06 Jun Ashland & Guanajuato Murals: Sister City Public Art
“Las Calles de Guanajuato,” Guanajuato mural in Ashland.
Artist: Loreta (Laura Rangel Villasenor).
“Where Culture Meets Nature,” Ashland mural in Guanajuato.
Artist: Denise Baxter.
Ashland Public Art series.
“This is a wall that brings culture, nations, cities and people together.”
“It’s clearly one of the most beautiful cities in the world.“
Here is the genesis of this beautiful mural. Kathryn and Barry Thalden were looking for a location for another mural after they had sponsored the spectacular mural at the Ashland Emergency Food Bank. Barry confessed to me: “In truth, we didn’t have a location and we didn’t even have a theme. When visiting Mexico in 2015, we decided to stop in Guanajuato for a couple days and see Ashland’s sister city for the first time. When we got to Guanajuato, we were literally blown away. It’s clearly one of the most beautiful cities in the world. When we got back to Ashland, we thought that the wall where you now see the mural would be the perfect location for a mural. It’s on Calle Guanajuato, and our sister city Guanajuato would be the perfect subject!”
“We knew the minute we saw those that she was our artist.”Kathryn Thalden
Finding Loreta in Guanajuato
Barry and Kathryn Thalden went back in January 2016 to choose a Guanajuato artist to paint a mural in Ashland. Kathryn picked up the story: “Loreta was selling small paintings on the Plaza in Guanajuato, and we saw her work with buildings. She depicted Guanajuato in such a colorful way, and we knew the minute we saw those that she was our artist.”
Choosing Denise Baxter in Ashland
Reaching out to Denise Baxter again for help was a no-brainer for the Thaldens. As mentioned in the initial quote from Barry Thalden, they had experience with commissioning a large mural at the Ashland Emergency Food Bank on Clover Lane. Baxter was the artist who designed and painted that mural, called “Seasons of Gratitude,” in 2014. She also coordinated the project, including making the hundreds of little decisions that have to be made in a project of this size.
Based on their experience with Baxter, the Thaldens asked her to be project manager for the Calle Guanajuato mural, and she accepted. The artist from Guanajuato could not be expected to buy materials in Ashland, or rent scaffolding and lift trucks.
The Thaldens wanted the mural completed by July 4, 2016, when representatives of Guanajuato would be in town for their annual Independence Day visit to Ashland. That left only five months for the entire process, including the painting!
Ashland’s approval process can be very complex
I don’t want to bore you, but I think it is important to know how difficult it can be to get an art project approved in Ashland. Naturally, getting approval of the Public Arts Commission was the first step. Since the mural was to be painted on a building within the downtown Historic District, the Historic Commission also had to approve it. After that came the Parks Department and the Parks Commission, because the Calle Guanajuato corridor on both sides of Ashland Creek is one of our city parks. The city Planning Department had to give their okay to the mural. Finally, after all of those presentations and approvals, the Ashland City Council had to give their approval for painting to begin.
Was that everything? Well, almost. Prior to city approvals, the Thaldens and Baxter needed, and received, the okay of the building owner. Prior to painting, they worked out logistics with the Lithia Artisans Guild, whose members sell products from booths along Calle Guanajuato every weekend during the summer.
Baxter’s organizational skills
With the goal of completion before July 4, Loreta had only five weeks from start to finish once she arrived in Ashland. In order to smooth the process, Baxter did a lot of ground work before Loreta arrived. She drew upon her organizational skill set, completely separate from her artistic skill set. She found and outfitted a mobile art studio, got a permit for it to be located at the site, arranged for scaffolding and a cherry picker (boom lift). She got the wall prepped for painting, including a base layer of primer paint. Since a mural of this size is normally not painted by one person, Baxter chose five people to assist Loreta, two of whom were Southern Oregon University art majors.
Though Loreta had painted interior walls of houses, she had never tackled a huge exterior wall mural. With a mural this large, you have to first create a grid on the wall that matches the grid of the design on paper, which is a specific skill set. Fortunately Denise had these skills, so she assisted Loreta in creating the grid. For example, one inch on the paper design might correspond to one foot on the wall mural.
Of course, some of those grid squares were 15 or 20 feet off the ground. Denise laughed as she said, “We were given a picture of the mural with the grid drawn on it, so we were up there with rulers on the boom lift which none of us were really comfortable with at first.” I found it interesting to learn that the grid lines were drawn with waterproof chalk so that rain wouldn’t wash it away. And there was rain, as you will see below. When painting began, it was applied right over the chalk lines, so they disappeared from view.
One professional approach to mural painting
Baxter described to me how a mural grid works. It’s a series of squares or rectangles. Let’s say the top left square on the wall is square number 1. You would look at the same square number 1 on the small drawing and paint what is in that square on square number 1 on the wall. Breaking it down this way, it is a step by step process.
1. Draw the original design on paper.
2. Draw a grid over the original design on paper.
3. Draw a corresponding grid on the mural wall.
4. Draw a line drawing of mural objects within each grid on the wall.
5. Paint blocks of color within the line drawings in each grid on the wall.
6. Paint to fill in the details of the original design on the wall.
7. Go over mistakes with additional layers of paint, as needed.
To minimize mistakes, Baxter generally paints a mural top to bottom and back to front. For example, if the mural includes a sky, it would normally be at the top and in the background from the point of view of the person viewing the mural. That would be the place to begin painting. Then clouds or trees or buildings would start being layered (painted) over the sky and other blocks of color. People or scenes in the foreground of the mural, closest to the person viewing the mural, would generally be painted last. This is when smaller paint brushes are used to add fine details to a mural.
The day it rained
In the Nisha Burton video, assistant painter Carlos Barcuto said, “We were painting and it started raining. So the wet colors started running down over the rest of the painting, so we had to cover everything with plastic in two minutes in order to save the whole thing.” A female voice added, “I was out there with a towel going, ‘No, you will not ruin this part for me.’ Cause we already had so much of it done. We were working on the top middle part. It was awful.” Obviously, they did a great job of saving their work.
Before I wrap up the story of the Guanajuato mural painted in Ashland, I want to introduce you to the Ashland mural painted in Guanajuato.
Sister cities since 1969!
As you can see from the photo below, Ashland and Guanajuato celebrated 50 years as sister cities in 2019. According to Ashland’s Amigo Club website, “The visionary behind the ties between the two cities is known in Guanajuato and Ashland as Señora Chela, a professor emerita of foreign languages and literature at Southern Oregon College (now Southern Oregon University).”
Señora Chela Tapp-Kocks initially inspired student exchanges between the two towns’ universities. These grew to include a wide variety of social, cultural and people to people exchanges. She also helped the Thaldens work with City of Guanajuato officials during the mural project there.
Not just one mural in one city, but two murals in two cities
“Ashland residents, Barry and Kathryn Thalden, through their philanthropy envisioned and coordinated the idea of having two murals, one in each city, symbolizing not only the sister city relationship but the shared appreciation of the arts and culture fostering tourism and creating community pride.” The Ashland Chamber of Commerce described the powerful vision of the Thaldens in the above quote from their website.
A larger vision
The Thaldens vision was even larger than a focus on sister cities and the arts.
First, this mural honoring Ashland’s sister city Guanajuato was born and painted during an unprecedented attack on Mexicans by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. During his June 16, 2015 presidential announcement speech, Trump had said, “I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.” This was after he denigrated the Mexicans trying to seek asylum in the United States: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
In contrast, think about the words Kathryn Thalden spoke when the Ashland mural was painted in Guanajuato. She was quoted in the Ashland Tidings article of January 2018: “This is a different kind of wall between the U.S. and Mexico. These are not walls that separate, but walls that bring people and countries together in peace, love, and respect.”
Second, Kathryn pointed out to me that the mural points to something bigger than Ashland. This is one of the many ways art can expand our awareness and our humanity. She told me, “One of the things I love about the Guanajuato mural – not only the color and the vibrancy and the interest that it brings to the space – but also it points to something bigger than Ashland. We tend to live in a bubble in Ashland. This mural points to something outside of ourselves that we’re connected with, a whole different culture and different language, different ways of being than we’re familiar with. I think it creates an awareness that there’s more than just us.”
Art has a way of challenging us and helping us grow. This reminds me of a few lines from one of my poems.
Art uplifts my spirit
When I think I am too small.
Art challenges my self-imagePeter Finkle
When I think I am too big.
Mural in Ashland leads to mural in Guanajuato
Loreta’s mural in Ashland was completed on schedule and dedicated June 29, 2016. A little later in the article, I will share some powerful words Barry Thalden spoke at the dedication. First, I want to describe the genesis of a mural showing Ashland scenes that was painted in the City of Guanajuato. Barry told me, “After the dedication of the mural in Ashland on June 29th, several officials from Guanajuato came to Ashland, as they often do, for the 4th of July. Kathryn and I had a conversation with one of the city council members. He said, ‘We should do this in Guanajuato,’ and we agreed. We said, ‘How do we do that?’ and he said, ‘I’ll handle the politics on my end.'”
That was an exciting offer. As with the mural in Ashland, there was a lot of groundwork to do. But “he really made it happen.” The Guanajuato city council approved the idea of a mural with an Ashland theme. They found a great location on a busy street named Paseo Ashland. In order to paint the mural at that location, a low wall was rebuilt higher and was then prepped for painting, all taken care of by the City of Guanajuato.
Because of their fruitful relationship with Denise Baxter, it was an easy decision for the Thaldens to hire her as the painter. “We hired Denise Baxter to go down there because she had done the murals in Ashland for us, and because she speaks Spanish. We did the same thing as in Ashland, but in reverse. Loreta was Denise’s assistant to pull together a team of students from University of Guanajuato to help produce the painting.” Kathryn added that “Guanajuato was so gracious during the whole process.”
Denise and Loreta
When I interviewed Denise, she spoke in glowing terms of her relationship with Loreta, both in Ashland and Guanajuato. “Loreta still says that I’m her angel because I saved her from that stressful [grid] experience. Likewise, she saved me so many times in Mexico. She was so fantastic when I was there. She did so much for me.”
Preparing for the mural in Guanajuato
The mural in Ashland is large, at 24′ high and 53′ long on the side of a building on the south end of Calle Guanajuato. The sister mural in Guanajuato appears even more massive because it is so long and so visible on a busy city street. It is 12′ high, 75′ long, and filled with vibrant colors. Baxter designed the mural with input from the Thaldens.
The mural is on one of the main streets entering Guanajuato. In order to paint it, they had to block off an entire lane of traffic on this main street. Because the regional Governor and the Mayor were both behind the project, they smoothed the way for all the details to be taken care of. The police were involved. The city even arranged for all-night security so that no one would touch the wall as it was being painted.
The Department of Transportation provided support. In fact, two men from the Department of Transportation were there every single day just to help. If Baxter needed food or a coffee, they got it for her. If she needed scaffolding moved, they took care of that. If she was up on scaffolding and dropped a towel on the sidewalk, they would be right there to pick it up for her.
“They spoke zero English but I just fell in love with those guys. They were the nicest people.,” she said.
Loreta helped prepare the site for painting. She had already gone through the same process two years before when she painted the mural in Ashland, so she knew what Baxter needed. She had a portable truck ready. She helped Baxter purchase the exterior house paint and brushes for the job when Baxter arrived in Guanajuato, and within 24 hours of arrival they were at work on the wall.
Painting the mural in Guanajuato
Baxter and crew only had 21 days to paint the entire mural. Denise Baxter’s daughter Aubrey was there to assist with the painting. In addition, Loreta found about a dozen University of Guanajuato art students to help. One issue Baxter faced is that the students rotated through the mural painting, depending on their class schedules. She couldn’t remember which student had been taught which skills involved in getting the paint on just right, which was challenging at times.
You have to delegate and trust
Baxter told me, “You have to delegate and trust.” The fact was that Denise Baxter did not have time to paint the entire mural, or even do all the touch up painting on 75′ by 12′ of wall. The students had to paint most of the mural, so Baxter took on the role of teacher and mentor much of each day.
As she put it, “I was trusting and teaching. I was probably painting two hours a day and the other six hours I was teaching.” Baxter saw them as angels, the way they gave their all to the project. She tried to find the strengths of each student artist and then helped them to grow their skills through the mural project.
The language difference added extra challenge to Baxter’s ability to teach the students. Only two of them spoke English. Denise does speak some Spanish, but trying to teach art techniques with her Spanish knowledge was a real experience. “They would laugh at me all the time,” she said, “and make fun of my attempts to communicate art concepts.”
Denise Baxter’s frequent helpers
This photo shows four of the most active student painters, plus Denise’s daughter Aubrey (wearing a green shirt) and the two Department of Transportation employees who brightened Denise’s days. The short, young woman being hugged by Aubrey was excellent at painting animals, such as the bumblebees. Other student painters were especially good at buildings, nature scenes and more.
“This mural is really about them, the people who helped me paint it. I was just a part of it. The people who worked with me are the real magic.”Denise Baxter
Finished mural in Guanajuato
The photo below shows the dramatic size and location of Ashland’s sister city mural in Guanajuato.
The economic value of public art
Ashland is known as a cultural community, but the Oregon Shakespeare Festival overshadows other forms of art in our town – and rightfully so. I think it is time for other art forms, including the visual arts, to become more of a part of the economic engine of Ashland.
Writing this series of articles about art in Ashland, I have become aware that there is much more art here than I knew. Most residents, and certainly most tourists, have no idea that there are many more than 100 artworks available to view within the Ashland city limits. That number doesn’t even include the many beautiful galleries that are filled with art.
Speaking at the 2016 mural dedication in Ashland, Barry Thalden said something that really struck me as true. “When they uncovered the ruins in Pompeii, the things that were most prized were the murals and the mosaics. When we travel abroad, what do we look for? We take tours to see the art and architecture. That’s what’s significant. Art is important.”
Art is important to visitors. Art is also important to the community. It reflects who we are and adds beauty that brings a sense of pride.
When I spoke with Barry, he said that “The city is looking for ways to bring people to Ashland other than for OSF, including in the winter – and public art is still there in the winter. As an example, we’ve been told the Guanajuato mural is the number one ‘Kodak moment’ in Ashland because you can often see tourists taking pictures of their family in front of the mural. I don’t know if people come just for public art, but it is a reason that people enjoy coming.”
What motivates Barry and Kathryn Thalden to commission large artworks?
These two murals are not the Thalden’s only connection with art in Ashland. As mentioned above, they see the need to educate people about public art in Ashland. You probably don’t know that they created and printed the brochure, available at the Chamber of Commerce office, that lists 22 artworks in the City of Ashland collection.
Hopefully you do know about the Thalden Pavilion on Walker Street, either from attending an event there or just driving by. It is a gathering place on the SOU campus and is part of the SOU Sustainability Center. The structure itself is a work of art. In addition, Native American wood carver Russell Beebe was commissioned to create two 24-foot tall teaching poles. Between the two poles, a World Peace Flame was lit in 2018, only the second one established in the United States. Betty LaDuke artworks were added to the pavilion in 2021.
I wondered where the Thaldens love of art came from. Of the two, Barry is the most passionate about art philanthropy. He explained to me that his mother was a famous artist in Chicago, where he grew up. He said, “She was painting at a time when only men were recognized in the world of art. She had to break through that glass ceiling to become quite famous in Chicago as an artist. As my sister said, my mother would take me out of school to drag me down to the Art Institute in Chicago to show me great art. So I started appreciating art at a very young age. I only veered slightly from that to become an architect. And Kathryn’s background as a landscape architect is part of who we are as a couple.”
Location of the mural in Ashland
You can see “Las Calles de Guanajuato” mural when you are heading north on Winburn Way toward the Plaza. The sign in the photo below is at the corner where Calle Guanajuato meets Winburn Way, along Ashland Creek. Another way to spot the mural is to look for Skout Taphouse restaurant across the street from the large lawn at the entrance to Lithia Park. The mural covers the wall on the west side of the Skout Taphouse building.
I’d like to give credit to the key people involved in bringing the mural “Las Calles de Guanajuato” to life.
Barry and Kathryn Thalden, envisioned the mural and supported it financially
Artist: Laura “Loreta” Rangel Villasenor, from Guanajuato
Coordinator: Denise Baxter, artist from Ashland
Artist assistant: Carlos Bracuto
Artist assistant: Victoria Johnson, SOU art student
Artist assistant: Adrian Chavez, student at North Medford High School
Artist assistant: Alexandra Garcia Eisenhardt, SOU art student
Artist assistant: Phil Huchings
I would also like to thank Nisha Burton for making the wonderful 13-minute movie called “The Walls We Create.” Here is a link to the watch the movie.
Anon. “50 years of friendship – our sister city – Guanajuato, Mexico,” Ashland Chamber of Commerce. [accessed 11/30/2020]
Anon. “Sister city collaboration,” Medford Mail Tribune, June 29, 2016. (accessed February 2, 2021)
Anon. “Mural of Ashland to go up in Guanajuato,” Ashland Tidings, January 18, 2018. (accessed 3/13/2021)
Anon. “Mural of Ashland dedicated in Guanajuato,” Ashland Tidings, June 27, 2018. (accessed February 2, 2021)
Baxter, Denise. Interviews and personal communications, June 2020 and other dates.
Burton, Nisha. “The Walls We Create,” (13 minute movie), April 26, 2017, YouTube. (accessed December 2020)
Kessler, Glenn. “A history of Trump’s promises that Mexico would pay for the wall, which it refuses to do,” Washington Post, January 8, 2019. (accessed online 3/13/2021)
Thalden, Barry and Kathryn. Interviews and personal communications, January 2021 and other dates.
Turner, Mina. Personal communication, April 2021. Mina Turner is the current President of Ashland’s Amigo Club, which promotes our sister city relationship with Guanajuato.