May 19, 2020; Shelterforce
Writing for Shelterforce, Johanna Gilligan recently described Albuquerque as a “sprawling, car-centric town.” That’s why it was so remarkable that the city’s residents embraced ABQ Artwalk, a placemaking initiative that involves parking those cars and walking around downtown for monthly First Friday events that support local artists as well as small businesses. That is, until New Mexico’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order went into effect in mid-March.
One space in particular, known as Ruppe Drugstore or “The Ruppe,” had just held its first (and successful) Artwalk opening in March, and had plans for more exhibitions. Rather than cancel upcoming events, Artwalk leader Gabe Gallegos and his collaborators found a way to work with what they had—which in this case was “a group of photographers who wanted to produce work that was relevant,” as Gallegos explains.
The result is a stunning online exhibition of photographs titled “Social Distance.” Scenes from around New Mexico capture life during quarantine, from empty highways, laundromats, and restaurants to local residents looking out through their windows at an altered world. As Gilligan notes, it is remarkable that this work of placemaking moved forward, at a time when so many of us have been stuck in a single space—or at least a very limited range of places—for nearly three months now. She observes:
“Placemaking is a delicate balance of assessing a community’s assets and potential and using those strengths to creatively foster a deeper sense of place. It’s an inherently in-person practice, centered on experiencing public spaces together.”
Yet this community found a way to foster a sense of place despite the isolation of its residents. Several images included in “Social Distance” were installed in the windows of The Ruppe for passersby to view. In addition, a work by Albuquerque poet laureate Jessica Helen Lopez has been stenciled onto the glass door of the building. (We’ll come back to that in a moment.)
The world has taken a turn or two for the worse since Shelterforce told the story of “Social Distance,” as we all know too well. In Albuquerque, even as statewide social distancing rules moved into a less restrictive phase on June 1st, protests have flared in response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. As with other cities in the US, Albuquerque’s protests often started peacefully but ended with violence. Which is why we end here with that poem by Lopez, stenciled on The Ruppe’s door.
Now is the time we dwell In La’kesh,
you who are me. I who am you.
Together we are alone.
Alone we are together.
Do you see all of the springtime branches showing their colors?
The seasons have not shuttered their doors.
The sun, still a shimmering ball of warmth.
Burque ablaze with sunset heat, alive with the pink
and watery gold feathers that brush our heavenly sky.
Everyday a painting created for you. For me.
Our hope gathers despite the separation.
I guess we are all like individual drops of rain
falling into one grand river after all.
Its title, “In La’kesh,” comes from a traditional Mayan greeting, which translates as “I am another you.” A sentiment that reflects the best in each of us, at a time that calls for no less.—Eileen Cunniffe