Alibi V.28 No.1 • Jan 3-9, 2019 

Culture Shock

The Radical We

Max Baptiste uses art to build community

Max Baptiste, Director of We Are This City, stands before a collage of small paintings by Albuquerque artists
Max Baptiste, Director of We Are This City, stands before a collage of small paintings by Albuquerque artists
Photo by Eric Martinez

In 2004, when audio engineer Max Baptiste founded a video game company in Albuquerque with a couple of his friends, he had no idea it would profoundly change the way he saw the world, and inspire him to form a revolutionary new nonprofit aimed at eradicating prejudice through the arts. Yet that's exactly how it went down.

“When you're online, playing a video game with other players in distant lands, you're not necessarily thinking about race, religion, socioeconomics,” said Baptiste, 36, as he sat for an interview at Zendo Coffee last week. “Those biases kind of go away. My thoughts were, how do we do this off-line, in a small community?”

Artist Michael E. Martinez

Baptiste came up with the idea that by bringing people together to create high-impact art in a fun, low-cost way, he might be able to replicate the erasure of social hierarchies he'd found in the online gaming world. He left the video game company in 2013 to form the nonprofit visual arts collective, We Are This City, with this mission. Five years later, the organization is going strong, having just completed its second major installation, part of which can be seen for the next few weeks, on the walls at Nob Hill Bar & Grill.

Artist Aaron Richardson

“On our first project, I worked with two homeless men to fill 300 balloons with paint,” said Baptiste, his blue eyes flashing bluer for the azure scarf around his neck. “Then we invited the community to throw them at (a canvas covered) building. It was my ah-ha moment, watching a homeless person engage with a child, and watching the parent of the child watch that engagement, and the fear was gone.”

That was going to be the end of it, but Eric Martinez, a friend of Baptiste's and himself a painter, then suggested they cut the paint-splattered canvas into smaller pieces and distribute these to artists in the city.

Artist Angie Rehnberg

“I loved the idea,” said Baptiste. “And I wanted us to expand the idea of who and what an artist was, in who we gave them to. Anyone could participate. All you had to do was send us your email and three photos of your work.”

The end result was nearly 300 paintings, each done by a different creative mind. When viewed on a wall side by side, or on the organization's Instagram page, the result brings to mind a quilt, one that beautifully captures the unique diversity and creativity of this city.

Artist Urban

Baptiste found his hopes for the project validated when a child who had helped throw paint on the wall came to the gallery opening and “literally ran around the whole room taking a picture with each piece, saying 'check out my art, check out my art,’ ” he said.

Baptiste's mother, niki hanna baptiste (she does not capitalize her name), an activist and advocate for battered women, raised him outside of Taos. Reached by phone, she recalled her son as having always had a different way of looking at the world. One day, when he was 4 years old, she said, Max blurted out, “Mom, you know, if infinity has no end, it has no beginning.”

Artist Cloudface

“I parked and wrote it down, because for me, as an adult, it felt like I hadn't realized it ... what I got from him is he didn't place himself necessarily in the center of beginning of things. Max was born with this thing, some otherworldly sense of infinity really being limitless, and of his place in the world as limitless. For me, that was very much who he was and it is still exactly who he is.”

Martinez agrees. “Max isn't about Max. He just spends a lot of time listening to people. He gets coffee with almost every artist who participates in his projects. There's not sterile process of hierarchy. Just a handshake and a photo. I think the artist and the community have built the camaraderie and aura around it. He's a steward of kindhearted and well-meaning experiences.”

Artist Sheldon Richards

We Are This City's most recent installation, entitled ABQ Up With Paint, began with people in the community using paint-filled fire extinguishers to spray pigment onto large canvases. As with the first installation, these were then divided up and sent to nearly 300 artists. The youngest of the artists is Luna Montoya, age 3; her work appears alongside that of famous artists like Jodie Herrera, Adam Feibelman and David Santiago. There are also “unsung hero” artists, such as hairdressers, tattoo artists and other nontraditional artists in the show.

Working with the creative community in Albuquerque led Baptiste to a second job, as Art Coordinator at Albuquerque International Sunport, where he was hired by Aviation Director Nyika Allen; it also also got him thinking about the arts as an economic development engine for the city.

“I love Albuquerque,” he said. “There's this major opportunity here, that I don't find a lot of people taking advantage of. A lot of people talk about how to make Albuquerque into something, when we're already something. We're not supporting what we already are. The last administration had a strong push to make us a tech community. We're not a tech community. We're a diverse, creative community. We've been a creative community for centuries. We're more of a creative community than a creative economy, because the economics aren't making sense yet. So, to me, it's like how do we develop the economy around the existing diversity and creativity, around our heritage, our vision, who we are? Because our creative community in my mind is second to none.”

To see more of the paintings in Up with Paint, please visit We Are This City’s Instagram page: @weareabq