Doorways Into the Future
By Kevin Klein
NOVEMBER 10, 1997: They stand in defiance of the elements, marching through the arch toward history and destiny. They are the steel figures of Puerto Del Sol, at the base of sacred Tomé Hill in the town of Tomé, near Los Lunas. Native American buffalo dancers, deer dancers and a woman carrying water to corn stalks seem to move while a procession of native guides, goats, sheep, conquistadors, pack animals, sheepherders and priests move through the enormous gate, covered in steel viga-like bumps, toward the solitary hill with three crosses on its crest. Following shortly behind are railroaders and a menacing man with a sombrero. The 33 3/4-inch thick steel figures include 156 outlines and fill the valley with a moving tribute. The large-scale sculpture represents the historical procession of the Spanish and Anglo cultures up the Rio Grande along the Camino Real and the Native peoples they found when they arrived.
It sits off from a road filled with mobile homes against a hill that is used by off-roaders and target shooters. The hill itself is the site of pilgrimage where, on holy days, processioners and priests bless the valley and the crops.
The sculpture, scheduled to be dedicated Nov. 1 is the second work in a statewide project called "Cultural Corridors: Public Art on Scenic Highways," an innovative use of New Mexico State Highway Department beautification funds. It is a program unique in the United States: Funds of this kind are usually used to better or beautify the highway or road, and landscaping and bike paths are common uses of the money.
The $1.2 million dollar, three-phase public sculpture project began in 1994, using funds from the Federal Highway Bill of 1991. Eighty five percent of the funds for each project's $100,000 per site cost comes from the State of New Mexico via the Highway Bill. Each community contributes $10,000 in cash, the land for the piece, and whatever else necessary in the form of in-kind donations. The multiphase, multisite program will venerate the famous roads in New Mexico: Route 66, and the Camino Real.
The Camino Real is the ancient roadway that connected Santa Fe to Mexico City, and connected ancient Pueblo tradeways into a unified trail that was the life blood of New Mexico's Spanish Colonial history. The Real roughly parallels I-25. Route 66 is the modern equivalent and is the longest and oldest established road in the United States. Running from Illinois to California, Route 66 was, from the 1920s until its decommission in the 1970s, the road of song and lore, immortalized in the television show of the same name starring Martin Milner, Nat King Cole's song "Get Your Kicks on Route 66" and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Most of Route 66 lies under I-40, and in Albuquerque, it resides under Central Avenue.
"The project puts together two transportation systems that criss-cross New Mexico," says Richard Hooker, project coordinator. "Half will be along Route 66, the other half along the Camino Real. The project is really about transportation, touring and the adventure of traveling. It's also about how the transportation system drove the evolution of our culture."
"I used local people as models, I don't know their names, really," says Puerto Del SolGallup-based sculptor Armondo Alvarez, 58. "Some thought I was going to make a sculpture of them, and I had to tell them, 'No, no, you are like actors in a play.' I used a local Franciscan monk as the padre, but I made him a few inches taller. He had already walked a long road in sandals."
Alvarez has produced numerous works in the public arena around the state including We the People,a 300-foot-long wall, and the Wall of Honor,a memorial for officers killed in the line of duty. He is at work currently on The Miners,another public art sculpture in Raton. "It's really great because I was born where the trail started in Mexico City, and now I live where it ended" says Alvarez. "I have studied this road since childhood. When the first settlers came to this area, what is now the United States, they came from the South. With them were Italians, English, Europeans. Everyone at that time came because they were in search of fortune. I feel very close to this. I spent every penny they gave me for that in the construction of the piece--120,000 pounds of steel and 70 cubic feet of reinforced concrete. I come from a tradition where public art is a part of living, part of being. Traditionally, artists don't make money with public art. It is an honor to do your work in public. In the United States, what is known as public art is mainly supported by public funds, like the $1 billion Getty Museum, for example, and I think it is beautiful that some of that is spent on art."
Phase One of the project, nearly complete, began the two-year cycles of the project that have communities in the driver's seat. The first work dedicated was Roadside Attraction, on Route 66 in Tucumcari in May of this year. It is a gleaming pyramid, covered in chromium steel, topped with an automobile's tailfin straight out of the late-'50s. A stylized "66" and three, long, glass red taillights fill the sculpture with the red light of travel. Slated projects include the communities of Las Cruces, Santa Fe, Santa Rosa, Moriarity, Grants and Socorro. Phase Two includes Santa Fe and Truth or Consequences. The third phase, if funded, will include four other sites, including a second in Albuquerque. For most of these communities, it is the largest single public arts project in their history, including Albuquerque.
To gear up for the appropriate use of the funds, cities developed volunteer and arts arms previously nonexistent. Getting together the $10,000 plus land each town must provide for the project is no easy task, nor are some of the more mundane matters of simple organization. In Tucumcari, a committee of 12 volunteers selected Thomas Coffin's Roadside Attractionfrom the 120 nationwide entrants. For its dedication ceremony, a bicycle ride and local car show turned Tucumcari into a party.
The roadside art projects have, in some cases, become just a piece of a complex string of efforts by a series of governmental agencies. In Albuquerque, the first Cultural Corridors project is part of the plan to turn Barelas' South Fourth Street back toward the cultural limelight it once held. This block was a bustling mercado street, and efforts here may return it to its former glory. The section of road, once the main entrance into Albuquerque from the South, has fallen on hard times. In the 1970s, the city blocked access off of Fourth to create Civic Plaza, and traffic through the largely Hispanic section of south Downtown dropped off.
"Things are beginning to line up," says Gordon Church, head of the city's One Percent for the Arts program. Church was a lobbyist for the state's Arts Design program, one of the contributing elements in helping bring Barelas back. The city has brought in One Percent for the Arts money to install turn-of-the-century-style light fixtures, brick sidewalks, tile-covered pillars, mosaics and carefully landscaped mini-parks to transform the once-impoverished area. Ceramic artists Paz and Esteban Duran worked with kids in the community to create the tile works. Albuquerque Development Services is working to coordinate efforts at bringing in business interests and have begun work on an enormous obelisk in the small, oddly shaped park on the south end of Fourth. The South Broadway Cultural Corporation has extended its influence into the area to help with organization and whatever else.
The corner of Fourth and Avenida César Chávez is the site of Albuquerque's Camino Real Cultural Corridors sculpture that will be part of the second phase of the program. It is a neglected part of Albuquerque that desperately cries out for a Herculean effort, nothing short of a U-turn for a neighborhood. It is hoped by the neighbors of Downtown and numerous governmental agencies that this is the beginning of that change. Already the prospectus for the sculpture is finished, and the request for proposals is being arranged. It is part of a two-year-long process. Half of the Barelas project's costs will come from the One Percent for the Arts fund, as will a future sculpture on Albuquerque's portion of Route 66.
The city's arts program has become a model program for public art funding and structure. During an interview, Church fielded calls from Madison, Wis., and Gallup to help with procedural matters, loans and acquisitions. The program, started in 1978, is the oldest in the Southwest and one of the older ones in the Western states.
"All of our projects work with local artists and youth," Church says. "There are a number of projects in communities all over that say the practice of focusing your attention to a place gives you connection to it; and it's the local people, or it becomes hollow."
For Barelas, more than a window dressing is necessary. A number of homeless walk the area and a great number of historic but abandoned buildings lie dormant. It is difficult to imagine sculptures and tile walkways being of any help when the real need is strictly economic. It is as if the peasants are starving, and the art is an offer of cakes.
"It really hurt when they closed down Fourth Street," says Tom Sanchez, druggist at the B. Ruppe drugstore at 807 Fourth. Sanchez has been druggist at the store since 1961. "We need dry cleaners, bowling alleys, things for the community. I remember as a kid when we'd go see a movie at the Mesa, and we'd go to the Red Ball Cafe for a burger and an RC cola. We'd hitchhike home. You can't do that now, not with the people around here."
"I think people that come into my store like what is happening," Sanchez says. "They see the community on the way back. This neighborhood has been neglected for a long time, and it's a good thing that people are putting in the effort. When the storefronts are rebuilt, you'll see a different Barelas."
Despite the efforts, the turning of the tide is slow. Numbers of buildings are in varying states of decay. What is needed is a coordinator with the clout to help get grant moneys for renewal and lure the kinds of businesses that can bring people in. That takes time and money, and there is never quite enough to go around.
"It took 20 years for them to get there, and it'll take a few years for them to get back," Church says. "With Nob Hill, we were given the Gateways space free of charge because there were so many vacant buildings then. Artwork has an affect on a place because it provides visual reinforcement that this is an important area, and it helps accelerate that revitalization process."
The city's One Percent for the Arts has spent $30,000 on Barelas, and it is one of several agencies in the area acting on behalf of the community.
"These moneys are small, but we have the chance to do it, and so let's do it there," Church says. "What we can accomplish is visibility, and we want to connect it to the Hispanic Cultural Center. I hope it doesn't become SoHo. Have you been there? It's gentrified. I want to see an accentuation of the traditions of Barelas, and so far, that's what is happening."
The Red Ball Cafe, long the center of activity and good food in the neighborhood, is being rebuilt and will be the site of a White Castle Hamburger franchise.
"The Barelas area can become a specialty area not unlike Old Town," Church says, "but more real, because it has the chance to connect with the people that live there and have an economic expression. Some of the visits there will be cultural tourism. And the other visits are a where-can-we-eat kind of thing. Good quality places that are comfortable serves both of those. There are going to be more government workers looking for a place for lunch. Albuquerque isn't like the Rust Belt--a depressed down and out place. There are some definite social causes to the problems here, but we also have an income in terms of people and businesses. We want to make sure that there is an equitable distribution of the growth that the city is experiencing. Barelas has a key advantage in its economic redevelopment. Walgreens hasn't called to put one in down there," quips Church. "Yet."
No matter what the fate of Barelas, its sculpture, like the rest of the sculptures in the Cultural Corridors project, will no doubt serve to reflect its age-old struggles its hopes and, ultimately, its identity.
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