By SALLY CURD
They stand in silence, their hands clasped as if in prayer or hope, surrounded by the kind of desert they would have traveled—rocks, mesquite and desert sage.
Three Las Madres statues on East Campus are made of materials worn or carried by migrants who crossed the desert and died.
One figure is worn denim, made from pieces of jeans. A backside collage contains pockets, faded patches and seams.
The other two figures are covered in burlap, from bags carried by migrants walking north.
The pieces have been in place since 2005. Their weathering texture speaks symbolically of the continuing plight of those who risk crossing into the United States.
Former Pima Community College art instructor Valarie James created the pieces with fellow artists Antonia Gallegos, Deborah McCullough and Cesar Lopez. The project took more than a year to complete.
“I was compelled to do it,” James said. “I had met many migrants on my daily walks with my dogs in the desert adjoining my property. But it was the diaper bag that haunted me the most.”
She found a diaper bag stuffed with infant’s clothing and a birth certificate, surrounded by a mother’s clothes. This discovery made her wonder about this anonymous mother and her child.
Each Las Madres figure represents more than a thousand people who have lost their lives crossing the desert, and each of the artists has a very personal relationship to migrants, James said.
They have seen the plight of the migrants from the vantage point of living in the desert south of Tucson.
Gallegos, James’ closet collaborator, lives in Arivaca and works in bronze and clay. Lopez, a neighbor of James’ in Amado, is a metal sculptor. McCullough is a Tucson artist.
James now teaches sculpture, mold-making and casting classes periodically in Amado and in Sedona.
When student Lorenzo Gonzales stopped to view the statues recently, his thoughts turned to immigration policy.
“What’s happening lately may cause people to see a different perspective on it,” Gonzales said. “I think there is a real human side to it. There is a struggle on the other side that many people do not understand.”
Las Madres is part of a Sculpture on Campus program that began in 2004 as a partnership between three-dimensional artists and PCC.
“It was a wonderful opportunity for sculptors to have a safe and beautiful venue for their work, a place to impact young students,” James said.
Art instructor Mike Stack said the natural desert landscaping at East Campus provides a very appropriate setting for sculpture.
“It is kind of an extension of the artist’s studio,” Stack said. “We have pieces from PCC faculty, from UA artists, Tucson artists and now from artists all over Arizona.”
The program spread to West Campus in 2009, under the initiative of art faculty member Joe Dal Pra. There are currently three sculptures at West Campus.
Artists who want to display work in the Sculpture On Campus program submit a resume and slides of their work to a selection committee.
“We try to find a good spectrum of work, and we try to show our students that art can be many things,” Stack said. “Sculptors who worked on other campuses, the physical plant, and the administrators were all into it, and it happened.”
Stack said all artwork remains under the artists’ control. “They are instrumental in every part of having their art here, including installation.”
The artwork has been a popular campus addition, Stack added.
“These pieces have been embraced,” he said. “When one leaves, we hear about it.”