Santa Fe’s murals span topics from gardens to history, with themes of unity, conflict and even psychedelic abstraction. They’re on residential walls down little sidestreets you’ll only discover if you know to look and on buildings you drive by every day. Their artists have sometimes signed works and sometimes left origins a mystery.
Murals have become kind of a hot-button issue in the city, too, what with the state’s Department of Cultural Affairs deciding to remove the Multicultural mural that once emblazoned a wall on the building that will officially become the Vladem Contemporary wing of the New Mexico Museum of Art this September. Many bemoaned losing that mural, which will live on both in a smaller re-creation slated for inside the museum and in a forthcoming augmented reality app that will allow users to catch a glimpse of its former glory through their phone screens.
In this week’s cover story, we present features on a brand new mural and one that’s still underway. Plus, turn the page for our beginner’s guided tour to a number of significant works in the city and a preview of a new book on the topic by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington.
Painting the Conversation
by Noah Hale
The mid-morning sun beats down as members from Three Sisters Collective join with lead artist and designer Pola Lopez to continue work on a new mural at the intersection of Hickox and Baca Streets. Titled Shards of Our Stories, the piece presents an unapologetically vibrant installation in the middle of the neighborhood’s otherwise dry southwestern sepias.
Passers-by love it: As the artists add finishing touches, cars honk and roll by, with drivers shouting their thank yous. Some have even delivered food and drinks. Their spontaneous communication makes up the “initial energetic flight,” according to Lopez. Although the mural might spur an emotional response at first glance, there’s an intellectual component to discover, too. A closer look reveals multiple meanings and histories, part of a shared vision between the local collective and Lopez.
Born and raised in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Lopez later lived in Santa Fe before moving to Los Angeles in the mid-aughts to pursue art full-time. There, she worked alongside artists such as Gilbert Luján and Willie Herrón among others—some of the foremost figures of the Chicano Art Movement that rose to prominence in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Lopez returned to Santa Fe at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to be closer to her daughter. It was around this time Three Sisters Collective co-founder Christina Castro (Taos Pueblo) asked if she’d be interested in working on the mural project. Lopez agreed.
But it wasn’t all good news. During the initial drafting period, Lopez says, the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire rendered much of her family land near Las Vegas unusable.
“The fire caused a lot of trauma,” says Lopez, herself a former wildland firefighter and arts educator, “but I have always used my art as my spiritual path. When I was teaching art to kids in probation camps, I always taught that art is medicine, and I used my art as medicine during that time that I was going through this trauma.”
She incorporated that art-as-medicine attitude into the new mural, as well as her Mestiza roots. Shards honors the Corn Maiden, an Indigenous deity synonymous with Mother Earth. In her role as the storyteller, she passes on important cultural stories to preserve tribal heritage.
Lopez designed the mural episodically, represented as six shards of pottery. Each shard tells a piece of the story ranging from cultural shifts, resistance to colonialism and even modern environmental issues such as fracking and forest fires.
But telling the story was more complex than identifying its imagery. Lopez has synesthesia in the form of colored hearing and chose to paint the mural according to what she felt best conveyed her audiovisual message to viewers. The color scheme, for example, follows the Aztec “tlilli tltpalli” red and black ink method, with red representing blood and black the unknowns of humanity.
“I chose these colors as the background colors because I felt the subject matter was intense and needed the color of sacrifice, of offering,” Lopez says.
The concept becomes apparent in the design of a shard depicting the braids cut off of Indigenous boarding school students—a memory that carries personal significance to Lopez, as her grandmother was sent to a boarding school for Apache youth.
The connective imagery charges Lopez’s message of multicultural reciprocity.
“I think there are three layers to the mural,” she says. “There’s the message and the imagery, but then there’s also the energy from the color and in the dynamics of imagery, of how it flows.”
The final shard in the sequence contains a river running through a lush landscape with the Lakota words Mni Wiconi written above it: “Water is Life.” It calls to mind the ongoing Land Back movement, a campaign for the reestablishment of Native American political authority over lands appropriated through colonialism.
“This needs to be shouted. It can’t be gentle,” says Lopez. “It has to scream at people, but yet it has to have balance and harmony—it can’t be offensive.”
Lopez’s design puts the conversation into a perspective anyone can share, but it doesn’t stop at the surface. Shards includes a three-headed figure based on Mexican poltician and philosopher José Vasconcelos’ theory that there would be a “fifth race’' in the Americas called “La raza cósmica.” He believed Latin Americans transcended the ideology of race because they were a mix of Indigenous, European, African and Asian ancestry.
More than personal, Lopez’s mural is a pertinent cultural collage that everyone can visit to observe the stories colored spectacularly in front of them.
“This mural is a prayer,” says Three Sisters’ Castro. “It’s a bridge for dialogue between our communities to start seeing that we are more connected and it’s not each other we should be arguing amongst.”
Piecing the Movement
by Julie Ann Grimm
The number of people who have had a hand in the developing Generations mosaic along the Rail Trail has already surpassed 100, and though artist Julie Deery has led the work for more than a year, she predicts at least that much more time will pass before the piece reaches completion.
“It’s a passion project,” she tells SFR on a recent morning, as she slathered on sunscreen and began placing shiny brown squares around a rendition of a prickly pear cactus tiled in shades of green and accented with red fruit. The plant is positioned in a way that it might have been growing out of the ground against the wall, part of a loose natural scene that’s unfolding.
Deery used spray paint to sketch out the deceptively simple design along 130 feet of cinder-block wall, an undulating mountain and sky motif accented at its center point by a blazing yellow sun. A grouted and complete section about 40 feet long includes colorful tiles alternating with opaque glass and even a few silver-colored bicycle parts—partly as a demonstration of what the final product will look like.
Many of the people passing the mural will be in motion, either moving along the trail or chugging along the track.
“You have to do something that flows with the bike riders, with the train,” Deery says, noting the intention is to allow for slow viewing where “if you’re walking you can come over and read things and look at it closely, at the individual mandalas. But if you’re just going by in the train, it’s going to be visually more exciting if it’s like…” she stops talking and makes a wave with her arm, smiling broadly.
She launched the project in 2022 to bring together members of the Seniors on Bikes groups with Big Brothers Big Sisters. In May of that year, she held a tile workshop at Raven Tree Studios in Eldorado, working with bike club members on what she calls “wisdom stones,” (which include words from the likes of Anne Lamott, who said, “Joy is the best makeup,” and more universal truisms such as “That which does not kill us makes us strong,” “I love my bike,” and “One rain does not make a crop”). Then, she helped fifth graders from Aspen Magnet Charter School construct clay birds on a visit. Next came nearly a dozen more workshops in the Railyard and in conjunction with Vital Spaces and ArtWalk Santa Fe.
“The idea is to have the wisdom of the elders on the bottom, and anybody in the community can make a mandala that supports the flying children,” Deery says.
Last weekend, attendees at the Santa Fe Brewing Co.’s 35th birthday event made circular mandala forms that will add to the sky section. Deery also regularly holds work days at the wall such as the day SFR stopped by.
Deery’s experience in community mosaic stretches back to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where she worked with schools. Now she has a studio in Galisteo and a local body of work that features glass, tile and recycled materials. (A recent commission at the Municipal Recreation Complex involves mosaic balls hanging from a tree.)
When she conceived of the idea to collaborate on a mural in a public place, Deery began by stuffing letters in mailboxes of houses backing up to the popular trail. David and Diana Zieset jumped at the opportunity. Two adjacent neighbors also soon agreed, and the project was off and running.
“It’s a really great thing to do for our community. And we need more of it for this kind of activity,” David Zieset tells SFR. “It’s quite valuable and we’re really proud to be able to have such a substantial thing attached to our property.”
The couple has lived in the home for about seven years, taking advantage of the trail for quick bike trips to downtown. They also attended one of Deery’s workshops to help prepare tiles for the early stages.
“They were fun to do. You know, you’re pushing the clay around and so on,” Zieset says. “If you’re even the slightest bit artistically inclined or just curious about how the materials work, clay is one of the best ones to work with because it’s so, so easy to work with.”
Funding the project could also be lumped into Deery’s “passion” category. She hoped to land a grant or large donation at the onset, but instead it’s been fueled by small individual givers along with materials from Vital Spaces, Bullseye Glass and Resourceful Santa Fe. To get involved, visit generations.equalarea.com
Murals Mapped Out
From decades-old panels and faded glory to new works, SFR suggests this beginner’s tour of significant murals in the city. Check out the interactive map above. (Please note: This is not a comprehensive list. Submit your contributions of other works with pictures, addresses and artist info to firstname.lastname@example.org for future updates.) Read more about the first five murals on the facing page.
1. “I love that the focus of this piece was about process,” Diné artist Nani Chacon told SFR of her mural at The Coe Center last February. “It’s remarkable to me that there isn’t a lot of public art in Santa Fe that is solely dedicated to Indigenous people.”
2. Santa Fe’s newest large-scale mural found New Mexico artist Pola Lopez returning from a stint in Los Angeles and working with local group Three Sisters Collective to touch on local and Indigenous issues across six pottery shards containing emotional and political ephemera. Look closely to see Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Corn Maiden and much more.
3. It’s been 10 years since Obey artist Shepard Fairey came to the now-defunct Santa Fe University of Art and Design and completed his pro-art/anti-war mural as part of the Artists for Positive Social Change series. Sure, it’s a bit odd that a work from such a notable artist sits quietly on a mostly unused campus, but with revitalization efforts underway, it could get more attention soon.
4. Peruvian collective Amapolay partnered with Santa Fe’s Alas de Agua and Three Sisters to create this ode to growth and agrarian ancestry at the community--sustained Full Circle Farm plot of farmland adjacent to Reunity Resources Farm in 2021.
5. Late artist Glenn Strock faced no shortage of controversy over his untitled mural on West Alameda when its imagery included a conquistador on horseback extending a sword toward a kneeling Native man. Strock updated the piece with public input before his 2020 death.
6. Julie Deery: The mosaic Generations will span about 130 feet along the Santa Fe Rail Trail north of Siringo when completed.
7. Eliza Naranjo Morse: Between July 13 and 23, the Santa Clara artist will be extending her mural All Together. Making our Way. Every day. Medicine. inside the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian near Museum Hill.
8. Alas de Agua: El Agua es Vida/Water is Life, created in collaboration with several artists, wraps colorful landscapes and local icons around three of the four interior walls at the Salvador Perez Recreation Center pool.
9. An array of flowers courtesy of the muralist regulars of Three Sisters Collective decorates a wall facing the Santa Fe River Trail about a quarter-mile south of the bridge under Camino Alire.
10. Jay Smiley: Though Diné artist Smiley was living near Gallup when he completed his untitled mural on Agua Fría near the Siler Road intersection, he calls Tempe, Arizona, home now. “I didn’t really have a blueprint,” Smiley tells SFR of the piece outside a locally-owned AirBnB. “We just wanted to make sure there was lots of color.”
11. Godfrey Reggio/Yerf Dog Scripto: See Whiteboards from Once Within a Time on Lena Street, an evolving space curated by Axle Contemporary co-owner and co-founder Matthew Chase-Daniel. Did we mention Reggio is the legendary filmmaker behind Koyaanisqatsi?
12. Sam Leyba: The work Our Lady of Justice appears on two sides of a building now surrounded by the sunken Canyon Road parking lot just south of Delgado Street. Look for the red and yellow ray design poking above street level.
13. Zara Kriegstein: Only a few of the late Kriegstein’s murals are still visible from Santa Fe streets, including a massive, albeit massively faded, fresco at Empire Builders facing Cerrillos Road south of Second Street. (She was part of the team of artists who worked together on the Multicultural mural at the Halpin Building, which was destroyed for construction of the Vladem Contemporary but is due to be part of a both a re-creation and AR display when the museum opens in September.)
14. Frederico Vigil: On the second floor of the historic building designed by John Gaw Meem at 102 Grant Ave., Vigil painted Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on the 150th anniversary of the treaty’s 1848 signing. It forms the backdrop for meetings of the Santa Fe Board of County Commissioners.
15. Zara Kriegstein: See? Told you she did a lot. A four-panel mural by Kriegstein moves through history in the hallway of Santa Fe Municipal Courthouse at 2511 Camino Entrada, including the late Judge Tom Fiorina and his famous acceptance of turkeys in lieu of fines around the holidays.
16. Dan Isaac Bortz: A psychedelic piece about regeneration and growth, Shedding the Darkness to find the Light Within, created in 2013 along the Rail Trail near Pen Road.
by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington
In the late 1990s, I visited Barcelona, Spain, where I was overwhelmed by the colorful variety of street art that outmatched any American city I had ever experienced. Since then, I began imagining my ideal city. In it, every wall is creatively and artistically painted. Centerpiece murals created by collective efforts, usually involving teenagers, individualize every building. Themes have been chosen by group input.
The murals in my ideal city will never have to be effaced. There will always be new constructions being built, including housing projects, hospitals or playgrounds. Every new wall is a fresh canvas. Most importantly, in my dreams, ubiquitous murals represent a cooperative social spirit, where each generation proposes new images and murals.
But this is a sweet fantasy.
In real time, money talks. Commerce outbids creative visions. Property owners argue that wall art threatens their interests. Mural imagery may—or may not—please business interests or conform to status quo social standards. Given the various commercial, legal and civic concerns influencing projects, wall space for muralists remains limited.
While writing poems for my new collection, Legible Walls: Poems for Santa Fe Murals, I spoke with an old-school Santa Fe muralist who complained that, back in the 1970s, having art “outside” was considered tasteless. But now when he walks Canyon Road, every other gallery displays a few wares outside, hoping to attract customers inside. I love how this story defines the differences between commercial gallery art and street art.
Art primarily meant to entice patrons inside (where they will make traditional purchases) is signage; mural art may be similarly showy, loud, seeking attention. But that’s all it asks. It is a social act freely addressed to the public.
Mural art tends to blossom alongside activist movements that have an urgent message—like Brown Beret-inspired murals that flourished in Santa Fe in the early ‘70s, or the Black Lives Matter murals that spread across the country in 2020 and 2021. They can be repositories of cultural lore, or conduits of radicalizing community messaging. Mural-magic in either case lies in achieving a reciprocal relationship with the public. It is successful when great numbers of people not only like it, but read evolving meanings into it, like a postcard to future generations.
Legible Walls Launch
6 pm Thursday, July 20. Free
Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse
202 Galisteo St., (505) 988-4226