November 23, 2016

Reflecting on Mexican Muralism

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WAM Collective members Lauren Gengler and Laurel Darling paint alongside U of M student Olivia Novotny.

On Friday, November 11th, international mural artist Rock Martinez hosted a talk and workshop at the Weisman Art Museum, speaking to students and community members about his work and the value of public art. Born in Tucson, Arizona and currently painting in Minneapolis, Martinez has spent his artistic career breathing life into urban spaces with detailed murals that feature native nature and local symbols.

Having started out painting graffiti as a high schooler in Tucson, Martinez spoke to the troubled atmosphere around spray-can culture, and the institutions that resist street art and tags as beautification, categorizing their makers as delinquents. As a teacher for nine years, Martinez put a can of spray paint in his students’ hands and passed on the lesson he’d learned as a youth: to see beyond stigma and use that tool for self-expression in a limitless capacity. Martinez’ work has certainly broached limitless. The murals he creates juxtaposes traditional wildstyle lettering with images so detailed and lifelike, it’s hard to believe they’re all aerosol.

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Rock Martinez working with assistant Cristina Perez on a mural in Tuscon. Image by Tuscon.com

Many of Martinez’ most prominent works span entire buildings in Tucson, a city with deep historical roots and a vibrant University community, and they are heavily influenced by the culture and climate surrounding them. In Arizona, that’s the sun and sand. Martinez discussed the importance of long shadows under his painted subjects and the reappearance of cacti, especially the valuable saguaro. As a theme, many of his murals feature human figures so entwined with the desert that they are becoming cacti themselves. Martinez’s work mixes the natural with the supernatural, illuminating the collective magic of environmental identity. Since relocating to Minneapolis, Martinez’ murals depict a different set of signs, owls, deer, wolves, and Prince, murals you might glimpse while trudging through the snow in Uptown.

After discussing his work, Martinez led students in making a mural of their own. Two days after the election, the ambience in WAM’s Shepherd room was uncertain and moreover heartbroken. It had been a tumultuous semester, played out in disputes over hate speech on the murals that line the Washington Avenue bridge and politically-motivated assaults against students of color. Martinez directed the young artists in painting a new bridge, one characterized by hope and loving community, stretching over organizations of greed and unequal power. Candles lit up the crowd gathered above, symbolizing both grief and fear lives and rights called into question, and the unextinguished fire burning in University of Minnesota students to to improve our world and turn it into a place where identities shape and strengthen our bonds, rather than divide us.

Thank you so much to Rock Martinez for sharing his art and wisdom with the patrons of the Weisman Art Museum. His presence was both an inspiration for aspiring muralists and a due reminder that public art forges urban renewal, aesthetic and communal.

Mexican Muralism was an artist workshop put on by the WAM Collective, the Weisman Art Museum’s student group, in conjunction with the Weisman Art Museum’s feature exhibition Pan-American Modernism. Pan-American Modernism will be on display in the galleries through January 1st. For information on the exhibition or more related programming visit www.weisman.umn.edu


Olivia Latimer is a junior at the U pursuing an Individually Designed Interdepartmental Major in Art, Anthropology, English and History. Olivia’s using her individualized degree to explore how cultural functions of storytelling shape our perception of the unknown and the other- and the social justice implications. Olivia’s interests include battling both vampires and misogyny, and someday she hopes to contribute her work toward telling responsible, captivating stories.