Turn the corner and your eye settles on a sculpture you’ve never seen before, didn’t even know existed. That’s okay. Many residents, and certainly visitors, may be unaware of the flourishing Art In Public Places program embraced by Las Cruces.
Public art has had a long history in the city. From the early 1900s, people donated artworks they thought everyone in the community could enjoy. This approach to public art, however, was haphazard. Not all art was welcomed. Some had stringent strings attached. Some has simply disappeared. Still public art has persisted.
In 2013, Las Cruces commissioned the City Art Board, comprised of seven volunteers. Members vary in age, business, and publicservice experience. Some are artists and some not. Their mission is to create a public art master plan, establish the vision and goals for public art in Las Cruces, and involve the community in the process.
As members of the City Art Board discussed and investigated public art master plans in New Mexico and cities in other states, they became more aware of other vibrant Art In Public Places (AIPP) programs. Then, as the city has grown, they saw the need for a more systematized approach, one that brought notable art created both by known and emerging artists into focus. Defining what public art is and why it’s important to a city is like trying to pick up a bead of mercury. “Public art is a major element in a community’s quality of life. It stimulates a sense of pride,” says Garland Courts, operations manager for City of Las Cruces museums. “Most people recognize a city’s quality of life . . . or if it’s missing. They can feel it, but it’s not something easy to define.”
However you look at it, quality of life encourages people to visit and even relocate here. It includes schools, churches, housing, shopping, parks and recreation, museums, performing arts, sports, and — of course — public art.
Lorenzo Zepeda, Las Cruces art program coordinator, says, “We assume we are all wired to experience beauty. The aesthetic experience is accessible to all of us. When we encounter an object or situation that momentarily lifts the veil from mundane life, we become open to possibilities we can reinterpret as reality. These are the moments when life finds meaning. Quality public art enriches our lives, if only for that moment, but that moment can change a life forever.”
While the first piece commissioned by the City Art Board, the Pride sculpture at the East Mesa Public Safety Complex, was created in 2016 by Karen Yank, an established New Mexico artist, the board also wants to involve local artists. “We seek a balance between commissioning nationally-recognized artists to produce beautiful art for the city as well as promote local artists, so they also benefit from AIPP opportunities,” says Rebecca Courtney, a member of the City Art Board.
The board will soon complete its master plan, which will be submitted to city council. It is working with Via Partnership, a public art consulting firm which has been involved with communities across the nation. “Together, we’ll engage the community through surveys, visioning sessions, workshops, and more to keep Las Cruces’ public art in line with the growth of our city,” Rebecca adds.
The next project up is a commission for the lobby of City Hall. The call for entries brought 78 applications. An art selection committee is evaluating each and will select three finalists, who will make public presentations. The finalists’ concepts will be presented to city council. “This will be just the first step in which those involved will offer a growing number of artworks that enhance and beautify Las Cruces,” Lorenzo says.
Although more public art is coming to Las Cruces, there’s much already here to enjoy. Branigan Library is the site of three major installations. At the Picacho Street entrance, you’ll find an abstract sculpture in Corten steel and rods. It’s entitled Unity in Diversity and was created in 1986 by Beverly Penn, Texas State University professor of studio arts. Penn graduated from New Mexico State University in 1987 with a Master of Arts degree.
Between the library and city hall are the Royal Highway sculptures that once graced the downtown mall. The Manso woman and child, Spanish wheelwright, buffalo soldier, and “modern” child were created in 1998 by Lee Anne and Tom Askman of Spokane, Washington. The pieces were cast by Northwest Arts Casting, Umapine, Oregon.
In Johnson Park, in front of the library, is the sculpture of Albert Johnson, the first African-American mayor of Las Cruces, 1976 – 1980. The sculpture was incorporated into the 2017 installation entitled La Entrada, which entails four panels showing Oñate’s entrance into New Mexico, thanksgiving in 1592, Manso snake dance at Tortugas Peak, and La Doña Ana Mendoza la Madrid. The panels were designed by Las Crucen Anthony Pennock in 2008 for the entrances to the downtown mall. The tiles were created by the late Shan Nichols. Anthony also painted the city’s water storage tanks.
Nearby is the bus stop with a design, entitled Celebrate, by Las Cruces artist Bob Diven. “Many functional and utilitarian items, like bus stops and overpasses, now have art elements designed into them,” Garland explains.
The familiar lions, created in 1968 by Barios Caballeros and donated by E.J. and Mable Stern, guard the entrance to city hall, a 2011 mosaic by Glenn Schwaiger brightens La Placita south of Rio Grande Theatre, and a Pieta is displayed on the corner of Main and Lohman. It was created for the Loretta Academy, which served local women from 1870 to 1943. While not owned by the city, the piece is still public art.
There’s even the popular Recycled Roadrunner, a highly visible sculpture at the I-10 scenic overview rest area just west of town. The sculpture, created by Olin Calk in 1993, was formed entirely from recycled materials to call attention to overconsumption.
That’s just the beginning. You can find a map of all Las Cruces’ public art at the city’s website: las-cruces.org. Click on Government, Quality of Life, Public Art, and then City Art Tour for a map showing the city’s public art.