At the corner of 47th Avenue and High Street, north of Interstate 70, is a large mural painted by Carlos Frésquez. When he painted the piece in 1992, he thought it would probably be destroyed one day.
“I always knew when I created these murals that they were temporary,” said Frésquez, a professor in the Department of Art at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “People saw the murals as glorified folk art. For me, the joy comes from making art and the creative process. I’m not focused on its longevity.”
PHOTOS: Denver murals by Carlos Frésquez and his students
Without protection, Chicano murals like Frésquez’s are often destroyed when buildings’ ownership changes hands. But now, a grassroots effort started by Lucha Martinez de Luna and supported by MSU Denver Art Professor Jillian Mollenhauer, Ph.D., has landed Colorado’s Chicano murals on the 2022 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places, and restorations is already underway.
“These are historically important pieces that reflect the issues and successes of various times,” Mollenhauer said. “We knew it was imperative to save these wonderful pieces as gentrification led to the destruction and defacement of our heritage murals.”
The Murals Project is creating a database of these public murals across the state. So far they have identified around 40 heritage murals.
Martinez de Luna presented the database and the Mural Project’s protection efforts to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which selected them for the list of America’s Most Endangered Sites. The designation — which represents the first time murals have been included — helps raise awareness of the artwork and its historical significance.
“Media presence, fundraising events both locally and nationally, and partnership requests all started coming our way as a result of the designation,” Mollenhauer said.
For example, the Murals Project began working with the Social and Public Art Resource Center in Los Angeles, whose mission is to produce, preserve and promote activist and socially relevant works of art, especially in communities facing marginalization or discrimination. SPARC recently developed a protective clear coat for street murals called Mural Shield. The Murals Project, with funding from Historic Denver, used it to preserve Frésquez’s piece at 47th and High.
“(Mural Shield) made it pop and bring out the colors,” Frésquez said. “I am honored and excited to see that the piece is being protected.”
He added that his family was one of the region’s first settlers in the 1500s.
“These murals show we’ve been here for a long time,” Frésquez said. “I hope they help people change and transform and teach respect. We are not newcomers, and we belong here as much as anyone else.”
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Mollenhauer noted that the Murals Project also works with contemporary art and artists, such as the late Alicia Cardenas.
“The beautiful mural by artist Alicia Cardenas at the corner of 27th and Larimer is an iconoclast statement about the Covid pandemic era,” Mollenhauer said. “(Cardenas) is gone — if someone whitewashes her mural, it’s gone forever. It is at the top of our list for preservation.”