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Albuquerque Apprenticeship Offers Path to the Arts

CDFI-funded nonprofit has installed large-scale mosaic murals across the city. 

By Erica Sweeney 

Every summer for the past five years, Jacquelyn Yepa, 21, has helped create public art mosaics across the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, with Apprenticeships for Leaders in Mosaic Arts (ALMA). 

“I was curious to see what it was like to do art as a summer job and I was excited to be more experienced with clay and what it took to make a large-scale mural,” she says. Along with learning about art, the program has taught her life skills, such as on finances, communication and how to promote herself as an artist. 

“Starting off, I was very shy, and over the years, I learned to be more verbal and to give good presentations,” says Yepa, now a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, working on a degree in studio arts, business and entrepreneurship. “My goal is to build myself up as an artist and take the ideas I have and turn them into a reality. I want to make animations and claymations for indigenous youth, and to take the skills I have learned with ALMA and lead Native youth in artistic events to uplift young artists.”

ALMA was founded in 1999 as a city program called the Mayor’s Art Institute. In 2015, the organization became a nonprofit. Albuquerque-based CDFI The Loan Fund has served as a fiscal sponsor for ALMA and provided lines of credit.

The ALMA Summer Institute is a paid apprenticeship for youth ages 16 to 24 to create permanent handmade tile mosaic murals in public spaces across Albuquerque. Students help finalize designs, handmake tiles and install the mosaic. They also learn skills, like applying and interviewing for jobs, which will help them in future endeavors. 

“Apprentices work alongside a master artist and it teaches them, but also compensates them for their work and gives them training on all these transferable skills,” says Vanessa Alvarado, lead artist and outreach director at ALMA. She started as an apprentice with the program in 2006. 

“It's really deep mentorship,” she says. “While creating this public art for our community, it brings a lot of beautification to our community, but a sense of pride for the youth and gives them the hope of a career in the arts.” 

This summer, the group began working on a multi-year project at the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge. Several years in the works, the project started with a series of community conversations, says Margarita Paz-Pedro, ALMA operations director and lead artist. The mural design centers on the four cardinal directions (north, south, east and west), the four seasons and the local wildlife that coincides with the seasons. 

Two butterfly murals have been completed, and work will continue over the next two summers, she says. Many of the tiles for the mosaic were made in a community tile workshop. “We invited the community to come make a leaf for our butterfly, and our apprentices placed them and installed them all,” says Paz-Pedro, who joined ALMA in 2009 as a part-time artist and also works as a high school art teacher. 

Locations typically inspire the mosaic designs, she explains. A mural at the Albuquerque Convention Center visually tells stories of New Mexico’s history. A mural at a public library centers on the state’s literary and oral history traditions. 

“It’s about honoring the communities that live here,” Alvarado says, adding that she’s learned so much from her time as an ALMA apprentice and in her leadership role, which she’s carried into her career as a high school art teacher. 

“It's really hard to talk about the program without going on and on because it's the love of my life,” she says. “It has taught me how to be a proud female of color, how to collaborate, how to communicate, just giving me a sense of pride in my community. It's taught me how to be a teacher, how to be a better human being and value a lot of different perspectives and places where people come from.” 

Both Alvarado and Paz-Pedro say they appreciate the opportunity to bring beautiful public works of art to the city that will be around for generations. 

“I value public art in the city because I feel like there's a sense of pride in the community when there's art and resources placed there,” Alvarado says. “Our organization really values community input. And, because youth from our community created these murals, there’s a sense of ownership.” 

This story is part of our series, CDFI Futures, which explores the community development finance industry through the lenses of equity, public policy and inclusive community development. The series is developed in partnership with Next City.