When bold, new artwork is proposed, reactions can be strong; think of the outcry over the blue mustang outside Denver International Airport or Christo’s proposed draping of 6 miles of Colorado’s Arkansas River. Conspiracy theories still abound around the mustang’s placement which killed artist, Luis Jiménez, during construction and Christo’s river masterpiece never got off the ground.
Ten years after the installation of an art piece, the protests are much less frequent. That’s why the recent controversy over a mural by Leo Tanguma, a decade after its dedication took many by surprise.
Adding color and history to the Baca Elementary lunchroom, “Encuentro” tells a story of choices the way only Leo Tanguma can. When the mural was first unveiled at the school in 2007, Tanguma explained the meaning of the piece – a historical jaunt through Mexican history and a visual reminder of the outcomes from decision making. The mythological Mexican figure, La Llorona or the weeping woman, is featured prominently in the painting. The mural spans more than 30 feet and once hung in the Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center before being donated by Tanguma.
Like most of Tanguma’s art, the mural was designed to create controversy and a conversation. However, the controversy and conversation was not expected to be started by the school principal. Placed on leave in August of 2016, two days before the start of the school year, Principal Preston Wenz had asked a local gun company to sponsor the cost of printing t-shirts given to staff. When his Facebook account featured a thank you to the gun company, an investigation ensued into other online postings seen as racially insensitive and homophobic. In an interview with the Pueblo Chieftain, Wenz said, “I couldn›t find anyone to sponsor the shirts and I didn›t want staff to have to pay for them. I wasn›t even aware of the district›s policy and neither were people who›ve been here longer than me.”
It was his following comments that put the Tanguma mural in the crosshairs of district staff and community, «But looking back, I wouldn›t do it. I knew it might be a little controversial, but then again, we have a mural hanging in the school with the guns, the cleavage, the alcohol, the KKK member, and nobody›s ever said anything about that.»
Wenz’ comparison of appropriate cues in the school community brought renewed interest to the subjects in Tanguma’s mural which many claimed were too adult for the young minds at Baca Elementary. Others balked at the censorship of art and called for the painting to remain. At many Pueblo School District board meetings involving Baca Elementary and Principal Wenz, the Tanguma mural was also mentioned, causing the Tanguma family to issue a statement about the mural, “«Many of the children in Pueblo may be confronted with hostilities similar to those depicted in the mural, such as racism and violence. These images are more relevant now than ever due to an increase in discrimination and violence against minorities.”
The school district also made a statement in support of the mural through spokesperson, Dalton Sprouse, “The mural in its entirety is a historical and educational piece intended to provoke thought of two very different outcomes of our choices in life. One side of the mural shows tragedy and hardships, while the other depicts the joy of strong families and communities. A teacher is in the middle of the mural with a class of students who are eager to learn.»
While the Tanguma mural lives on in Baca Elementary’s lunchroom, Wenz was eventually fired in January for violating a district advertising policy but may stay involved in education as a consultant. Numerous Pueblo community members vouched for both his character and the work he accomplished while Baca school principal including his wife, more than two thirds of the Baca Elementary staff and university educators.
Pueblo school district veteran, Julie Griego, was named Acting Principal of Baca Elementary in August when Wenz was placed on leave and assumed the position of Interim Principal in February. Griego has numerous challenges in front of her in her first principal job including the education of hundreds of Pueblo children while simultaneously calming a school community overtaken by discussions of gun rights, principal autonomy, and a lunchroom mural depicting Mexican history.
This is not the first time a Tanguma work of art has become the center of discussion for depicting controversial images. In his 1995 mural in Denver International Airport’s main terminal entitled, “Children of the World Dream of Peace,” Tanguma takes the close observer on a journey through war, strife and environmental degradation which resolves in peace and respect for people and the environment. A brightening splash of color to the airport, the art captivates in grand scale and features a diversity of character appropriate for the city’s residents and the many visitors coming through the city via the airport. The mural included work from Tanguma’s daughter, Leticia and fellow artist Cheryl Detwiler.
Baca Elementary School is located in a quiet, residential neighborhood of Pueblo on E 17th Street. As part of Pueblo City 60 School District, the school includes grades from Pre-K to Fifth grade. The school is named after Eva Baca who died in May of 2007 after a distinguished career in Pueblo public schools as principal and director of the district’s Title I program serving underrepresented students.
Leo Tanguma was born in Beeville, Texas, and served in the United States Army, once taking art classes at the United States Armed Forces Institute to hone his skills. He is now a resident of Arvada, and has fulfilled art commissions for Denver International Airport, Denver Art Museum, and the University of Northern Colorado. A trademark of his work is inviting local artists and students to join the painting of his murals. Tanguma has inspired ensuing generations of Latino artists including his daughter Leticia who has completed important art pieces in the metro area including work with Regis University on a domestic violence awareness project through their Peace and Justice Program. Tanguma’s granddaughter, Sandina is also involved in the world of art as a budding film maker, with work on a documentary of her grandfather under her belt.
“I wield my brushes with a bias for the oppressed, for the working class, for peace and justice. As an Artist, this is my duty.” Leo Tanguma