Kei & Molly Textiles (4400 Silver Ave. SE) was started in 2010 with the explicit aim to, as Tsuzuki put it, “provide good opportunities for immigrants and refugees in our community.” Both Tsuzuki and Luethi identify as immigrants, and both therefore speak multiple languages and have experiences living and working internationally. Each had also worked with immigrant and refugee communities through nonprofits in Albuquerque previously. “It was a natural, organic kind of fit for us,” Luethi explained. And so, they started their business with this foundational aim and have since grown tremendously. The organization is well-known locally (and throughout the 300 different locations where their wares are carried around the country) for their tea towels, screen printed by hand at their workshop and storefront on Silver Avenue, though they design a variety of different items, all with utility.
“We had been talking about doing a mural since we first bought this building a year and a half ago,” Luethi said. They connected with Working Classroom last summer, and later proposed the project to the City of Albuquerque Public Art Program, who funded it. Workshops were conducted with arts collective TIASO last December and with Kei & Molly's staff who hail from all over—from Congo, Cuba, China and beyond—which was part of the process of nailing down the imagery that Luethi and Tsuzuki later designed. The truly collaborative process has helped the mural resonate with the community that it looks out on and feel in-step with the neighborhood. “To do anything that is so visual and so public without having input from the community would've been alienating,” Tsuzuki said. As a result of the workshops with staff, the two think that everyone who works for the organization feels a sense of ownership of the final product.
As a result of being so deeply in conversation with the city around them, and the populations they mean to serve, the mural—which, when I visited was not even officially completed—has been very positively received. Neighbors and passersby have stopped in to compliment and learn about the work. And for their part, seeing the mural complete has been satisfying for the two artists, who had never previously worked on a such a scale. Both Luethi and Tsuzuki also hope the added color will be a boon for their sliver of the city. “We're hoping that by bringing more life to this street, we might also bring other people here to set up businesses,” Luethi said—envisioning a future where Washington Street might become a sort of “Textile Row.”
Moreso, however, they hope that mural might be a site of education, or at least spark discussion among neighborhood residents as well as visitors from farther afield. “We want to make more people aware of the immigrant and refugee situation in Albuquerque. Some people don't even know we have refugees here,” Luethi explained. “And they are placed here, they don't choose to come here. So then, they have to learn to make a life here. I hope others will maybe learn that.” Tsuzuki followed that up with her own thoughts on the mural, “to me, the image is about our shared humanity,” she explained. “We learn on a daily basis from our staff. … I hope that people look at it and see the beauty of the artwork, and then also think about how we might treat each other with kindness and respect.”
On the northernmost corner of the building, a Native woman stands, backed by a traditional Navajo rug pattern, welcoming the other women as they end their journey. “She's the only one facing the other way, toward the women who are coming,” Tsuzuki explained, “the idea being that America is a country where we are all immigrants unless we are Native American. We come to this country to make better lives for ourselves. … We're here trying to make the best of our lives, and we can do that with kindness.”
Kei & Molly Textiles will welcome the public for a formal reception of the mural, titled “Making Our Way,” on Monday, July 2 at 9am with Mayor Keller in attendance. The mural was executed by Working Classroom's Lead Muralist Angel Pavia, with apprentices Alonso Estrada, Alayna Martinez and Ana Palma. Stop by Kei & Molly's store Wednesday, Thursday or Friday between 10am and 5pm and check out the mural while you're there, or stop in for their indigo dying workshop on Saturday, July 14. More information about the business and the events they host monthly is available online at keiandmolly.com.