Roots of Resilience
Washington Middle School’s Mural Project
By Grace Labatt
Artist Nani Chacon used to run along the track at downtown’s Washington Middle School, a path which took her past one of Albuquerque’s immense, colorful murals, on an exterior wall of the school. The mural—a panorama of Southwestern landscape and peoples—hadn’t lost its resonance in the decades since it was created, but it was undeniably falling apart. Kids at the school described sheets of it slipping off.
But what was then a fading glory is now a brilliant array of blues and golds, with spiraling wildflowers and drifting butterflies. It took a team of educators, parents, artists, neighbors, organizations and students to transform the space into what will eventually be Albuquerque’s largest outdoor mural—it is currently halfway done, spanning about 3,000 square feet.
Washington Middle School (1101 Park SW), is Albuquerque’s oldest operating middle school, dating to 1923. It is fitting, then, that the title of the new mural is “Resilience.”
“All of the flowers on the mural are basically what we call common weeds,” says Chacon, the lead artist on the project, who worked with a team of sixth- to eighth-graders on everything from conceptualizing the mural to the final touches on phase one. But “they have been here for centuries, and they’ve adapted ... I see us as a culture very much like that ... We could go through inquisitions and all of these other things, and there are still bits of the culture that are alive. You have to hold onto those.”
But what was then a fading glory is now a brilliant array of blues and golds, with spiraling wildflowers and drifting butterflies. It took a team of educators, parents, artists, neighbors, organizations and students to transform the space into what will eventually be Albuquerque’s largest outdoor mural.
The massive collaboration that culminated in “Resilience” began when Len and Donna Romano, WMS parents and co-owners of downtown branding firm Ripe Inc., decided they wanted to help change the perception of neglect associated with the former deteriorating mural. They teamed up with Working Classroom, a 28-year-old education, arts, and activism organization that was once an after-school program at WMS and today works with 200 kids a year.
“One of Working Classroom’s taglines is ‘Creating Art, Changing Lives, Transforming Communities,’ and community change has to come from within,” says Gabrielle Uballez, executive director of Working Classroom. “We can’t, as an organization, impose what we see for the vision for a community. Len and his family and the neighborhood and all of the kids wanted this.”
On behalf of the project, the Huning Castle Neighborhood Association applied for and received a grant from the Bernalillo County Neighborhood Outreach Grant Program. Other sponsors donated generously and a creative team was put in place. Chacon led a six-week workshop of 15 students, during which students learned painting techniques and took trips into the neighborhood to study the landscape. During one field trip, they sat in a semicircle in B. Ruppe Drugs in Barelas, while legendary Curandera Doña Maclovia Zamora described plants’ medicinal properties. Nine students were selected as paid apprentices to create the mural over five weeks this summer.
Phase two, planned for next summer, will focus on the western half of the mural. The WMS mural team is currently working to raise funds for that stage. Anyone interested in donating can do so via the Working Classroom website workingclassroom.org.
The future of the mural extends far beyond the next 12 months—as Romano says, “The kids who worked on it are going to be walking past here with their own kids in the future and saying, ‘Your mom and your dad worked on that.’ That’s community, and that’s roots.” Stop by Washington Middle School to see those roots made manifest.
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