Muralists trying to help Uvalde soothe unimaginable pain
The school shooting at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School not only stole children and teachers, but also a community’s sense of itself. But now there’s a major artistic effort to try to help Uvaldeans heal.
On a recent Sunday morning, it was already sweltering at 9:30am and Tino Ortega is up on a lift painting a massive wall.
“We're actually in the heart of Uvalde. And we're here just painting murals of the victims,” he said.
This project has created one mural apiece for the 19 students and two teachers killed on May 24th. Artist and El Pasoan Ortega knows about this kind of grief.
“Back in 2019 on August 3rd in El Paso when we had the mass shooting there, we saw the community come together in so many ways,” Ortega said. “That's why I'm here now, because my gift is art, and I try to give back in any way that I can.”
Ortega was painting student Jailah Nicole Silguero. His choice of Jailah wasn’t by accident. It reminded him of his family.
“It really hit close to home because it made me think of my own daughter. It made me think, wow, this could be me,” he said. “So I'm just glad that I have support from her family. They've been here every night, dropping off waters, just hanging out.”
Houston Muralist Anat Ronen came down from her lift to talk. She’s impressed by the positive feeling in the other muralists’ work.
“You can feel the good energy coming out, in the sense of not forgetting and moving on, but honoring and celebrating life,” she said.
Ronen chose to paint athletic Tess Maria Mata.
“Tess was incredibly good in softball and she loved Jose Altuve, She liked the Houston Astros,” Ronen said.
Given that there was a cartoon-style and a photographic-style cat on her mural, it’s apparent that Tess was a cat lover.
“She had a cat—Oliver—and I represented it here,” Ronen said. “The family came yesterday a few times and they're very excited, very appreciative. And it's really emotional.”
No amount of murals can ever change what happened. But they might affect the way forward, if slightly.
“It doesn't change the horrific nature of it, but it helps people to cope with it, maybe and then try to continue on with their lives,” Ronen said.
The Austin muralist who goes by the name of Uloang was cheery despite his four hours sleep.
“Painting a mural in summer outdoors is in Texas is something I try to avoid,” Uloang said. “In fact, I have several murals on hold because it's just too hot.”
The heat didn’t keep him from volunteering his sweat equity into the mural project. But it did determine when he painted.
“I would get here at 6 a.m., work till maybe noon until it became unbearable, and then come back at 7:30 p.m. and work till one or 2 a.m.. And last night we were here till 5 a.m.,” Uloang said.
His portrait is enormous—a little girl in a stream filled with lily pads and koi fish.
“I painted Maranda Mathis. Her mom, Deana, mentioned that she loved being in nature, being outdoors, picking up rocks from the ground,” he said.
Painting the portrait from a picture Deanna gave to him, Uloang has Maranda’s eyes locked with you the viewer, and she’s reaching toward you.
“In the original picture, she was holding river rocks. But when I was sketching it, I decided to put an amethyst crystal in there,” Uloang said. “She told me that when she saw that it was Amethyst Crystal in the sketch, she got chills because that's Deana's birthstone.”
For these artists as they painted and saw the children emerge where once was a blank wall, it was an emotional experience.
“I could see her personality coming through. And I just kind of felt like, ‘oh, hi, Maranda. There you are!’ I could barely hold it together when that was happening. Definitely shed a few tears,” he said.
Texas embraces mural art. And in a small town like Uvalde, a project like this can move the needle in a town’s self-concept. Any large mural project needs someone to find the paint and secure locations. In this case it’s Austin’s Monica Maldonado, who runs the non-profit Mas Cultura. The shootings were personally staggering to her.
“I knew that I have to come down to Uvalde to pay my respects and to gain some sense of peace, if that even makes sense,” Maldonado said.
She drove to Uvalde, went to Robb Elementary, and stopped in front of each memorial cross for every child and teacher.
“And at that moment, I knew that God was going to use me,” she said. “I didn't know how, but I knew that I would be involved in some way in the journey of healing for Uvalde.”
Maldonado wasn’t the only artist feeling that they need to do something. Early on, Uvaldean and art professor Abel Ortiz had a vision.
“The idea was to make it monumental. So I said we need 21 murals across town,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz decided that each one of the victims deserved murals dedicated to exactly who they were.
“We never want to forget their faces. That's why they had to be murals of portraits and not just regular murals,” he said.
Ortiz got started securing walls and artists, but he only knew so many Texas muralists. He needed help, so Maldonado became project manager. Creating 21 murals is expensive: power-washing each wall before its first coat of primer, which goes at $170 for a five-gallon bucket. As to the total cost for materials per each mural, Maldonado said it’s not cheap.
“I would say we average, probably $1200 or $1500,” she said. “And that's just basic. That's not the artists, because they've all volunteered their time.”
The work has been split between 21 artists and helpers, three per weekend since July 9th. With 20-foot square murals, artists needed a lift to paint from. United Rentals from Carrizo Springs made several available for free.
“They drive every weekend, one hour here to deliver the equipment to us and then they come back to pick the equipment up at the end of the weekend,” Maldonado said.
The project’s expense is astronomical, but then there are the unexpected gifts.
“The first weekend we paid for our meals. And I think ever since that first weekend, we haven't,” she said. “The community has shown up with pasta, with salad, with fruit, with beverages.”
Throughout the day, cars show up and people get out of their cars to thank the artists. One family arrived and talked to Tino Ortega. Veronica Luevanos stood in front of Jailah’s mural, and next to Jayce Luevanos’s.
“That's my daughter. And that's my nephew,” she said.
Veronica Luevanos lost not one, but two beloved family members. She spoke about her daughter.
“She was an energetic little girl. She loved dancing, playing outside, being around her friends,” she said.
Luevanos provided that picture Tino painted from, a smiling Jailah in a dress with Uvalde on the front.
“It’s a Uvalde cheerleading outfit. Every Friday when it was football season, they would wear their uniforms to school,” Luevanos said.
I asked her what she would tell to those hearing Jailah’s story. She said to ‘love on your baby.’
“Just love on your baby. Love on your baby,” she said.
Artist Uloang hopes the murals can help Uvaldeans heal.
“All these children and everybody that was lost, they all have their own unique stories and personalities and they all had their own hopes and dreams,” Uloang said. “And hopefully these murals can help tell people what they were like, share a little bit about them, their personalities and their spirit.”
Two more murals created by local children are in the process of being painted.
If you would like to contribute to the Uvalde Mural go fund me account, go here.