Saturday, June 21, 2014

Irene Oliver-Lewis has new visions

When I moved to Las Cruces in 1994, it was a forgotten spot in the otherwise very nice little neighborhood around Pioneer Women’s Park.
It was the remains of what was once Court Junior High School. The old Pueblo Revival building still had lovely bones, but inside, there was devastation. The homeless, drug addicts and assorted mice, rats, cucarachas and miscellaneous vermin has made themselves at home for decades.
Not long after I first interviewed Irene Oliver-Lewis, recently returned to her home town after arts and education adventures in Japan, Korea, Okinawa and then Albuquerque, she invited me to tour CJHS.
“A lot of us loved this building and remember when it was beautiful. It can be beautiful again,” Irene told me.
In what now seems like the blink of an eye, but what was in reality some very labor-intensive years, those dreams became a reality and a home for Court Youth Center programs and eventually, for Alma d’arte Charter School.
During two decades of covering Irene’s adventures and plans, I discovered that fulfilling big dreams (or as she terms it: “dicho y hecho: said and done”) is her specialty.
And there’s a lot of fun to be had in the process. Fun gigs on the A & E beat, thanks to Irene, have included spending a day in a limousine with actor and educational advocate Edward James Olmos, who came at her behest to talk to area kids and speak at a CYC benefit.
And because of Irene, Court and Alma d’arte students always seem to have a booth and a presence at everything from brand new arts festivals to revivals of traditional celebrations on the Mesilla Plaza and Martin Luther King Jr. Day marches on Main Street. They make signs, silkscreen T-shirts and conjure all kinds of original art to celebrate diversity and the joy of our multicultural borderlands. They dance and sing and do impromptu performance art on the steps of the newly-restored Rio Grande Theatre. And if you look closely, you’ll see Irene’s always there somewhere in the mix, producing, directing, cheering everybody on.
I had a chance to meet her artistic dad Fred Oliver, and see some of the beautiful furniture and woodwork he created, at a WPA arts exhibit and in their downtown Las Cruces home. I shared the mega-watt pride beaming from her parent’s faces at the premiere of Irene’s play, “Ceciliasms: Dichos de mi Madre,” It’s a warm and funny tribute that I suspect most any Baby Boomer could identify with, but also offers an intimate look at what it’s like to grow up in Las Cruces.
Irene has generously shared insights and information, and her genius for bringing creative plans to fruition, with thousands of kids and countless adults. I’ve watched her in action in scores of community planning meetings for events and projects that have since become world-class institutions, from the Las Cruces International Mariachi Conference to area Día de los Muertos celebrations.
She’s introduced me to top flamenco dancers, visiting artists and arts experts and authors, arts advocates, singers, musicians, movie stars and filmmakers from around the world.
When I’ve been confused by something in my adopted homeland, my querencia, I know I can count on Irene to clue me in.
She gave me a recipe for capirotada and steered me to a restaurant with a great version of the Easter season treat. She arranged for me to meet Mesilla artist and historian Preciliana Sandoval and world-class papel picado maestro Catalina Delgato-Trunk.
She collected items and stories for fun dioramas and oral history projects that seemed to spark a new interest in regional history in several generations here.
CYC’s auditorium became a hot new venue for concerts, dances, ceremonies and theatrical presentations — filling the building and the community that surrounds it with new life, art, inspiration and meaning.
It was also the site for a healing experience at a time of national and deeply personal mourning. When our editor Harold Cousland died a few days after the 9-11 attacks, Irene offered Court’s auditorium for a memorial service.
I was sad to hear she’s leaving Court Youth Center, but glad to hear about her new dreams, which, as always, promise inspiration, creativity and lots of fun and adventure for all of us here in Las Cruces, and I suspect, more expansive venues as well. Read about some of her visions in today’s SunLife Artist of the Week feature.
S. Derrickson Moore may be reached at @DerricksonMoore on Twitter or Tout or call 575-541-5450.

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