Molly Mendenhall of Los Lunas, NM was selected among 27 other New Mexico artists to create the murals located at GAHP’s Luminaria Senior Community, a 92-unit apartment community for seniors 55 and older. Luminaria was built in accordance with the City of Albuquerque’s East Gateway Metropolitan Redevelopment Area Plan that includes strategies for redevelopment, beautification, and safety to make Central Avenue more welcome to residents and visitors arriving at the City’s edge. The Call for Artists asked New Mexico artists to submit proposals for mural art that would comply with the Route 66 Action Plan and help to establish a gateway to the East Central Area with a Route 66 theme.
Since August is American Artist Appreciation Month, GAHP is excited to spotlight Molly. We caught up with Molly as she was finishing up the murals and asked her to share her story.
GAHP: Tell me a little bit about your journey as an artist.
Molly: I don't have a very formal background in art, although it's a part of my life which has been a constant. I took painting lessons for several years as a child and enrolled in some high school classes but have not had a formal art education since. I have been drawing and painting since I was tiny. When I was a kid, we had a set of science books illustrated with cartoon animals and I would try to copy the animals. I was a very introverted kid and art has always been a sort of meditative place to me. I don’t feel anxious or distracted when I'm creating something because it focuses my mind in just the right way.
The more recent shift towards working as a professional muralist was more of an accident. I ran a small 1.5-acre farm for ten years. At the time, a friend of mine was letting me use their land to farm, so when they mentioned wanting a mural, I was happy to paint one as a gesture of thanks. Plus, I'd always wanted to paint a mural to widen my painting experience and have that to add to my portfolio. Not long after that mural hit my social media, I heard from an old high school friend whose boyfriend was opening Gravity Bound brewery downtown and asking if I'd consider painting a mural for them. Being in such a public location, that wall really helped to open doors for me.
I'd been farming through the growing season and painting through the winters. By the time COVID hit NM, my farming career had been in a slow but sure process of burn-out. Local farmers adapted their business models to the pandemic far more quickly and creatively than the industrialized food supply chain. That said, doing so felt like just one more thing to take a further toll on my confidence in farming as a career path. The timing was wild – because I finished the first mural for Gravity Bound in March of 2020, just as COVID hit NM and a week before the brewery was set to open. Despite the obvious challenges of trying to open a brewery in a pandemic, they've since gone on to become another thriving NM small business. So, just as I was losing confidence in my current career path, I started to see more and more mural opportunities. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to paint now!
GAHP: How did you know you could do a mural?
Molly: There are certain things I've never been very risk averse towards (like starting a farm!). It was the off-season, so I had the time and found the notion exciting. To be able to try new things, especially challenging things is something I find a lot of motivation in, and I wanted to know what it felt like to use my whole body to paint.
GAHP: What are some things you had to learn to begin painting murals?
Molly: I've painted all of my murals in the last two years, and I did a lot of my learning from muralists on YouTube! I have to give the internet credit for the access it gives people to so much useful information. One of the techniques I learned about was how to use a Doodle Grid. Typically, people use a square grid to transfer their concept sketch onto a wall, but I find the doodle grid far more fun and faster. It's also more effective because it provides as many unique reference points as you want, and where you want them. Once the image is transferred, the process is very similar a smaller painting, only more time consuming!
GAHP: What is the most challenging part of the process?
Molly: For me, the process of painting murals is so unique because it’s not just about painting – it's about painting on the street and interacting with the public. I’m always a little nervous at the beginning of every job because I feel like I'm a bit of a sitting duck. Anyone can approach me, and I do sometimes accidentally make friends I'm not intending to make! That said, at the end of the day, I'm always pleasantly surprised to be reminded of how good people are. People bring me their sketchbooks while I'm working on a wall, and I've seen some incredible artwork this way – work which more of the world should see but likely never will and that feels like a great privilege. I sometimes catch myself being prejudiced in the ways many of us are when someone who I felt “nervous” around surprises me by bringing me a cold bottle of water on a hot day and telling me they're going to protect my art. In these ways, how I interact with the community while painting murals is teaching me to be a kinder, more honest and more direct person. That's a challenge I'm grateful for!
GAHP: What drew you to the project?
Molly: There were several reasons why a project like this appealed to me when I learned about it; As making art professionally is a relatively recent shift in my life, the opportunity to work on a project which not only came with a substantial budget, but also great exposure being directly on Central was certainly attractive. Learning more about Luminaria and what the facility represents for the surrounding community became the icing on the cake because we all want to be able to feel good about the work that we do. Being paid enough to make my artwork was a clear incentive. It was a job that would pay me what I needed to be paid. Also, the theme was a little bit out of my wheelhouse, not quite like a lot of my other projects. For those I did mostly plants and animals. It was a little different for me and I liked it even though it can be challenging. It works my brain the right way.
GAHP: What kind of research did you have to do to respond to the RFP and the Route 66 theme?
Molly: Oh man! It’s tricky because this area (east Central) is not really iconic, not really what people think of when they think of Central. I felt that I could have taken the concepts in a couple of different directions: concepts which were more historically and realistically accurate, or concepts which nod to Route 66 in a more imaginary and stylized way. The Route 66 theme of the project presented a bit of a challenge for me as it was a venture from my typical wheelhouse of painting plants and animals, and often in a more whimsical than ultra-realistic style. In the end, I felt that it was important that the paintings be unique and able to stand on their own next to many of the other Route 66 murals throughout the Southwest.
GAHP: The daytime mural scene has more nature, and the nighttime scene has a bit more of a developed look. What was your thought process on that?
Molly: I wanted to deliver on a city scape for one. I felt like I’d be cheating if I tried to do too much like what I’ve done before. So, the daytime one for me was where I was able to do my thing with plants and sunset. The city one is more on theme. And I think it captures a little of both when it comes to the people of NM – people who love the outdoors, and people who live in the city. In the past, I've found that the things that challenge me often bring out something in me that I wouldn't have expected, and so, working on a Route 66 themed concept was the kind of painting challenge which allows me to grow and learn.
GAHP: Is there anything else you would like people to know about your murals?
Molly: Just that murals serve a different purpose than a painting you hang on a wall - they should have some drama and be able to command attention street-side. I wanted them to feel like a more modern perspective on what the Mother Road in and around Albuquerque might have felt like, and to stylize them in a way which was vibrant and fresh while also preserving my own style and voice as a muralist.
You can read about Molly's farming experience here: