Jardin de Mesquite Gateway, on the corner of Spruce Ave. and Tornillo St., features beautiful, tiled murals depicting life as it was in the Historic Mesquite District through snapshots of people, places, and things. Captions of information on the tiles hint at a bigger story behind the scenes, sparking the imagination as well as providing historic context.
When looking at the detail of the murals, it’s obvious that the vignettes are based on authentic moments in time captured by the families and residents of the original townsite. How did this come about? I reached out to Irene Oliver-Lewis, whose name is on the dedication plaque at the site, to ask about the project. She invited her sister, Sylvia Camunez, to join our conversation. The sisters, known to their family and friends as las muchachas (the girls), have deep-roots in the Historic District and still live in their ancestral home.
Jardin de Mesquite, located on the corner of Spruce Ave. and Tornillo St., is the northern gateway to the Historic Mesquite District. Artwork © Court Youth Center
“Sylvia was President of Las Esperanzas at the time,” said Oliver-Lewis. “She spear-headed the project.” Las Esperanzas is a grassroots neighborhood organization whose mission is to preserve the history of the Mesquite District. There were many people involved in bringing the project to fruition, but ultimately, “it was the neighborhood that brought the garden to the City,” says Camunez.
The artwork within the gateway park was created by Court Youth Center/Alma d’arte Charter School students under the supervision of artist Ken Wolverton. The tiled murals are composites of actual photos of residents from the neighborhood. “Ken Wolverton had neighborhood residents bring in photos and scanned them all,” said Camunez. “There were maybe 300 to 500 images scanned! That’s where the designs came from.” The exception was the image of Pablo Melendres, one of the founding fathers of the original townsite. "There were no images of him, so we had to modify and make up our own. We knew he was a farmer and knew his past, and that's how we came up with that image." Another source of images was from a previous oral history exhibit that had been done at the Court Youth Center. “It took almost a year to put the art for the park together,” recalled Camunez.
Founding father Pablo Melendres image (right) was created for this project because there were no photos of him. Artwork © Court Youth Center
The student artists chose the photos that would be used in the project from the hundreds of scanned photos and grouped them together to tell a story. “The kids hand painted the photos onto blank white tiles, Ken did the color design, and then they were fired in the museum kiln. Each tile is completely handmade," said Oliver-Lewis. "There was lots of guidance from Ken of course, and Sylvia was always there behind the scenes. The youth who participated were in the after-school program at Court Youth Center and just happened to attend Alma d’arte," she added.
Some of the images used are near and dear to Las Muchachas. "The St. Genevieve Church panel has a photo of Sylvia's wedding. There's four people; Sylvia is the bride and our sister is the Maid of Honor," said Oliver-Lewis. "The panel also shows me in my First Communion outfit. And in the 50's panel, our brother is one of the teens in the image. We didn't choose the photos, it was a coincidence. It's just a really beautiful project."
Las Muchachas, Sylvia Camunez and Irene Oliver-Lewis are in this panel. Sylvia is the bride in the foursome bridal party in front of the church. Irene is one of the girls in the white dresses. The Court Youth Center/Alma d'arte student artists chose these images randomly for the project. Artwork © Court Youth Center
The result is a wall that perfectly captures the nostalgia of a close-knit community in a bygone era. It also preserves the history of the original townsite as told by the people who lived it, that will resonate with visitors for years to come. The tiled murals uniquely beautify this neighborhood gateway that provides a space for rest and reflection. "The Jardin really has a lot of history that isn't documented anywhere," said Sylvia. Las Muchachas agree that it's one of the prettiest parks in the city, just underutilized. “It's a great place to have a picnic.” And to look at beautiful art.
Dedication plaque with names of Court Youth Center/Alma d'arte student artists who participated in the project. Artwork © Court Youth Center
Jardin de Mesquite courtyard wall with all the tiled murals. Artwork © Court Youth Center
Rubber Ducks blog is brought to you by the Las Cruces Public Art program to share ideas, information, discussions, trends, and all things public art. Please send comments and ideas for future blogs to PublicArt@lascruces.gov.