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The Iron Canvas

by Published on
photo by Jazmine Ulloa
Artists install a wreath by Susan Harbage Page on the border wall.

On a windy, late-February Sunday in Brownsville, gallery owner Mark Clark and a dozen artists left the gallery carrying paintings and other pieces. They crossed the street, passed a lone Border Patrol van on the river levee, and arrived in Hope Park, a green space on the Rio Grande that celebrates ties between Mexico and the United States. In defiance of the Border Patrol, they began hanging artwork on the rusty, unfinished wall snaking its way partly through the park, the art’s colors popping against the gritty iron bars and overcast sky. It was a way to “beautify the ugly,” Clark says. “It lets people know that the wall has not gone away as a political issue and that we are extremely disappointed in the Obama administration and their decision to continue this idiocy.”

Clark has been fighting the wall since 2006, when former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and his entourage first came to the border city. Clark picketed Chertoff’s press conferences, participated in citywide protests, and tagged the gallery’s roof with No Al Muro (“No Border Wall”) in charcoal. When Chertoff’s tenure ended in 2009, Clark threw him a retirement party at the gallery, where guests could pummel a piñata modeled after Chertoff and throw shoes at a George W. Bush impersonator.

Clark is still fighting, even though the struggle can feel doomed at times. Immigration reform has fallen on the nation’s backburner, and construction on the wall is rolling along at $12 to $18 million a mile. The rest of the country may have moved on to other topics, but Clark and his neighbors can’t because of the hulking reminder. He no longer rides his bicycle along the levee to work. “It used to be a quiet, serene ride through nature,” he says. “When you have an iron curtain on one side blocking your view, it is a little on the oppressive and depressing side.”

He says he is not going to let the United States forget it’s making a mistake. So on Feb. 28, he turned the wall into a canvas that displayed people’s frustrations with the metal divide. There were paintings of moonlit mojadas, female border-crossers, and the river view undisrupted by the fence. An illustration by Clark depicted dozens of Mexicans marching into the country through a hole in the fence. One Mexican was an unemployed Ronald McDonald selling helados, ice cream, on the corner. It is “every nightmare about Mexican immigration,” he says. There were conceptual pieces, such as a missing-person poster and a pile of stuff including a pair of shoes, a deflated flotation tire, and a water jug left behind by immigrants illegally crossing the border through Arizona. A 30-foot ladder of green bamboo and twine leaned against the fence, reaching toward the sky and swaying in the wind. Artist David Freeman, an arts instructor at South Texas College in McAllen, stuck salva-tree thorns on the rungs to symbolize obstacles faced by illegal immigrants in the United States.

Perhaps the brightest display was that of Susan Harbage Page, a photographer and lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Page designed a funeral wreath using colored ribbons and plastic flowers arranged like a target. It is a memorial to the lives lost crossing the border, “a beautiful thing that sucks you in but represents many harsh realities and losses,” she says.
The installation came and went quietly, without any clashes with U.S. Border Patrol or local authorities. “I plan to do this every year,” Clark says, “until the wall goes away.”

Jazmine Ulloa is a staff reporter with the Brownsville Herald.