It sprang into being last week, but it looks like it’s been there for years.
A big, red, juicy brick wall festooned with strawberries and vines, and the noble female figure in their midst, have become an instant icon of North Lansing’s rich immigrant history and the ever-evolving energy of Old Town.
Last Wednesday, Albuquerque-based artist Nanibah Chacon was perched in a cherry picker, dabbing yellow highlights onto a matrix of enormous strawberry drupelets. The wall, on the south side of Polka Dots Boutique, sounds a rich chord of grace and beauty at the corner of Turner Street and newly christened Cesar E. Chavez Avenue.
Chacon started work Oct. 18 and finished the mural Saturday. She’s used to even quicker deadlines. Her first art was graffiti, which she did for about 10 years.
“That’s why I’m a fast painter,” she said.
“The first way I learned to paint or draw or anything was upright, on a large scale.”
She nonchalantly pulled a lever. The cherry picker jerked her closer to the wall.
“I never thought I’d be operating heavy equipment like this,” she said. “I can parallel park a scissor lift like an expert.”
Chacon was born in Gallup and grew up in Albuquerque. “I was drawn to the idea of reclaiming space, as a young brown person living in an urban area, as an indigenous person,” she said. “Being able to write my name on something was very empowering, an assertion of who I was in landscape, in space. That’s why graffiti started as a movement, in all places.”
But there is more to graffiti than politics.
Much later, when Chacon studied painting formally in college, she realized that her graffiti work taught her a lot about scale, proportion and color.
“I remember a professor telling us she was amazed when she put blue and orange together and it had this vibration effect,” she said. “It was this big ‘a-ha’ moment for her. That was the first thing I learned as a graffiti artist — what colors bounce.”
It’s no coincidence Chacon’s Old Town mural, a potent combination of careful craftsmanship and immediate impact, harks back to advertising art of the early 20th century. Chacon is fascinated with artists of that period who juggled many skills, from typography to pin-up art, as they hustled from one job to another.
“Someone could go from making a comical illustration to a beautiful fine art painting and an advertising logo or slogan — it was about making a living,” she said.
Fresh out of college, she did illustrations for various bands, political groups and T-shirts, adding watercolor and oil painting to her skills.
Painting murals in schools and other buildings in the Albuquerque area combined the scale, outdoor setting and excitement of graffiti art with the technique and control of her later, formal studies.
“I know how art can change an environment,” she said. “I’ve been aware of that from writing my name on the wall, and seeing that be criminalized, having some people be deeply upset, like you personally offended them.”
This fall, MSU’s Womxn of Color Initiative invited Chacon to do an artist residency, part of which entails a major project at the university.
But she wanted to do something off campus.
“So many times, things that are done in an institution don’t really branch out in the communities,” Chacon said.
From the start, the Old Town mural was intended to be a grassroots project. The soulful finished product is clearly Chacon’s distinctive vision, with nary a whiff of the anodyne “placemaking” art often sponsored by commercial associations. The team sought no help from the city of Lansing or the Arts Council.
The project is sponsored by a bouquet of MSU units, including the Residential College in Arts & Humanities, the Center for Gender in Global Contexts, American Indian & Indigenous Studies and Chicano/ Latino Studies.
Chacon and the project team also credits Polka Dots owner Jennifer Hinze for giving the project her blessing.
To work out a design with local significance, Chacon collaborated on the design with a friend, MSU Professor Dylan Miner of the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities.
They talked with Lansing community members, including members of the Lansing for Cesar E. Chavez Commission, the organization responsible for the recent renaming of Grand River Avenue in north Lansing to Cesar E. Chavez Avenue.
“I heard wonderful stories about the migrant community, and how big that is here,” Chacon said.
She also spoke with indigenous elders from the area. An Anishinaabe elder told her about the sacred act of wild strawberry picking.
“Strawberries are an important fruit to the Anishanaabe, a symbol of the heart,” Chacon said.
The mural is about many things, including work and perseverance, but it’s also meant to be just plain gorgeous.
“Being Chicana, being native, I see so many images of my culture being very oppressive,” she said. “It’s always the downtrodden Indian, the struggling Chicano or Latino. I don’t see that day to day. I see beauty, I see people that are strong, that do things with grace and perseverance, and we need to see reflections of that. We need to see very positive images of brown women.”
Last Tuesday was Chacon’s last day with the cherry picker, so everything above her head had to be finished. However, the workers were late retrieving the machine, so Chacon spent some extra time aloft to add a few grace notes on the high-hanging fruit.
The tableau has a timeless air, but Chacon knows it won't last forever. Trained in the school of graffiti, she considers all art, even Old Town’s latest icon, to be ephemeral. “One day it’ll be gone,” she said. “Even as I was working on the building itself, chunks of brick were coming out. The building itself is ephemeral.”