E lko is a city of 21,000 that prides itself on a small-town vibe, an economy based largely on mining, and a long tradition of ranching culture. It’s home to Basque eateries like Toki Ona, Ogi Deli, and The Star Hotel, and it’s been home to the National Basque Festival for well over 50 years. Now, it’s also home to a new kind of cultural expression—a few dozen murals. The Elko Mural Expo took place Sept. 26-29, pairing local businesses with muralists from Elko, Reno, around the U.S., and as far away as Argentina and Spain.
The event is the brainchild of Eric Brooks and Geralda Miller, directors of Art Spot Reno, who lead mural tours in Reno and began a mural expo there in 2017. Elko had caught Brooks’ eye when he’d stayed overnight there on a road trip, and when the duo began talking about hosting another mural event, Brooks said, “Elko was the first place we thought of.”
Brooks and Miller looked up Elko’s mayor and city council members and pitched them the idea of a town-wide mural expo. Brooks said that the reception from city officials was immediately warm. Catherine Wines, chair of the city’s Arts and Culture Advisory Board, told the Elko Daily Free Press in 2018, “Sometimes it has been such a struggle to promote public art and now these super cool guys from Reno called us and said, ‘Do you want to do this?”’
While arts and culture supporters embraced the idea, some others were skeptical. Anthony Crosby, host of the blog and interview series Anthony About Town, said he heard a few comments along the lines of, “We like this, but we want Elko to stay Elko. We don’t want to try to become something we’re not.”
Art Spot got out ahead of any potential culture clash by contracting Erik Burke—a muralist who lives in Reno and works all over the globe—to paint a “preview mural” a year in advance. “I felt it was very important to have a piece that would resonate with the community,” said Art Spot’s Eric Brooks.
To bring that preview mural to fruition, the artist and Ogi Deli owners Anamarie and Mikel Lopategui agreed on the design, which includes a girl in traditional Basque attire, a picture of accordion player Bernardo Yanci, and a mountain view foregrounded with tall aspen trunks, all painted on a block-long wall around the corner from Ogi’s front door. Sheepherders from the region came into town to paint their initials on the trees, echoing a long-held tradition of herders carving pictures, names and initials into aspens’ smooth, white bark. (Visit just about any old-growth aspen grove in the state and look carefully. Tree carvings dating back a half century or more are plentiful.)
Brooks added the Arts and Culture Advisory Board “did a fantastic job of keeping the business owners informed. So the business owners got to have a lot of say as to what went up on their walls. They got to be in communication with the artists. … I think that helped with that stigma a little bit—a lot. It wasn’t just random people coming in and graffitti-ing the wall. It was a partnership.”
“Street art” came into prominence in the 1970s and ’80s, at first in the form of illegal graffiti, often in larger cities. The medium has since gained legitimacy in many circles, and it has its share of international art stars, some of whose work is commissioned and sanctioned, some of whom still work illegally. In recent years, many street artists have made community input a part of their process and their ethic—a phenomenon detailed in the 2017 film Faces Places, which followed French street artist JR and New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda to small towns in France, where they put portraits of locals into large, outdoor artworks. In Elko, Burke’s mural outside of Ogi’s made a nod to this process, and so did murals by some other artists.
Jennifer Charbonneau from Reno, who’s long hosted outdoor community painting events, painted Lamoille Canyon in grayscale in the alley between Idaho Street and Railroad Street. To render the Ruby Mountains in dark gray swaths, she didn’t use brushstrokes. Instead, she asked hundreds of passersby to make thumbprints.
Sebastian Velasco is an artist from Spain whose murals—in places like Italy, France, Croatia and Las Vegas—speak of inclusiveness. “He never does a mock-up,” Brooks said. “He goes to a community and meets with them. He … takes photos, then after two or three days of that, he does a mural.” Velasco met with Elko Basque Club board member Pedro Ormaza, who introduced him to several members of the Basque community. Velasco ended up painting a family-album-style group portrait on the back of Vogue Laundry. In the picture, the group poses in front of The Star, which has been a Basque gathering spot since 1910. According to Brooks—in a turn of events not unheard-of in Nevada—some of Velasco’s Elko subjects have cousins whom the artist knows from Spain.
Among Elko business owners, one happy customer is Paul Stimac. He met Art Spot’s directors at his Fifth Street coffeehouse, Cowboy Joe, which they frequently used as a meeting spot. “When it came to pairing an artist with a wall, it was eenie meenie miney mo,” Stimac said. He ended up paired with Bill Louis, a full-time muralist with a bright, geometrical style who was born in Fiji, raised in Reno, and now lives in Eagle Mountain, Utah. Louis came up with a design highlighting the nearby Ruby Mountains for Cowboy Joe’s back courtyard. “I suggested some changes,” Stimac said. “I wanted a cowboy. He didn’t have a cowboy. That hat … didn’t seem like a cowboy hat. It seemed like an ’80s trucker hat. I showed him some different hats.” He reported that Louis happily incorporated the changes.
Art Spot’s Eric Brooks said that plans are in the works for the Elko Downtown Business Association to offer tours of Elko’s new murals in the near future.