“So I got this call from Carmichael Dominguez,” says Debra Garcia y Griego. “He was like, ‘Everyone’s talking about this bird.’” Dominguez is the city councilor for District 3, which encompasses much of Santa Fe’s south side, and Garcia y Griego recently unleashed a 15-foot-tall hummingbird made of old car hoods in his dominion. The colorful beast towers over Arroyo Sonrisa Park off Jaguar Drive, just across the street from Cesar Chavez Elementary School.
"I said, 'Do people like it?'" recalls Garcia y Griego. "He said, 'Oh yeah, it's all really positive. I just need to know what's going on!'" As director of the Santa Fe Arts Commission, Garcia y Griego has been orchestrating surprises like this all summer. The sculpture, by local artist Don Kennell, is one of several acquisitions made through the city's new Public Art Purchase Program, and it's designed to connect disparate corners of Santa Fe's community in eye-opening ways.
From her office at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center, Garcia y Griego recounts the swift implementation of the new program. An announcement released this January invited local artists and galleries to submit work for purchase and placement in a city park. "Historically, we've only done site- specific public art commissions," Garcia y Griego says. "This was a way to start working with artists and galleries to expand the benefit in that direction." By late June, artwork by Milton Elting Hebald and Jill Shwaiko had landed in green spaces around the city.
Garcia y Griego has been working closely with the artists and the Santa Fe Parks and Recreation department to find homes for the new acquisitions. The program allows for an unusual amount of freedom to select the location of each piece. Its funding is drawn from 2 percent of the bonds issued for Santa Fe capital improvement projects, but the money isn't tied to the sites where the projects took place. This differs from the state's Art in Public Places Program, which determines a percentage allocation based on the amount of money spent at a specific location.
"The ordinance allows us to pool our money and then spend it to make high impact in a place that's not necessarily going to get that," says Garcia y Griego. "Many of these pieces would've never ended up in the parks that they did, because they're not getting that kind of money spent in them." The program furthers the City Arts Commission's longstanding efforts to ensure the geographic diversity of Santa Fe's public art collection. "We want to engage portions of the community that don't normally interact with art," Garcia y Griego says.
At the other end of town on Jaguar Drive, Kennell parks his truck and strides across the street to Arroyo Sonrisa Park. This is the first time he's been back here since installing the sculpture, titled "Colossal Hummer," in the midst of the July heat wave a few weeks ago. Now that monsoon season has finally arrived, a small swamp is forming around his artwork.
"This park is pretty neglected, as you can see. It's hard to even imagine it as a park," Kennell tells SFR. It's a small square of bumpy earth with a circular path stamped in it and a crumbling stone wall on one side. "Colossal Hummer" makes a dramatic addition to the otherwise humble tableau. The sculpture is a patchwork of bright red, orange and yellow sheets of steel, pounded and wielded into an elegant avian form. It's covered in alluring clues to the past life of the materials: There are dents, scratches, patches of rust and silver car logos. Its eyes are made from taillights.
The sculpture's base doubles as a bench, harkening back to Kennell's "Yard Dog" sculpture that stood in the Santa Fe Railyard Park in 2011. That piece, made from corrugated sheet metal, had a porch swing attached to its belly and was so well-received that Kennell has exhibited two large sculptures in the Railyard Park since: a green coyote and a blue gorilla. All of them were treasured for their bright colors and dense details, which compelled visitors to reach out and touch them. "Colossal Hummer" has similar gravitational powers.
"When we were installing, people literally pulled over and were like, 'Wow, is that really coming here?'" says Kennell. "That was great, because it was just regular people who were doing that. I love that audience." No one is braving the mud to interact with "Colossal Hummer" today, but the work's mere presence already promises to transform its surroundings. The city plans to clear away loose rocks and spread mulch around the piece. Kennell also dreams of planting an elm tree here, and perhaps adding a few more benches. It's a sculpture garden in the making, far from Santa Fe's art districts.
"I would like to know how many of the people that call this neighborhood home go to galleries or museums," Kennell says. "I never like to assume anything, because I'm always surprised, but I think it's safe to say that a lot of them don't really go to many art spaces." The artist points out that projects like this bridge gaps between art and everyday life, fostering new inspiration. "I'm a big believer that there are these ripple effects with things like this," says Kennell. "Kids can grow up saying, 'Contemporary art is this thing that's part of my life. This is something that's relevant to me.'"
Back in her downtown office, Garcia y Griego pulls up a Facebook post about Kennell's new sculpture. "This totally made my day," she says. "A woman reposted our photo and said, 'So grateful for this beautiful piece installed right by our house.'" Garcia y Griego raises her arms in victory. "There's just so much opportunity on the Southside for exciting and interesting projects."