Wall Flowers

The art of the mural is alive and well in Denver.

Because contemporary mural painting has roots in Mexico, where Diego Rivera, José Orozco and David Siqueiros pioneered the medium early in the twentieth century, it's been a natural carryover in heavily Hispanic Colorado. Big, in-your-face narrative public art has long been making statements in communities across our state.

In celebration of this regional artistic phenomenon, in March the Art Students League of Denver will kick off a two-pronged program called Community and Public Art: The Mural that will feature a public lecture series and a hands-on student mural project at Fairmont Elementary School in Denver's Baker neighborhood. The first lecture, by mural scholar Mary Meadows on "Walls of Pride: The Chicano Murals of Colorado," takes place March 3 at the ASLD, while the mural project commences in April, under the direction of artist Izzy Lozano.

"My job is to recruit kids for the mural project," says Lozano, who also heads a nonprofit organization called Background Noise, which encourages teens to express themselves through art. He'll choose from a pool of neighborhood kids, including students at Fairmont, Baker Middle School and the Contemporary Learning Academy, a Denver-based alternative high school. At the outset of the project, those chosen will prepare by attending at least four of the lectures, some given by local talent. For example, Colorado is a breeding ground for such innovative muralists as Emanuel Martinez, an original Crusade for Justice militant of the '60s who brought the art back to life in this region after a study trip to Mexico during those tumultuous times. Martinez speaks on March 17 as part of the series.

Chicano history in America, interpreted by muralist 
Carlota Espinosa.
Chicano history in America, interpreted by muralist Carlota Espinosa.

"I saw it as a medium that lent itself to the movement," Martinez says. "There really had been no mural activity in the Denver area since the WPA era -- at least nothing with that strong, community-type polemic content. Mural painting is a dynamic form of art that belongs to everybody. I saw it as a means of educating the people and advocating our philosophy, as well as giving the community a sense of pride."

Those early murals, some depicting the pre-Columbian gods reclaimed by a downtrodden culture, are largely gone, and these days, Martinez notes, mural painting is a different sort of ballgame: "It's so costly now, and there are so many restrictions. In the early days, it was simple to get a mural painted; we'd just doit. Now you have to go through the Mayor's Commission and the city council; there's a whole bureaucracy involved." And if the spirit of the thing's been spoiled somewhat by all that red tape, it still has its finer points: "We get paid a lot more," he says.

But Martinez, who estimates he's done forty or fifty murals over the years, hasn't really changed. Though he's worked with sculpture more in recent years, he still serves the community through his continuing work, which includes a forthcoming public-art installation honoring Chicano activist Cesar Chavez. That work, slated for the Tenth and Osage light-rail station, re-creates familiar iconography from the Latino movement, including Martinez's own contribution, a three-faced mestizo that became a familiar Latino symbol of identity across the nation.

Lozano's young group should indeed learn much at the feet of Martinez and the other speakers, though the experiential end of the project will be the deciding factor of its success. What does Lozano predict it will do for those kids? "It plants a subconscious seed for change," he says. "When I was growing up, there was a mural in my middle school [Kunsmiller, in southwest Denver] of a plane taking off . I had the whole idea that this was my springboard. Seeing that mural really ingrained something in me."

 
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