On Friday, September 27th, the Paint-by-Numbers Mural event at the Branigan Library took off with a bang, being met with well over sixty volunteers. The mural, funded by the Rumphius Foundation and designed by local artist Eugenia “AO” Carmona, began the weekend as a white wall with black outlines of images, like a giant coloring book. As the event continued, the outlines sprang to life as numerous community members of all ages grabbed brushes and added blues, browns, greens, oranges, reds, tans—a whole palette of the agricultural and natural colors in Las Cruces. Thanks to a numbering system that matched paint colors with particular outlines on the mural, everyone knew exactly what colors to paint where, so scores of people, many of whom had never met before, were able to work together almost immediately.
The mural held the attention of a multitude from the very beginning of the event. I arrived Friday at the library parking lot at 10:20 AM to find it was completely full as many had showed up right away, excited to get started. After finding a spot and walking to the mural, I went to get supplies to paint with the rest of the large group already painting. The supply area was in the shade close to the library, where the paints were all lined up on one table and the boxes full of paintbrushes were on another across from it. There I was met by a woman I would later discover was the artist, AO, who was there to assign attendees with paint and a specific number that the color aligned with. There were a few others around the supply area who welcomed people as they came in and helped to get newcomers settled with a brush and sent to AO for paint.
I was first assigned Color #21, a rich red for the chile pepper in the middle of the wall. I immediately got to painting with a large brush, soon to be replaced with a slightly smaller one that would fill in the edges. I was later joined in my chile-painting by a woman who told me she was a sign-language interpreter with a class from Oñate High School who were attending the mural painting as a fieldtrip. I would be able to talk to another woman with the same group later on in the day, and in both conversations, they discussed how imperative it is that students participate in art and similar creative outlets, particularly in a community context. Once I was done painting for the day and was helping clean or watching the mural progress, it was great to be able to see the class paint with such dedication and care.
Before finishing painting, I had the opportunity to fill in Color #25, a blue-tinted gray used for parts of the ear and mouth of the dog that was in the middle of the mural next to the chiles. There was something deeply relaxing about the process of painting, lulled by the sun as one either stood out in the bright New Mexican heat or sat on sunbaked sidewalks to paint the lower half of the wall. It was wonderful to be part of something bigger, especially when I was able to sign my name on top of the wall with everyone else’s signatures.
Of course, there was a lot more effort poured into the mural than just painting. Several volunteers spent hours focused on washing the used paintbrushes, sitting under the shade of the library building and using a combination of water and hand-sanitizer to clean off the paint. One of them was a woman named Marie, and after I was done painting, we were able to talk about the event. Both of us were excited about it and the value it has for the public. She told me that she had not been able to paint anything on the mural but stated that she enjoyed watching just as much if not more.
The volunteers who dedicated so much time to making sure paintbrushes were properly scrubbed for Saturday and Sunday’s use were truly some of the most valuable people there as they worked cheerfully to get the task done, talking and joking amongst each other. In between work to address other logistical needs, the mural designer AO would scrub brushes too. As for Marie, she stayed until all of the brushes had been completed before leaving. I hope the volunteers were able to sign the wall as well no matter whether they painted, as their help was incredibly valuable to completing the mural.
I met a few other new people as well, such as a student pursuing a master’s degree in physical therapy who showed me how to take a panorama. Later in the afternoon, a couple of the students who had been in the Oñate class were so kind as to bring back cupcakes for the few people who were still working at the mural at that point, which were all quickly eaten. All of those attending the event seemed to have a great time whether they had known each other previously or not, and the environment was constantly convivial and pleasant.
The mural was such a success on Friday that it had to end early at around 2:45 PM as Friday’s huge turn-out brought some concern that there might not be enough blank wall-space for all of Saturday and Sunday. By the time people had left, the wall showed an incredible amount of progress in comparison to how it started, proving just how much can be done when passionate people gather together.
I was able to stay longer, helping AO clean up with a couple of other individuals until approximately 4:30 PM. This mostly consisted of putting out damp rag towels to dry, organizing brushes by size to get them prepared for the next day, packing up boxes, and eventually moving items into a truck to drive them to Cruces Creatives so AO could get started on mixing paints for the next day. This process of cleaning up, according to the artist, is important in the same way it is to have a warm up and cool down when working out; this was part of the creation process just as much as putting paint on the wall. This statement reflected how vital it was that there were people willing to work throughout the mural-painting on cleaning the paintbrushes, as well as a few volunteers additional to myself who were willing to help clean-up after most had left.
I spoke with AO about various subjects off and on throughout the event. I was first able to talk with her about art throughout history and its changing connotations and levels of prestige and focus in society, where she discussed that mural-art has become very popular lately. AO discussed that she saw her art as a business that she is now trying to build up, at first having started with paintings and now primarily focusing on murals. Later on, she mentioned that while she had helped others with paint-by-number murals before, this would be her first time leading her own and she was floored by the amount of people who were willing to come and contribute to it in just the first day.
While cleaning up, AO told me that her inspiration for the piece came from the prompt word, agriculture. As she started the design, what she wanted the mural to look like slowly came to her, being influenced by folk art and a native tribe in Mexico. With its depiction of plowed fields, rain, and various vegetables among other beautiful images, it is easy to see how that which influenced AO is found in the work itself. The mural depicts not only the land but the hands that nurture and utilize it, and looking at it reminded me to be thankful for how much I benefit from the agricultural work of others.
The Branigan Mural is a gorgeous addition to downtown, a bright reminder of our community and our environment. Over 300 people came to help finish it, truly making it a public art piece. Whether painting or cleaning, everyone who participated were highly-valuable to the creative process. Speaking with AO made it clear how grateful she was for the huge turn-out as it blew away her expectations, especially regarding how much was done in such a short amount of time at the start of the project.
Whether you helped out that weekend or not, if you haven’t yet seen the finished project in person, drive down to the Branigan Library to view such a wonderful piece of art – and maybe check out a few books while you’re there!