In the shadow of the Albuquerque Convention Center, a man darts across a lift, paintbrush in hand, a marionette muralist coaxing a golden petal to life.
Francisco Díaz (aka Pastel) is an Argentina-born former architect-turned-muralist creating a bower of native flowers across the seemingly deserted 6,650-square-foot Tower Plaza Building.
Sponsored by 516 ARTS, the 25-foot-tall project at 510 Second NW is one of two Díaz murals brightening Downtown Albuquerque.
His other work, already completed, bedecks the 640-square-foot Sanitary Tortilla Factory, 401 Second SW. Local businesses and building owner John Mahoney donated 61 gallons of paint for that mural.
Díaz finished the Sanitary Tortilla Factory building in four days; he expected to complete the Tower Plaza Building mural last week.
The Buenos Aires-born Díaz paints murals across the globe, a second career launched after he fled architecture, sick of designing anonymous concrete buildings with no sense of place.
“All of the developments are full of non-places,” he said, dressed in paint-spattered pants and athletic shoes. “They don’t have an identity of the land or a connection with the people passing by.”
The artist sees murals as “urban acupuncture,” a kind of intervention.
“It’s like putting some needles in the city and trying to make it better,” he said.
Tower Plaza Building consultant Jill Mahoney had long envisioned a mural across the south side of the former icehouse, built in 1923.
“First of all, I love murals, and I’m a fan of the art movement that’s happening around the world,” she said.
Mahoney called 516 ARTS Director Suzanne Sbarge.
“I said, ‘We’re just tired of what we have.’ She directed me to his work online” Mahoney said. “Literally that night, I started obsessing about it.
“I like the way he merges the feminine and the masculine. I love the rich colors.”
The building is being converted to a home for art studios and residential spaces with a gallery and collaborative studio.
Díaz hand-sketches the initial drawings after researching local botany. A projector propels the outlines onto the wall, creating a kind of paint-by-numbers road map. He preset his color choices, but he brightened the corals, reds, yellows and blues in the composition when he arrived here.
“I want to create a dialogue between the mural and the environment,” he said. “In this case, all the buildings are brown, so I created pop-up colors.”
Curator Valerie Roybal performed the plant research, saying the murals fit well within 516 ARTS’ “Cross Pollination” theme, a group exhibition about plants and their pollinators opening Aug. 19.
“I was following him on Instagram,” Roybal said. “His work is all based on botanicals. I tried to look for plants that were completely native and that spring up on their own without intervention. Even sunflowers spring up in the cracks in the sidewalks.
“He’s extremely driven. He’s so thoroughly clear about his vision, and that comes across in how he works. He works very quickly. He’s definitely a maestro.”
Sanitary Tortilla Factory owner Sheri Crider saw the mural as a way to promote her new contemporary art incubator. The building features 15 artist studios, exhibition space and a small fabrication area.
Crider paid for half the of the cost of the mural; a grant from the Albuquerque Public Art Program funded the rest.
“The images of his work online are phenomenal, and I really liked the idea of the regional pollinator,” she said.
Díaz has painted murals in Italy, Portugal, Poland, Australia, Mexico and Miami. After he returns home from Albuquerque, he’ll head to Belgium, Germany, France, Portugal and Oakland, Calif., where he’ll open a solo show.
He admits to sleep deprivation.
Díaz created his tallest mural across a nine-story building in Manila, Philippines. He paints about 15 murals a year.
So far, the sidewalk traffic has been positive, he said.
“They say, ‘Thank you,’ and ‘We love it,’ ” he said. “When I leave here at 7 p.m., there are always some people sleeping here, so in a way, I’m painting their living room.”
UpFront is a regular Journal news and opinion column. Comment directly to Kathaleen Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.