A politically tinged eco-art piece and a large-scale reading project are taking the Rio Grande Nature Center by storm.
For the second year in a row, Albuquerque is one of 400 cities in America participating in The Big Read. The crux of the project, billed as the largest nationwide reading event in history, is that every participant in each of its locales is encouraged to read the same book at the same time. This year, Albuquerque residents will collectively open The Adventures of Tom Sawyer beginning the morning of Saturday, Sept. 6, at the Rio Grande Nature Center.
Bibliophiles won’t be the only ones in attendance on Sept. 6. The Big Read kickoff coincides with the unveiling of Mexico City-based artist Yolanda Gutiérrez’ found-art piece Currents of Change, a work driven by the similarities between animal and human migration. Gutiérrez completed the piece with help from students involved in Working Classroom, a nonprofit group dedicated to helping students from traditionally ignored communities learn how to turn their artistic talents into livelihoods.
Currents of Change and The Big Read use different mediums, but both are committed to bringing art to the masses.
For Gutiérrez, it’s not enough for art to merely attract the eye. It needs to inform and promote discourse, she says during a break from constructing Currents of Change on Aug. 27. The artist stands next to a drawing that serves as the blueprint for the work. In the drawing, a storm cloud hangs to the right of a shining sun and a flower in bloom. The clouds, Gutiérrez says, symbolize the areas in Mexico people have left to find a better life. “The sun and the flower represent the nice places, or the dreams of the people when they move to another place,” Gutiérrez explains.
The design is an amalgam of the symbols created by the students involved in the project, she says. For three weeks, Gutiérrez and her pupils worked on creating the installation.
Before any artwork began, students researched the migration patterns of various types of birds and other animals. The Washington Middle School and Albuquerque High students then compared and contrasted the animal patterns with those of people. “We all have the same necessities,” Gutiérrez says. “If we don’t have it in the place we live, then we move. It’s a way to adapt to the environment.”
Washington eighth grader Mariana Santiesteban agrees. “Not only birds migrate,” she says.
Dolores McElroy, a spokesperson for the Santa Fe Opera (a promoter of The Big Read), says the second program at the Rio Grande Nature Center aims to coax more Americans into falling in love with the written word. She cites a survey taken a few years ago that indicated the number of Americans reading novels for pleasure is declining in all age groups, especially among the young. McElroy says the Santa Fe Opera and several other organizations want to make sure Albuquerque bucks the trend.
“We want to bring literary reading back to the center of American life,” McElroy says. “Reading is not just something you do in your head. It connects you to other people.”
For McElroy, the setting of Tom Sawyer along the Mississippi River is analogous to growing up with the Rio Grande in our backyards. “You can easily relate the book to our own world,” McElroy says. “Great stories are universal.”