Alpine-based artist Kerry Awn sees people walk by the window of his studio, located at TexPop: A Museum of Popular Culture, on a regular basis. Some stop to take photos in front of the desert landscape mural that is directly across from him in an alley. The mural, From Paradise to Calamity Creek, is one of over 25 murals covering the alley. Dubbed Alpine Alley Art (some refer to it as Mural Alley), local artists have turned the space, which runs east to west between Holland Avenue and Avenue E, into an outdoor art gallery featuring West Texas imagery in diverse styles.
There have been murals in Alpine ever since at least the 1940s, but according to Chris Ruggia, Director of Tourism for the city, the anchor that established Alpine as a mural destination is Big Brewster, a mural featuring a “Greetings from Alpine” postcard and local historical facts, which is located at the stoplight on the corner of Holland Avenue and 5th Street.
“That’s the favorite selfie mural in town, because it’s got the name of the town and shows where you’re at,” said Ruggia.
Ten years ago, Alpine’s Gallery Night, Inc, the organization behind the annual ArtWalk, celebrated the 20th and 21st anniversaries of the art festival with two murals — Poco a Poquito and The Mercado Mural — both located near Big Brewster. Other murals, such as The Cattle Drive Mural and A Tribute to Texas Musicians followed suit, all painted by Stylle Read.
These murals inspired the creation of Alpine Alley Art. In a conversation in 2018, Ruggia and fellow Alpine resident Liz Sibley, of the eponymous Galeria Sibley, discussed how other communities have revitalized their downtown districts with art. One brainstorming idea was to have murals tucked away in an unexpected place, like an alley.
“We just had that one conversation and [Sibley] ran with it,” said Ruggia.
Over a glass of wine, Sibley asked her friends Carolyn Mangrem and Nancy Whitlock their thoughts on the idea, which resulted in all three committing to murals on the side of their buildings facing that alley. Meanwhile, Sibley got to work seeking local artists to contribute. Marfa-based sign painter Carolyn Macartney honored the dark skies with a work painted on the back of Galeria Sibley and the Big Bend Regional Hospital District’s office. Sibley, a mosaic artist herself, adorned silver and blue stars, planets, and the word “Alpine” around the back door of her gallery.
Julianna Johnson used deep pastels to paint a view of the mountains for Glass Mountains View of Twin Sisters, while a large green car is the focus of Tom Curry’s Cruising Big Bend. Macartney helped paint Ellen Ruggia’s design for Desert Fiesta, which features flowery branches of desert willows across three walls.
Whitlock painted a vibrant plant on the back of her gallery, mirroring the plants growing underneath. She also produced an online map with most of the murals in town.
“She’s the angel of the alley, without a doubt,” said Sibley.
Pauline Hernandez incorporated ceramic pieces to create agave and ocotillo plants within her mural, From Paradise to Calamity Creek, which is on the side of Mangrem’s building and across from Awn’s window. Next to it, a group of local artists each contributed a small painting to create a larger piece entitled Postcards from The Big Bend.
Inspired by a similar map inside Alpine’s Amtrak station, Awn’s is the most recent addition to the Alley and is a large, vibrant map of the Big Bend region, including the surrounding towns such as Marfa, Terlingua, and Presidio, and incorporating details unique to each location. There’s a goat in Lajitas, the Starlight Theatre in Terlingua, and a wood sculpture by musician/chainsaw carver Doug Moreland in Fort Davis. Elephant Rock stands along US Route 67 between Marfa and Presidio.
“This is kind of educational, but also pretty to look at,” said Awn. “That’s what I like to do. Something [people] can actually look at but also get something out of it.”
The mural stands at 12 feet by 12 feet, but Awn painted it on four and a half panels that were later installed on the side of a building, which is currently for sale. If the building sells, her map mural can be removed and relocated.
Because many of the murals are on privately-owned buildings, they are not eligible for Hotel Occupancy Taxes (HOT tax) which are used to fund projects or events promoting tourism. Sibley wants to pay the artists, however, so she turns to the community for financial support. She said everyone she has talked to has been enthusiastic.
“I thought it would be a limiting factor, but in fact, it has not really clipped our wings,” said Sibley.
Since they are running out of walls in the art alley block, some artists have turned to unconventional canvases. For example, as part of the City of Alpine’s beautification efforts, Carol Fairlie and the Sul Ross State University Art Club painted a mural on the exterior of a stucco covering surrounding two dumpsters, which themselves were painted by another artist, P$Nut. Sibley also received permission to decorate utility poles, two of which have been completed with two more in the works.
Sibley’s dream for Alpine Alley Art is to continue commissioning murals in all the alleys nearby, creating a four-to-six block walking art tour. Of the goal, she says, “We are the Alpine Alley Art instigators, and we welcome and embrace anybody that wants to continue this trend and support it and further it.”
Alpine’s Tourism Department is currently raising funds to add a mural on the far east end of the alley, next to the Alpine Visitor Center. To promote the town’s Music Friendly Texas Community designation and the Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve, Ruggia designed a starry night sky with a full moon that will frame the “howling lobo (wolf)” sculpture Moreland carved from an old tree during last year’s ArtWalk. The sculpture is on city property, but the mural will be painted on the west-facing back of a strip mall owned by a local grocer.
“For a long time, we liked the idea of something being there to make that space feel nicer to be in,” said Ruggia.
During the Viva Big Bend music festival last month, the city’s tourism department accepted donations and gave free t-shirts for contributions of $25 and more. The shirts are only available in person at the visitor center, but people can make online donations through the festival’s website.
One block from Alpine Alley Art and on the side of Cedar Coffee Supply is another work, the mosaic Twin Peaks Mountains, spraypainted by Gabriel “Paste” Portillo.
Across from it, Monty Welt recently finished a bold, spirited mural featuring West Texas wildlife. As it takes up the entire back wall of the City Drug Store, Welt believes it’s his longest piece to date. The mural took him a week to finish, with the triple-digit heat contributing to his work flow. He’d start his days early and work as much as he could before the heat became unbearable, and would then return in the evening to work some more.
“I felt like it took me a lot longer because my brain was fried from being out in the sun,” said Welt.
Sibley was at a bar and restaurant when she heard a mural was being painted in the nearby alley. “That is the culmination of what we’re trying to accomplish. We want everybody that’s got a spare speck of anything on their building to put something on it,” said Sibley. “Let’s make it a town of murals. Make it fun for people.”