By S. Derrickson Moore
LAS CRUCES — It seemed like a good time for a Las Cruces Style review.
When the StoryCorps van came to town, Irene Oliver Lewis and I decided our contribution could be a state-of-the-Las Cruces-arts conversation.
This week, we took a trip down memory lane to the mid-90s, when she returned to her home town and I arrived at what I suspected would become my querencia, my soul’s haven.
Despite our diverse birth spots, (Southern New Mexico for Irene and Western Michigan for me), we had quite a bit in common. We’re both artists and writers. We’re both Baby Boomers with creative, artistic and articulate parents. Irene is a playwright whose “Dichos de mi Madre” has delighted audiences with touching and funny tales of her creative mom Cecilia. We’d both been artists-in-residence (Irene in Japan, and I was in Jamaica). We’ve both lived and worked all over the United States and in far-flung corners of the world.
And we both love Las Cruces.
Irene returned and I arrived at a very special time in local artistic history.
Las Cruces already had top notch theater groups, a Tony Award-winning playwright, Mark Medoff, in residence, some great galleries, writers, musicians, historians, a world-class used bookstore, Coas, and a symphony that had attracted international attention. Mariana Gabbi, who then headed the Las Cruces Symphony at NMSU, was the first American woman to conduct symphonies in both China and the former Soviet Republic. RenFaire and the Whole Enchilada Fiesta were going strong.
The year I arrived, 1994, we chocked up some notable firsts: the first ArtsHop and the first International Mariachi Conference and the beginnings of Dia de los Muertos fiestas. Irene and I remembered sitting in some of the early planning meetings.
We reminisced about lots of other things: the beginnings of the Border Book Festival, plays and film premieres, the efforts of people like Lalo Natividad, Richard Weeks, Preciliana Sandoval and others to bring back and infuse new energy into traditional celebrations on Mesilla’s Plaza, from Cinco de Mayo and Diez y Seis de Septiembre to Dio de los Muertos and Christmas Eve at the Plaza.
In the 1980s, when I lived in the City Different, I’d done several national magazine and newspaper features on Santa Fe style. In the 1990s, it seemed the world was ready for Las Cruces Style, so I started a column and a weekly artist profile for the Sun-News. I met Irene, then pioneering some innovative arts programs in the Las Cruces Public Schools, when I interviewed her for one of our first Artist of the Week features.
That was back when Court Youth Center was just a gleam in her eye. The first walk-through in the mid-1990s could have discouraged lesser souls. The ruins of Court Junior High had become a home to druggies and vagrants. But the building’s beautiful Pueblo Revival bones were there, along with the visions of a small, resourceful group of Las Crucens and others who came to help. There was a day in a limousine with Edward James Olmos, for one, who made the rounds of area schools and talked to kids about the ways arts and education had changed his life, and could change their lives too.
It’s still tough to believe the bustling center of activity that is Court and Alma d’arte High School for the Arts was that same unpromising ruin little more than a decade ago.
Just as unpromising was what one cynical reporter termed “the graveyard of high hopes:” the Downtown Mall. And after what seemed like endless meetings and cheerleading by the likes of Alice Peden, Heather Pollard and countless wistful citizens, the first arch has come down, the Rio Grande Theatre has been restored and a beautifully landscaped block is open to traffic.
I remembered what Don Dresp, then Branigan Library director, told me one day: “Remember that everything you do here can make a difference.”
We remembered souls who have come and gone, and in many cases returned again.
“A lot of baby boomers who were raised here are coming home again,” Irene noted and we philosophized about the rewards of growing up and living in a burgeoning art mecca.
We talked about the Spaceport and the Creative Media Institute, about problems and potentials, growing pains and great opportunities, about urban sprawl and la raza cosmica. About the future: of our city, our groups and ourselves.
The state of the arts is Las Cruces, we concluded, is downright exciting.
What do you think about the last decade here? Let us know