High atop a hill

Two months ago, it was just a water tank. Now it’s art.

Anthony Holt (left), Domini Booday Licata, Shanan Fisher and Matthew McDowell are four of the teens who worked on the mural.

Anthony Holt (left), Domini Booday Licata, Shanan Fisher and Matthew McDowell are four of the teens who worked on the mural.

Photo By David Robert

This is the story of how a big, ugly round thing was transformed into something beautiful.

Five days a week for two months, eight teenage artists dragged themselves into the pale cool morning and climbed to the top of a desert hill. This was their summer vacation—a daily trek to the hulking water tank perched above North McCarran Boulevard. One day, the green concrete cylinder had no romance, no reason to give drivers pause. Then the teens, under the supervision of artist Ray Valdez, came with paint and brushes and invincible attitudes. Today, drivers on North McCarran glimpse vivid, colorful images of Lady Justice, Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam.

Several months ago, the Truckee Meadows Water Authority commissioned Sierra Arts’ Youth ArtWorks program to organize the creation of a mural on the mammoth tank, something relating to the theme “freedom.” Youth ArtWorks coordinator Anne-Marie Glover asked Valdez to head up the project, and together she and Valdez interviewed student artists, choosing eight teens to design and paint the mural.

Of course, when you’re a teen, “freedom” is a particularly mouth-watering subject. Rather than trace patriotic clichés onto their giant canvas, the teens thought about what personal freedom and love of country mean to them. What they didn’t want was a “big flag,” a blatant, unquestioning display of country-love. They wanted to explore what America is about, explore why and how it differs from other countries.

“These kids have a lot of openness, creativity,” Valdez says. “I think there’s a tremendous respect for this country, but … these are angry people. They don’t feel it’s all all right.”

Anthony Holt, 18, says that, hopefully, they managed to piss off at least a few folks.

The teens laugh in agreement.

“We got a lot of our feelings out,” says 16-year-old Dominic Boodah Licata.

Some of those feelings regard graffiti—something very much on the minds of these teens, though they scoff at the term “at risk.” Graffiti-style lettering, in fact, appears in the mural.

“It’s a form of artwork,” Licata says of graffiti.

“When it’s done with permission, there’s nothing wrong with it,” adds 19-year-old Matthew McDowell. “If it’s done illegally, it’s still artwork, but …”

Most of the mural’s images are broad and complex, like the one of Uncle Sam wagging his bony finger in front of a World Trade Center backdrop. The image is enclosed within a glass globe, and the globe rests in the palm of a gigantic hand. This hand is bound by the same chain that shackles Lady Justice, who stands nearby.

“We didn’t want to conform,” says 16-year-old Shanan Fisher. “But we also wanted to show our pride in America.”

And have fun along the way.

“They had Lady Justice showing her panties, and that wasn’t going to fly," Valdez says with a laugh. "So we gave her more cleavage."