Painting a bridge through a wall

The Border Bedazzlers painting the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexican border wall.  Photo by  Gretchen Baer
Hate the metal wall that keeps neighbors out . . . or paint it.

Photo by Gretchen Baer

A rusted wall of corrugated metal, anchored in graves of concrete and political wrestling, rises from the roasting clay earth and dilates along the horizon of southeastern Arizona. This contentious serpentine border fence dividing the U.S. from our Mexican neighbors now spans one-third of the entire 2,000-mile frontier.

For some, the multi-billion dollar border fortification may symbolize protection, for others it may scream fear, but for Gretchen Baer, the wall is an opportunity. A canvas. A bridge. “Living just six miles from this monument to hate and stupidity,” explained Gretchen, “I couldn’t ignore the shame I felt staring at it. I hate everything that wall stands for. I hate what it says to the people of Mexico.”

Gretchen Baer

Gretchen Baer

Gretchen was raised on Martha’s Vineyard, and hails from a family of Vineyard-based artists and art educators. For twenty years, Gretchen has lived in the progressive artists’ enclave of Bisbee, Ariz., which, as she defines it, has an up-for-anything, creative chutzpah unlike anywhere else the artist has lived, including Boston, New York, and even her Vineyard birthplace.

For many Americans, the U.S.-Mexican border wall is a flickering mirage, appearing in fleeting news stories or used as political ammunition on varying sides of the immigration debate. Yet for Gretchen, the constant imposition of the wall’s expansive shadow provoked a desire to use it as a canvas for grassroots border diplomacy. “The wall is not going anywhere,” she said. “In fact, the U.S. government is building a second layer of the same wall — you know, like a prison. We can’t tear it down, so I wanted to do the next best thing. Paint it. Beautify it. Create a community and make new friends.”

Armed with gallons of bright paint, brushes, and the vision to revise the tainted face of our nation, Gretchen created “The Border Bedazzler” project in the spring of 2012. She partnered with a friend and fellow artist, Carolyn Toronto, and Seth Polley, a progressive minister from a local church. The Border Bedazzlers began with a few gallons of donated house paint, and arrived at the Mexican border town of Naco, not knowing who would show up to help them camouflage the corrugated metal. Children who spend their days playing alongside the wall approached with curiosity, and asked to help.

On the U.S. side of the wall, painting is prohibited, and citizens keep their distance. On the Mexican side, as Gretchen said, “No one cares what you do to it. You can walk right up to it. The community is right there. They live with it in a far more intimate way. And who can deny kids painting butterflies, hearts, and smiling faces?”

“It was completely informal, and still is,” Gretchen said. “There are no rules, no classes about painting. It’s just about being creative and having fun together. The only thing I say no to is huge tags. I tell them they can come up with something more creative than writing a name. For a lot of these kids, it’s the only painting they’ve done; and for a few, it’s instantly transformative. More than once I’ve seen teenage boys join in, and looking at them, you just see they are heading toward trouble … shifty, cynical. But when they paint, all of a sudden they light up, the defenses go down, and pride comes into their eyes. I’m not sure how it translates into their lives, but the moment is powerful.”

Three of the young border wall artists

Three of the young border wall artists

Gretchen, the only original Bedazzler still involved, has now made nearly 30 crossings to lead binational paint-ins with like-minded Americans and welcoming Mexican youth. Most of the time, Gretchen arrives unannounced, trusting the community to join her in creating what now looks like a patchwork quilt of doodles and dreams.

At times she has had a community leader, Maria Elena Borquez of the Naco Museum, help organize from the Mexican side, bringing children and translating. “She speaks hardly a word of English, and I’m no better in Spanish, but we do it together, and it’s great when she comes.

“I go as much as I can,” Gretchen said. “Sometimes it’s just what I feel like doing, and I grab my paint and head across. The kids see me arrive, and we just hang out and paint. The wall runs right through their town; they play on it, climb it, jump over and jump back.

“I have seen transformation happen in a single afternoon,” said Gretchen in witnessing the humanizing power of art.

Gretchen’s talents for organizing for a cause have begun to distinguish her, both locally and internationally, as an energetic art educator, community builder, and leader. She has a group of young artists and creative assistants she calls “the art envoys,” who accompany her not only on “The Border Bedazzler,” but collaborate on other art-outreach projects, such as her newest initiative, which she’s calling “Paint Your Town!”

“This project will allow me to bring art to art-less communities,” said Gretchen. As a recipient of the $10,000 Arizona Commission of the Arts’ 2015 Art Tank Grant, the artist will travel to at least 12 towns in Arizona’s rural Cochise County from April to June 2015, bringing free plein air (outdoor) painting workshops to town centers.

The pop-up studio on wheels will supply easels, canvas, paints, brushes, and most vitally, the glittery personality of the artist, ready to teach young people how to see their town in Technicolor and celebrate their unique environment.

She’s also preparing for the upcoming presidential election. During Hillary Clinton’s 2008 bid for president, Gretchen could be found at rallies across the country, preceding her political heroine, performing for the eager crowd in her impressionistic pantsuit and the “Hillcar,” featuring a Van Gogh-ish portrait gleaming off the hood. Cleared by the Secret Service and applauded by Mrs. Clinton, the artist, in true Vineyard style, self-funded the cross-country project on her waitress tips.

Ms. Baer explained she is working to secure a place along the 2016 campaign trail, formally collaborating with Clinton’s team, and hoping to “bring art, color, and fun to the campaign in a painted RV. Our goal is to empower girls through art, and my ultimate dream is that I can serve as an art envoy to President Hillary Clinton.

“All of these projects are extensions of the same fundamentals. They connect to each other … and they connect us to one another as well,” said Ms. Baer.

Having transformed nearly a mile of barbed nationalism with colorful Border Bedazzler paint, Gretchen Baer stands brush-to-brush with artists around the world who have faced walls of division. Artists of protest, across the globe and of varying eras, have attacked border policies with paint and ribbons, echoing Ms. Baer’s passionate sentiment: “One day it will come down. But until then, our job is to build community and bring beauty where there was once ugliness.”

Click here to view a short film about The Border Bedlazzlers

Gretchen Baer’s website

Keya Guimarães is a writer and filmmaker, nomad and mother, cultural preservationist and advocate. She washed ashore with autumn’s tide in 2014, only to stay for the next year and a half. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Cultural Diplomacy from the Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington DC.

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