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eno’s Barbara Bennett Park is now presided over by a silent, matriarchal figure. Larger than life, and grounding herself with a twisted walking stick, she is illuminated by a red, eight-point star that seems to blaze out from her center—sheaves of orange, red, purple and blue fall away from its nucleus, defining the folds of the woman’s shawl. Her face, pacific and kind, is painted mostly in a nocturnal purple, though licks of red and orange illuminate it from below, lending it a glow of campfire warmth. This figure, based on a 19th-century photograph of a Basque shepherdess, stands at the center of a new mural, designed by Basque artist Leire Urbeltz.

Photo: Kris Vagner

It’s actually one of two local murals directed by Urbeltz (the other is at the Brewery Arts Center in Carson City). We had a chance to talk about her Barbara Bennett Park mural, its connections to Basque culture and iconography, and the collaborative process that she used to produce it.

Photo: courtesy Leire Urbeltz

Urbeltz has been living in Pamplona, Spain, the capital of one of the major southern Basque communities. The Basques are a fiercely independent people. Their language, Euskara, has no common ancestry with other European languages. It was, in fact, suppressed under the fascist dictatorship of Franco, who tried to enforce a homogenized Spanish national character. Some Basque emigration to the United States occurred during that oppressive period—in Northern Nevada there was already a strong Basque presence, spurred by the promise of the gold rush in the mid-1800s.

In contrast to the precarious pursuit of precious metals, the Basques established themselves as ranchers and sheepherders, raising the livestock that would feed the growing population of miners and railroad workers. Urbeltz, for now, has joined that diaspora. After the experience of completing the murals, she has moved to Reno to pursue a PhD in Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The mural itself was a joint effort—initiated with fellow Basque humanist Jaione Inda Aldaz, supported by a grant from the Government of Navarre, and coordinated with Stephanie Gibson, director of the Lilley Museum, City of Reno Arts and Culture Manager Megan Berner, and the Center for Basque Studies at UNR. The Director of the Center for Basque Studies, Xabier Irujo, helped to organize two workshops where members of the local Basque community were invited to come and share ideas for the mural, to look over materials from the Center’s archive for inspiration (that’s where the image of the 19th-century shepherdess came from), and to bring their own personal photograph and artifacts.

Photo: Kris Vagner

Urbeltz’s guiding concept was to ask—what does it mean to be Basque? And what does it mean to be Nevadan? The left side of the mural is anchored by an image of downtown Reno, while the right is anchored by the Pyrenees. Each region is framed by a distinct color palette that flows toward the center, occupied by the shepherdess, who stands before a table laid with traditional Basque foods. Along that transcontinental continuum are images of Basque and Nevada culture—a jai alai game, traditional dancers, a sheep wagon.

On the left side of the mural, there’s a silhouetted shepherd, and the playful figure of a dog with a pink beret perched on its head. They both stand next to a tree with the words “Zer gara gu” carved into its trunk—a phrase drawn from the Jon Bilbao Basque Library’s collection of tree carvings, or “arboglyphs”—words or images left by Basque shepherds in high-elevation forests, assertions of their presence in solitary mountain pastures. “Zer gara gu” is Euskara for “What are we?” As Urbeltz underlined, it’s perhaps a more fundamental or philosophical question than “Who are we?”

“It’s pretty transcendental, right?” she said. 

Photo: courtesy Leire Urbeltz

Photo: Kris Vagner

The dog was a crucial component because, as Urbetlz said, “For the shepherds, the dog was like their only friend.” Adorning the dog with the pink beret proved a little more controversial. The idea for the beret came from one of the workshop participants, a young woman into the nightlife and Burning Man culture of Reno, who imagined the beret as a reflection of that spirit. Urbeltz herself owns a pink beret, too. The beret is, as Urbeltz put it, the “classic hat” of Basque culture. “But it’s always been for men, and it has to be black or red, mostly.” An old shepherd who participated in the workshop process objected to the pink beret. He also didn’t like the way the National Monument of the Basque Sheepherder at Rancho San Rafael Park (included in the Reno side of the mural) was abstracted in the final design.

Photo: courtesy Leire Urbeltz

Photo: Kris Vagner

“We had to mediate with the people in the group—they were so different,” Urbeltz explained. So, she was finally able to win over the old shepherd? “No,” she laughed. “But he came—he was so nice—he came every day to the park to paint.” The execution of the mural was done by community members—workshop participants, as well as local artists and musicians. The design was projected onto the wall, the outlines were worked out, and the community members filled in the details with flat colors. The choice of using flat colors was partly to accommodate the participation of people who weren’t trained as artists. “If I made shadows and volumes, that could be more difficult for people who aren’t familiar with painting,” Urbeltz said. “I feel that flat murals are more democratic.”

The mural was completed over a span of about three weeks in October. As Urbeltz described the participation of the old shepherd—arriving each day, stepping up to the wall, at times with a little difficultly, steadied by his walking stick (mirrored by the walking stick of the painted woman standing at the center of the composition). I could sense the small victory Urbeltz felt at his presence—opinionated, critical, but committed.

“That’s something in the Basque character, I guess,” Urbeltz said. “They are strong characters, right? They like to discuss about—whatever.”

Photo: Kris Vagner

Leire Urbeltz’s two local murals, on display indefinitely, are located next to the basketball courts at Barbara Bennett Park, 400 Island Ave., in downtown Reno and insider the Brewery Arts Center, 449 W. King St., Carson City. You can see more of her work @leireurbeltz on Instagram and on her website.

This article was funded by a generous grant from the Nevada Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Posted by Chris Lanier

Chris Lanier is an artist and critic who generally likes to mix things up – words and pictures, video and performance, design and art. He’s had work shown and published in the U.S., Mexico, England, Japan, France, Canada, and Serbia – and has written for The Believer, HiLobrow, Furtherfield, Rhizome, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Comics Journal. He is a Professor of Digital Art at the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe (formerly Sierra Nevada College). More at chrislanierart.wordpress.com.