How do you visually express a collective identity crafted by a collision of cultures over centuries - on a two-dimensional surface? The answer, as for most challenges endemic to the Taos region, is: You get creative.
University of New Mexico-Taos has accomplished this in the creation of "The Dance," a mural that can now be seen on the south wall of the art department at the school's Klauer campus. Local artist and educator Amy Córdova y Boone provided the original artwork, which was then painted by students supervised on-site by internationally recognized muralist Jenny Roesel.
As the designing artist, Córdova y Boone said she first met with students to develop a collective vision for the project. Their guide was Pulitzer Prize-winning author N. Scott Momaday's "The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee," in which the Kiowa poet expresses the totality of his own identity in a series of "I am" statements.
"We asked ourselves, 'Who am I?' and made a beautiful poem," said Córdova y Boone. "The students created the images for the mural through their words."
For Córdova y Boone, one word in particular perfectly describes the project. "'Hierophany' means finding the sacred," she said. "There's something sacred about Taos. It draws people who are seeking higher elevation. The creative and the curious. It calls to those people."
Sacred elements of home are expressed in her trademark style, and cultural diversity naturally plays a central role. "The Dance" appears to move to the rhythm of life, visually represented in the flow of the waters and the motion of the clouds. The Great Mother, as depicted, rests on a turtle's back, her halo is a drum, representing the heartbeat of Mother Earth. On her lap sits a child with a book.
"The little girl with the book represents education, but also the handing down of our stories," said Córdova y Boone.
For 12 days, students, staff and faculty all pitched in and painted in the sunshine, quickly learning to use a daubing technique to coat the pebbly finish of the Pueblo-style wall.
As is typical in our area, nature herself added her own signature to the experience, delivering a storm on day 13, just in time for what was to be the final four hours of the project. After painting in the rain all morning, the artists realized that the day's work was literally a wash, so they cleaned off the new, streaking paint using bucketfuls of water and waited for the weather to clear up.
"Today has been an exercise in radical acceptance," said Jenny Ustick over a much-needed lunch break with her fellow painters. Art student Heather Bergerson credited the muralist-in-residence with rescuing the painters from despair. "If Jenny hadn't been there, I don't know what we would have done," Bergerson said. "We probably would have been freaking out."
The artists persevered and worked until sundown, completing the mural on schedule, according to project coordinator Sarah Stolar.
"I was completely defeated," Stolar said. "It was heartbreaking to see the damage that happened from the weather, but we got through and now we're all really happy with it."
"The Dance" was officially unveiled Monday (Oct. 14), which was Indigenous Peoples Day in New Mexico, and is now on view for the entire community.
"That it's there is beautiful," said Córdova y Boone. "I hope it brings inspiration to people who walk through those doors to explore their own vision of the world."
The mural project is an outcome of a federal Title V: Hispanic Serving Institution cooperative grant awarded to UNM-Taos, New Mexico Highlands University and Adams State University in 2014. Among other student support initiatives, the grant program, UNIDOS: Building Pathway to Access and Opportunity for the Upper Río Grande Region has supported the ongoing goal of building greater capacity for diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education.
The UNM-Taos Klauer campus is located at 1157 County Road 110 in Ranchos de Taos. For more information on the school and its programs, visit taos.unm.edu/home or call (575) 737-6200.