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May 13

Tale of Two Lions

Posted on May 13, 2022 at 9:31 AM by Ceci Vasconcellos

Did you know Las Cruces has two lions named E.J. and Mabel? They sit tirelessly guarding the entrance into City Hall, Albert Johnson Park, and the Thomas Branigan Memorial Library, and graciously wear hats or scarves placed on them occasionally by well-meaning individuals. The lions are also the City’s first sculptures on record in our public art collection.

The beautiful bronze lion sculptures, located at the entrance of 700 N. Main Street, were donated in 1968 by local entrepreneur, farmer, and philanthropist Eugene J. Stern. Mr. Stern (or E.J.) had seen a pair of similar lions on a trip to Mexico, and 23 years later, E.J. commissioned Mexican artist Señior Modesto Barrios Caballero for a similar pair to donate to the City. The art commission totaled $25,000. The lions were officially presented on August 9, 1968 and placed on the porticos on either side of the then new city hall building on Church Street, serving as guardians of the building. 

Eugene J. Stern sitting on base of City Hall Lion. Photo Credit: jmaw.org

Street view of former City Hall on Church Street with lion sculptures in front. Photo: The Paper

Top photo: E.J. Stern with City Hall lion. Photo Credit: JMAW.org  Bottom photo: Lions guarding old City Hall. Photo credit: The Paper (Albuquerque)

In 2010, when the City of Las Cruces completed the current City Hall facility, several different locations were considered for relocating the lions before City Council decided the northwest entrance to City Hall was best. It provided a grander gateway, not only to the new City Hall, but also to the library and Johnson Park as well. It also created a deeper sense of place to the entire site and functions as a landmark for the public. 

But get this – until the move to their current home -- the lions didn’t have names. People referred to them as the City Hall Lions or the Stern Lions maybe or, as I used to call them when I was a kid playing on them while my mom was paying bills, the Fun Lions. When the City moved the bronze lions to their new home, it was decided it was time to give them a name. The public was invited to suggest possible names for the pair and then vote for their favorite via an online poll. A few of the names considered were “Red and Green” (meh), “Lucy and Crucey” (different), “Don and Ana” (funny but no). The winning name was E.J. and Mabel (naturally) with “Freedom and Justice” coming in a close second.

Who were the Sterns? E.J. and Mabel Stern lived in Las Cruces beginning in 1917. His first business was the Popular Dry Goods retail store in downtown Las Cruces, which now houses Boneyard Cantina and Zeffiros Pizzeria. Later, he founded Mutual Building and Loan and opened another retail store called The White House which eventually became Dunlap’s, another staple of old Main Street. That is just a sample of E.J.’s many business ventures.  As philanthropists, the Sterns funded scholarships for NMSU students, donated funds to every church in Las Cruces in the 1930’s, established the Salvation Army in Las Cruces, founded a chapter of the Boy’s Club of America (now the Boy’s and Girl’s Club of America still located in the original building and property), helped establish the first Dona Ana County Fair, and so much more. They supported the Arts obviously, giving the city two beloved, bronze lions who perpetually stand guard over city facilities and wear funny hats now and then. 

Mabel and EJ sculptures on either side of entrance to parking lot with city hall in background.

Mabel and E.J. standing guard at City Hall location. Photo credit: Ceci Vasconcellos

Rubber Ducks blog is brought to you by the Las Cruces Public Art program to share ideas, information, discussions, trends, and all things public art. Please send comments and ideas for future blogs to PublicArt@las-cruces.org.

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Apr 25

Primavera (Springtime)

Posted on April 25, 2022 at 11:19 AM by Ceci Vasconcellos

Spring is here at last! Flowers are blooming, leaves are turning green, and gardens are being planted. It seemed a good time to showcase one of our newest and brightest painted murals with an agricultural theme – Tierra Sagrada (Sacred Earth) located at the Thomas Branigan Memorial Library amphitheater. 

The Tierra Sagrada mural backstory is one of community partners coming together at a time of need. In 2019, non-profit organization Cruces Creatives received a grant for a community mural. The organization hired artist Eugenia “AO” Carmona to design and coordinate a paint-by-number style mural on an exterior wall on their facility. The design was approved by the community, and all was set to go. Then there was a serious glitch; the designated location was promised to another mural artist and just like that, the project had no location for the mural. Time was running out on the grant. They needed another location quickly. Not to be deterred, Cruces Creatives begin looking for another wall and fortunately, thought of the library. 

The library had an aging mural that had been on the amphitheater wall since 1998, painted by Las Cruces High School Art Club. When Cruces Creatives came calling, it was serendipity. “Yes, we have a wall! Yes, we would love to partner with you. Wait, you need it when?!” The deadline for the project was extremely short considering government standards. However, as the old adage says, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Everyone involved had a will to get this done. 

Previous mural by LC Art Club shows abstract symbols and designs  in red, blue, black on white.

Above: LCHS Art Club Mural from a distance (Photo Credit: Unknown)  

Below: LCHS Art Club Mural close up (Photo Credit: Murals of Las Cruces)

Previous mural by LC Art Club shows abstract symbols and designs  in red, blue, black on white.

Previous mural by LCHS Art Club shows abstract symbols and designs  in red, blue, black on white.

Previous mural by LCHS Art Club shows abstract symbols and figures  in red, blue, black on white.

The pieces fell into place unusually fast; City building services sent a crew to prepare the wall with new plaster and a base coat of white paint. Cruces Creatives scheduled dates and times on three consecutive dates for painting and sent out a city-wide public invitation to join in the fun. The artist added the outline for the mural to the blank canvas of the wall. Incredibly, despite the hiccups and uncertainty of the project, it came together. All was ready for the big painting adventure. 

 And big it was. Over 300 community members showed up over the three-day period to brush paint from numbered cups onto the corresponding section of the design. The finished mural has bold, rich colors combined with abstract geometric shapes and larger than life depictions of objects that illustrate the fertile agricultural history of the Mesilla Valley. It beautifies the walls of the library’s amphitheater reactivating the purpose of the space, which is to provide a happy place for people to gather. It’s also visible from the interior of the building through the library windows, providing a beautiful view for patrons.  

Community members standing on ladders and on ground painting section of Tierra Sagrada mural.

Community members painting mural. (Photo Credit: Cruces Creatives)

Family sitting on sidewalk painting section of Tierra Sagrada mural.

Family painting mural together. (Photo Credit: Cruces Creatives)

Finished Tierra Sagrada Mural (Photo Credit: Karla Walton)

Tierra Sagrada Mural section shows bright colored peppers and abstract symbols.

Tierra Sagrada Mural showing section with sun face, brown and tan step design and colorful flowers.

Tierra Sagrada Mural shown in its entirety from a distance with gray clouds in a blue sky.

Like so much in nature, Tierra Sagrada popped up unexpectedly in a place where a beautiful mural had bloomed previously and faded. It took a lot of elbow grease, some gentle tending, and a little luck to bring it to life once more. Tierra Sagrada is there for all to enjoy and be inspired by for as long as it lasts, especially on a beautiful, spring day.

Rubber Ducks blog is brought to you by the Las Cruces Public Art program to share ideas, information, discussions, trends and all things public art. Please send comments and ideas for future blogs to PublicArt@las-cruces.orgRubber Ducks Banner

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Mar 24

Are We There Yet?

Posted on March 24, 2022 at 10:05 AM by Ceci Vasconcellos

A little over a year ago, during an unusually cold December when temperatures dipped far below freezing, a water main (a larger pipe that carries water from place to place) broke underneath a section of Earth & Cosmos, a tiled mosaic artwork in La Placita downtown. Water gushed from under the mosaic, in a geyser that threatened to flood the small walkway and properties nearby. Utility crews worked diligently to safely remove the section of mosaic located above the broken pipe but unfortunately, it broke into several large pieces.  

Earth and Cosmos tiled mosaic depicts an abstract of rivers, planets, valleys and stars.

"Earth and Cosmos" tiled mosaic in La Placita. Photo credit: Karla Walton

When I arrived in my new position as art program coordinator, I was informed of a damaged work of public art that needed to be repaired ASAP. After assessing the damage, I thought since the mosaic is embedded in concrete and the edges of the broken pieces are even, we could trim the concrete slab to create a thinner piece and reset it into the fresh concrete like puzzle pieces. Done! No one will ever know. Quick solution to a “simple” problem.  

Not so much. As I was kindly educated by the experts in our Streets Management program, it is not structurally safe or even feasible to fit broken concrete pieces into fresh concrete, especially in an active walkway. It doesn’t work on many levels – most of them safety related.  

In addition to the structural issues, here’s the thing with this mosaic. The artwork is a unique, beautiful, landmark piece with tiles from all over the world. This particular mosaic was installed in 2010 by artist Glenn Schwaiger, who was inspired by the earth and the heavens or night sky and sun to create the Earth and Cosmos theme for the walkway. The tiles are weathered from being outdoors so long. Replacement tiles are hard to find, and even if they are, the color will not match its adjoining section. The mosaic’s restoration requires a delicate process that takes time, expertise, and technique. Here’s the snag and it could be serious. There isn’t a universal process to follow because every mosaic restoration is different. We will have to create our own, and hope that it works. 

We are fortunate that the artist is available and willing to work with us to figure this out. The project is one of exploration. We need to find the best method of cutting away the tiles and cleaning them for reuse. Then begin assembling them to recreate the mosaic pattern before installing it in the walkway.   

Artist kneeling on broken section marking tiles with numbers and corresponding outline on paper.

Artist Glenn Schwaiger maps mosaic section to be used as reference during repair. Photo Credit: Ceci Vasconcellos

We will do this in detailed phases; the first phase, completed in July 2021, was mapping the damaged artwork so it could be safely moved off site and stored. The sidewalk was then temporarily patched. As we move to the next phase, we have begun testing methods of cutting the tile off the concrete slab. Once we perfect a process, the artist will be able to begin the meticulous work of reassembling the tiles like a jigsaw puzzle. 

Street crew loading mosaic section on back hoe.

City of Las Cruces crew carefully load mosaic section on pallet to safely move for storage. Photo credit: Ceci Vasconcellos

So, if you happen to be walking on Earth & Cosmos, you might notice a very small portion of the entire art piece is now paved.  Please know that the artist is carefully working to put it back to its former condition, tile by tile. We will in turn patiently wait to see how it turns out! 

Rubber Ducks blog is brought to you by the Las Cruces Public Art program to share ideas, information, discussions, trends and all things public art. Please send comments and ideas for future blogs to PublicArt@las-cruces.org

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