BLM New Mexico’s art program showcases people’s connections to the El Malpais landscape
Story and photos by Minerva Anderson, Director, New Mexico State Office of External Affairs
For more than 10,000 years, people have interacted with the El Malpais landscape within the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) New Mexico-managed El Malpais National Conservation Area (NCA). Today, through the El Malpais NCA staff’s partnership with the Public Lands Interpretive Association (PLIA), the interaction with this landscape continues through a multitude of projects within New Mexico, including the BLM’s El Malpais Community Art Program.
“The vision for this project was not only to acknowledge the communities that have connections, past or present, to El Malpais, but to also open a door to allow their artistic interpretation about what the land means to them to be shared with the site’s visitors,” said Jamie Garcia, Acting BLM New Mexico National Conservation Lands Youth/VRM Lead.
BLM provides funding to PLIA to manage the art program and pay artists a stipend, decided upon by BLM in conjunction with PLIA. The BLM also provides direction on how to go about the selection of the artists. This process is for both sculpture and small mixed media projects. For all art submissions, there is a panel of individuals from local art communities to help the BLM reach an informed decision on the finalists as well as the final selection.
The art that was recently hung in the BLM’s El Malpais NCA Ranger Station is only the beginning of what is to come with regard to the community art that will be shared at this special place.
Walter Torres, from HK Studios in Acoma, New Mexico, was recently chosen from a large pool of local Tribal community artists to produce a large, eight-foot-tall statue. Through this current project, named Tribo Electricity, BLM acknowledges the surrounding Indigenous communities that have called this area home for generations, and some who still have sacred ties to the land today. The sculpture will be revealed in Spring 2023.
Torres said that he wants the community and visitors to be inspired to make art or whatever a person’s dreams may be, and he hopes they will just create something and dream big.
“I want to let people know we, as Acoma people, are still here in this area and raise awareness about our history,” he said. "Maybe this will even inspire others to research where they come from and to discover who they are."
The sculptor said the inspiration for the Tribo Electricity piece, which depicts volcanic eruptions, came to him while researching volcanic eruptions and living below Mount Taylor, a dormant stratovolcano in northwest New Mexico, northeast of the town of Grants. It is the high point of the San Mateo Mountains and the highest point in the Cibola National Forest. It was renamed in 1849 for then U.S. President Zachary Taylor.
“The lava has always kept me in a state of awe knowing how strong this liquid is and the amount of heat and pressure needed to push this up through the earth—its eruptions also made its own electric weather, which was interesting to me, and all the minerals, gasses, heat and pressure are something else,” Torres said. “Seeing how much power volcanos have makes me think of how our Pueblo people have overcome so many challenges and we are still here, fighting to live. If we as native people were to come together like a volcanic eruption, we would be powerful as one voice.”
The small mixed media artists currently featured in the El Malpais NCA Ranger Station are Christian Bigwater (large, three-piece painting over the “Welcome to El Malpais NCA” wall), Marissa Irizarry (four paintings with correlating bead and leather works hung in the theater room), and the first youth artist, Nathan Chavarria, a 12-year-old, self-taught painter (a mountain and river piece that hangs in the Kids’ Corner).
Established in 1987, the El Malpais NCA protects nationally significant geological, archaeological, ecological, cultural, scenic, scientific, and wilderness resources surrounding the Zuni-Bandera volcanic fields.
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