“I'm an arts omnivore,” Gabrielle Uballez explained from her office at Working Classroom. “I believe there's a lot of different ways to approach public art and mural work.” The executive director of the long-running nonprofit pointed out, however, that undertaking art in the public sphere comes with certain responsibility. Even in this multitude of approaches, Uballez explained how essential it is that the purveyors of the work are acting with a commitment to the community they serve, and that artists, in turn, are properly compensated for the skills and energy they bring to the enrichment of our city. To begin with, Uballez said something simple must be achieved, “We have to make sure that the community wants it.” She further posited that that community should be in some way reflected on the wall, that their stories and values should be the starting point from which to plan what will be thrown into massive relief. To proceed without these convictions is to undermine the great potential that mural work—and public art in general—has.
For the nearly three decades of their public arts program, Working Classroom has done just this—creating murals throughout the city that hold resonance for the neighborhood where they are created while simultaneously positioning themselves for great impact. “Our murals always address issues of social justice,” Uballez detailed. One enduring example is provided by “Healthcare is a Right, Not a Privilege,” a mural project led by Joe Stephenson with Adriana Ortiz, Pauline Martinez, Angel Pavia, Katia Perez, Izaiah Ramos and Cristian Ruiz at the outset of Working Classroom's mural program. Now several decades later, the expansive art piece carries a message that is as powerful as ever, “maybe even more so,” Uballez mused.
The highest ambition of Working Classroom's endeavors in the public sphere is to reflect and honor the communities that their murals serve, to provide the lead artist and all assistants with proper compensation for their energies and to provide a site of education for visitors, that they might learn something about the place and its people—that might mean a broad scope on regional history, or the particulars of one person's narrative.
Warren Montoya, a multi-talented artist and muralist, executive director of Rezilience Indigenous Arts Experience and community outreach advisor for Native Entrepreneur in Residence (NEIR), echoed the supreme importance of collaboration and compensation when it comes to approaching mural work in our city. “It's about honoring the space, honoring the community and honoring the artists,” he said. Montoya himself will paint a mural in Nob Hill in August as part of the upcoming 508 Mural Fest. Montoya's work both at NEIR and for Rezilience have given him critical insight into “how to navigate big relationships,” to stretch his eyes past the immediate space of the wall to the people beyond it.
Montoya's mural will explore the concept of the feminine spirit (“Not just the soft feminine,” Montoya explained, “but strength”). In the months and weeks before he begins to put paint to the wall, he is not just sketching out the visual logistics, he's “taking into consideration who is going to see it, who is in the environment, what they can relate to, what speaks to who they are,” as he put it. “I don't want the mural to just be some foreign object.” For Montoya the most pressing questions are how to work with and respect communities, and to illustrate—
“Expectation and accountability give whatever you're creating for a public wall more depth,” he went on. “To have conversations, to survey, to really involve community members … rather than just say, 'Here is my art.'” Furthering that point, Sherri Brueggemann, the city of Albuquerque's Public Art Urban Enhancement program manager, said that murals uniquely allow artists and communities to collaborate and join their voices “to express ideas, histories or other issues that are ignored or brushed aside in other forms of community participation and recognition.” Those stories tend to resonate because of the scale of the works, sure, but also due to the “complex flat imagery tropes [that] achieve spatial effects that invite the viewer into the story.” And that, in part, is why it is so important to tell stories that move, energize and reflect communities. Murals become part of the landscape; residents must live alongside and within them.
Looking to the future—Montoya, Uballez and Brueggemann all shared exciting upcoming projects that are aligned with the principles that their organizations share. These endeavors take many shapes and occupy many different spaces, yet all are actively defining a sense of place, and illuminating values and identities in complex visual languages that are as much felt as seen and heard. True to the organization's convictions, Working Classroom students have spent months interviewing South Valley residents preparing for a public art installation that will begin this fall; Brueggemann voiced incredible excitement about collaborations with the Economic Development department and expanding citywide goals that will further enhance the public art program. Montoya, contemplating his upcoming mural work, put it succinctly. He explained that as he considers mural work and what its impact can be throughout every reach of our city, that what he is really thinking about is simply this: “How art can do more.”
Diverse public arts initiatives (and there are many beyond these) are working to achieve accepted measures of success and move well beyond them, continually reimagining and expanding ideas of what public art can do. If you need an example of what that looks like, seek out Working Classroom's more than a dozen murals, keep attuned to the city's efforts, visit 516 Arts, or just step out your door and look around.