If you happen to walk down University Boulevard on the UA campus as the sun goes down and look up at the trees framing Arizona State Museum, you will see giant faces peering down at you, smiling, yawning, sleeping, laughing.
Australian artist Craig Walsh‘s “Monuments,” a multimedia exhibit that Arizona Arts Live opened on the University of Arizona campus last week, reexamines the often exclusive nature of traditional monuments.
Instead of focusing on long-gone historically well known figures, “Monuments” shines the spotlight on local heroes while they are still alive.
Three of those local heroes joined a group of about 30 people for the opening Thursday, Oct. 29, walking along the moon-lit path in the warm desert night breeze as their images were cast on the trees in front of the Arizona State Museum.
As the eerie green faces loomed from the tangle of leaves, students and passersby stopped in their tracks, mouths gaping. Some crossed the street to get a better view.
“There’s a face in the tree!” a young girl cried out, pulling the arm of the girl beside her. “Its eye just blinked; its mouth is moving!”
A committee of 15 selected Tucson’s “monuments” — Adiba Nelson, Felipe S. Molina and Isabel Garcia — for Walsh’s installation, a collaboration between Walsh and Arizona Arts Live, formerly UA Presents.
“It’s overwhelming. It’s surreal,” Nelson said as she stared up into her own towering face staring back at her from a tree. “It’s not anything that a girl from Queens ever dreamed about.”
Nelson is a public speaker, author and writer who focuses on inclusivity and accessibility in her work. As a mother of a child with a disability, she works to spread empowerment, fairness and visibility for communities with disabilities. Her children’s book, “Meet ClaraBelle Blue,” was inspired by the lack of representation of the disabled community in children’s literature.
Giddy laughter erupted as the tree-nymph version of Nelson yawned at the crowd. The onlookers were so excited and entranced by the tree-people, it was hard for anyone to take their eyes off the mesmerizing projected portraits.
“I was just telling my friend I didn’t know if anyone knew my work, what influence I was having or if what I did was being noticed, but I know it’s what I’m here for,” Nelson said. “And then a week later, I got the call from Chad (Herzog, Arizona Arts Live executive director).”
“I don’t like getting awards,” Garcia said with a playful groan. “I quibbled a lot with Chad, I’m not a monument! The reason I’m here is because of a sad thing.”
A graduate from the UA, Garcia, who earned two degrees, has fought for migrant and civil rights for over 40 years. She co-chairs the Tucson-based grassroots organization Coalición de Derechos Humanos and helped form No More Deaths.
“I’m not here because I know how to sing or dance,” she said. “It’s a little sad and joyful at the same time.”
The third monument subject, Molina, is of the Yoeme/Yaqui people. He says he never thought he would see something like live monuments in his lifetime.
Molina has done a lot of bridging work between the Yoeme people and the Tucson community, including writing a dictionary of Yoeme-English English-Yoeme translations.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “I’m gonna bring my friends by.”
Walsh, who didn’t want to travel during the COVID-19 pandemic, interviewed around 10 people from Tucson and chose Larry Gaurano as his artist assistant for the Tucson project. They collaborated remotely so that Walsh could share the tricks of his trade with Gaurano.
“Getting each monument to warm up to the camera was the most difficult part,” Gaurano said. “It was fun to meet them, they are such humble people.”
Arizona Arts had already been planning to bring Walsh’s work to campus pre-pandemic and it turned out to be the perfect event that could still function under COVID-19 guidelines.
Sunday Joyahnah Holland is a University of Arizona journalism student apprenticing with the Arizona Daily Star.
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