo motifs.

Commercial art and billboards were other forms of public art that became popular in the 20th century. It seemed to take its start from roadside signs along Route 66, reminding motorists of the distance between gas stations across long stretches of almost empty desert. These warnings gradually gave way to serial billboards featuring elaborate designs and bright colors—leading to so-called trading posts where gas, food, water, and every sort of gaudy souvenir could be obtained. I even recall a filling station and café to the east of Albuquerque that was done up to resemble an iceberg in the desert. In the city itself, there were oversized 3-D representations of lumberjacks, cowboys, buffalo, autos raised on arches, and other visual stimuli. Some of these are still in place, still providing potential customers with bearings to reach the desired destination.

By the latter part of the 20th century, the city fathers of Albuquerque had taken up public art as an official municipal duty. Pulling primarily from Native American and Spanish colonial sources, they commissioned a variety of sculptures, murals, and landscape art to beautify the city. Now there are oversized Pueblo pots in traffic medians, tall kachina towers on the Interstate, ribbons of stylized mountain motifs accenting sound walls along the highway, and a growing number of statues commemorating historical figures, great deeds, and tragic events.

The street signs in Downtown have been refashioned to offer practical location information using striking graphic accents. City-supported institutions to preserve and create the artistic heritage of the region have been established. In some places, bus shelters have been redesigned with emphasis given to aesthetics, and parks and other public places have been refurbished with an eye toward enhancing their beauty as well as their functionality. Historic adobe structures have been restored, and even the best of 20th-century kitsch has been refurbished and preserved.

Do Albuquerqueans notice? Of course we do—especially those of us who have been displaced elsewhere and return home only too infrequently. Is all this effort taken for granted? Well, yes and no. . . . New Mexicans in general and Albuquerqueans in particular have always lived with art, and we expect it to be there to enhance our lives. Besides, there is still plenty to do. Art as a birthright is still evolving, and the city is still a masterpiece in the making. But most of us like the direction it’s taking.

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