Donna’s Detroit: Serape mural welcomes the world to SW

Donna Terek
The Detroit News

At rush hour, traffic moves thick and swift through the viaduct on Springwells in Southwest Detroit. The artery is clogged with cars and trucks heading south to I-75 or north to Vernor, Southwest’s main drag.

Not all the traffic is on four wheels. There are bicyclists and the occasional three-wheeled food cart. There’s foot traffic, too: Moms push baby strollers and teenagers cruise amid the aromas of Mexican food from El Asador on one side of the viaduct and McDonald’s on the other.

There are actually two railroad bridges here. Between the two, Lisa Luevanos and her little crew are putting the finishing touches on a richly colored mural made of broken ceramic tile, bits of mirrored glass and hand-tinted grout.

Luevanos, 50, grew up in this neighborhood. Her mother, the artist Mary Luevanos, took youngsters here to paint something other than gang graffiti on the walls almost two decades ago. They were part of a mural project whose faded remnants are still visible on the west wall. You can barely make out the legend “Southwest Detroit” stretched across a furling painted banner.

On the east side, Luevanos’ daughter is creating her own welcome mat to Southwest. (Not southwest Detroit, but simply Southwest, as the locals call it).

“It’s a great spot for artwork,” she said. “My mom worked on it 20 years ago, and it was time to put something new there.

“I always knew I wanted to do a piece on that wall. And I wanted to do it with bright, vibrant colors.”

She and a handful of volunteers and two paid assistants are filling in the outlines of a flowing serape striped in brilliant colors and anchored by a blood-red image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. A serape is a Mexican blanket often worn like a shawl or poncho. Unlike most of Detroit’s spray-painted murals, this one is made of glazed Italian tile. The design is based on a painting on wood Luevanos created as her winning entry for Detroit River Artscape in 2014.

Over the summer, Luevanos sketched in the outlines. Then she supervised community volunteers in grouting in a kaleidoscope of shattered ceramic tile to bring the mural to life. A Knight Foundation Artist’s grant helped her buy the tiles from Italy, the only source she could find for tiles in such saturated colors. The grant was for $12,000. A matching grant from the Ford Foundation gave her $24,000 to work with.

“Every time I do work, I try to involve as many people as I can. I feel that the more people that work on it, the more ownership there is and the more people are going to want to care for it,” she said. Although she can only work with three or four helpers at a time, Luevanos estimates that at least 30 community members have volunteered over the course of the project. “Not many people get the opportunity to do this kind of work,” she said. “It’s fun.”

It’s a pretty challenging spot to do this kind of work. Luevanos has to carry in water to mix the grout and the decibel level from car engines and stereos pumping out ranchera and hip-hop music makes it challenging to think, let alone talk.

Her inspiración

Working in tile is a relatively recent medium for Luevanos, a freelance photographer. The College for Creative Studies graduate worked in the photography department at Ford Motor Co. for 22 years before the department was disbanded in 2008. Now, in addition to freelancing, she works on art experiences for the Southwest community through CLAVE, the Community of Latino Artists, Visionaries and Educators.

She also teaches in the Art-Infused Education program in the Detroit Public Schools, using photography to engage middle school students more deeply with their regular school subjects.

This is not Luevanos’ first public art project. In 2009 she created a large wall mural, also in tile, of United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez on the La SED building on Vernor and Scotten, across from Clark Park. Later she repaired and decorated the performance stage in Clark Park with a broken-tile mosaic of the rising sun.

Luevanos calls the viaduct mural Inspiración, or inspiration, in Spanish. Her inspiration was her mother and grandmother, both artists, and this mosaic is a fitting tribute to her roots. But she also hopes the piece will inspire everyone who passes by — and that’s a lot of people on this busy thoroughfare. “What I want you to take away is a moment of happiness,” she said. “When people look at it, it makes you happy.”

“People honk their horns all the time and pull over and give us shout-outs and tell us it looks great,” Luevanos beamed. “It’s a great feeling.”

“There’s a lot of really good artwork in Southwest and it is inspiring to people, especially if it relates to the culture of the community,” she said. “It (the serape) is a piece of Mexican culture that is inspiring.”

Luevanos saw this in action with the mosaic portrait of Chavez. “When I took kids there to see it, without telling them I made it, I’d ask them how it made them feel. They said it made them feel really proud,” Luevanos said. “That made me feel great.”

Although Inspiración looks complete, there is a little void filled with red paint at the center of the Sacred Heart. Luevanos is still pondering what material should go there, stained glass? Another tile? She knows whatever it is, it will contain an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico.

“That will be the final piece.”