ALAMOSA — Over the last 18-plus months, professionals in the health community have reached out to engage with the public perhaps more than anyone can recall in recent memory. Messages on billboards. Articles in local newspapers. Catchy phrases that can be easily remembered. All created to communicate key information related to people’s health.
Now, the Colorado Area Health Education Center (COAHEC) in association with the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center has envisioned a unique way of speaking to people. Remember the phrase “a picture speaks a thousand words?”
In communities throughout Colorado, COAHEC is commissioning the creation of “informative and beautiful murals” bearing health-related messages. But the organization is going one step further. Instead of a one-mural-fits-all approach, they are seeking to “speak” in a language people identify with and understand, a powerful, evocative, visual language that culturally resonates with who people are and reflects the specific community where those people live.
And they’re using the hands and imaginations of exceptionally talented, local artists to do it.
“The dovetailing between art and medicine… speaks to traditions of healing that are deeply embedded in unique cultures and helps western medicine and cultural healing to not only co-exist but to become one,” the website says.
The woman behind the work
When sculptor, painter and designer Bianca Maestas says she has “always had art in her life,” she’s not exaggerating. Born in San Luis into a family of well-known artists, Bianca’s earliest memories are of, as a baby, being placed beneath a pottery wheel, hearing it turn and smelling the clay. She remembers hearing her father teach a class on color theory when she couldn’t have been more than 3 years old. At the age of 12 years old, she was already working alongside her father in his foundry.
“By the time I was doing my own artwork,” Maestas says, “it wasn’t something I had to really even learn. It was almost like a muscle memory in my hands.”
If there is a case to be made for the power of both nature and nurture in influencing who people become, Maestas is it. But this native of the San Luis Valley is much more than a sum total of her genes and early immersion into the world of art. The land where she grew up also played, and continues to play, a significant role in her work.
“I was always around art, but I was also around a lot of farming,” she says. “My grandmother was an amazing gardener, and I grew up knowing all the herbs and eating healthy food that came from the earth. There’s a lot of history here. That’s why I like the Lady of Guadalupe — not in a religious sense but because she reminds me of my grandma. When I think of her and this area, I think of healing plants. Healing plants portray the Valley to me.”
And the harmony of those elements — her inherent understanding of color that can be seen in her painting, her sense of space that comes from sculpting and her history of a personal connection to healing plants reminiscent of her grandmother — run throughout the vibrant, engaging mural Maestas was commissioned to create on the walls of the AHEC building on Ross Street in Alamosa.
The project was truly collective with several community meetings held where people were asked what colors they wanted to use and what symbols they wanted to see in the mural. Bianca also collaborated with COAEHC and incorporated their medical messaging into the design.
But, at the organic level, the mural embraces what Maestas sees as symbolic of the SLV.
“I wanted to portray those medicinal plants that grow here — herbs and flowers,” Maestas says. “And, of course, the medicine wheel. I also know a lot of people who are healers and used a photograph of a friend who practices healing.”
Her overall concept of “old medicine and new medicine” is not only reflective of the marriage between traditional healing and western medicine but something that she has witnessed growing up in San Luis.
“I’m definitely a believer in science and modern medicine,” she says, “But it always comes back to drinking the teas and using the herbs that keep people alive. It really is…like a circle. And there were so many different ways to represent that.”
The project was funded with money from COVID relief, requiring images related to COVID be part of the mural. It was a requirement Bianca endorsed. A pandemic is a historic event. Also, a significant loss her family suffered likely because of the virus, made it personally imperative. And, so, she did it in her own way.
“I wanted it to be easy on the eyes. Easy on the spirit,” she says.
The mural, which covers all four walls of the building, was completed after 10 days of intense work, thanks to help from a small, diverse group of locals who stopped by and contributed their time.
When asked how the whole project came together so quickly and still resulted in a mural that is genuinely “informative and beautiful” and born of her own imagination, Bianca thinks for a moment before answering. “I had a vision of what I wanted to do and then…I just let my hands take over.”
Due to concerns related to COVID, the ribbon-cutting ceremony has been postponed until further notice with more information coming. In the meantime, the mural can be seen at SLV AHEC located at 300 Ross Ave. in Alamosa.
Maestas wishes to express her deepest gratitude to Leslie Minnis of Taos, her niece, Soleil Maestas, Jeremiah Benton, Augustina Briones, Davion Fisher, and Roy and Jaydan Sanchez who contributed their time and energy to help complete the mural. She also thanked COAHEC and SLV AHEC who made the project possible.
Her other works can be seen on Instagram @bianca_sketchgarden or her website www.biancamaestas.com
To learn more about the mural project, go to murals-overview.pdf (cuanschutz.edu).
This project was supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $190,910 with 50 percent funded by HRSA/HHS.