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Summer 2014

Silver City, New Mexico: A Canvas for Imagination

Tucked in the hills next to the Gila (HE-la) National Forest of southern New Mexico is a city where artists are bringing history to life. Silver City, a community rich in Native American and Mexican culture, has a Youth Mural Program that puts paintbrushes in the hands of youth who then decorate the city walls with murals inspired by local culture and history. These vibrant murals have transformed Silver City into an ideal excursion for travelers interested in art, history, and culture.

In 2003, local artist Diana Ingalls Leyba approached the Mimbres Region Art Council (MRAC) and proposed a city mural program patterned after a similar project in Philadelphia. Together with Faye McCalmont, executive director of the MRAC, Leyba began raising funds for the program. After a mere 14 years in action, the MRAC’s Youth Mural Program has created a series of more than 30 artistic murals that cover walls throughout the city.

Each mural has a lead artist and several assistant artists who together direct the city’s youth in the process of design and creation. All the murals depict local history fused with the creative interpretation of the lead artist and the youth who design and paint the mural. According to Leyba, “The kids are an integral part of the design process. They start with a concept, and then they learn history and hear oral histories. A great deal of local history is in these murals.” The youth are involved in each step of the process as they learn about both their culture and the artistic skills necessary to create a mural.

Must-See Murals

In addition to the compelling stories of their origins, the murals themselves draw people to visit. Take a look at three popular murals and the histories that have inspired their success.

Fort Bayard History (above) Located in the main square on Bullard Street, this mural receives a substantial amount of attention from locals and visitors alike. Its bright colors make it one of the most iconic attractions in the city. The mural captures historic events of Fort Bayard, where some of the “Buffalo Soldiers” of the US Army were stationed in 1866. It also depicts images of Nazi prisoners of war and of nurses caring for tuberculosis patients.

Chihuahua Hill History (below) The Chihuahua Hill mural decorates the side of Manzanita Ridge, an antique and furniture store located in downtown Silver City on Bullard Street. Understanding Chihuahua Hill is an integral part of understanding the history of Silver City. Upon the top of the hill rests La Capilla, a historic chapel that for many years drew worshippers for religious services. This hilltop chapel was an important contribution made to the community by Mexican immigrants, who were beginning their lives afresh in New Mexico. The mural shows the community with houses lining the hills up to the chapel, the focal point of the piece.

Bless Me, Ultima! (below)This mural, located on the outside wall of the library, is a beautiful arrangement of mosaic and painted tiles. Inspired by the book Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, the mural represents Chicano (Mexican-American) culture in the United States. The novel, set in New Mexico, includes a brilliant exploration of the Chicano experience, a central perspective in Silver City’s community. The mural succeeds in capturing the essence of this coming-of-age novel.

Where Culture Meets Creativity

At a time when many American youth are losing touch with their roots, projects such as the Youth Mural Program are helping to keep youth in Silver City engaged in active cultural and historical pursuits. The children involved in the mural program “are effectively connected to their past, their present, and their future,” says McCalmont, “because they know that the murals are a relatively permanent part of the community.”

—Ashley Call

Photo Credit (from top): Larry Lamsa, Timothy Morrow, and Diana Leyba