As the 15th annual Mountainair Sunflower Festival was in full bloom Saturday afternoon, volunteer Dee Melaragno presented some of her artwork at the town’s local art gallery. Melaragno, a retired nurse from Rhode Island, said she had never painted until she moved to Mountainair.
“New Mexico brings out the artist in everyone, I think,” Melaragno said.
Melaragno is one of several volunteers to work at this year’s sunflower festival. Hundreds of attendees participated in the festivities while local produce and crafts were sold at nearby stands.
At one moment a small group of girls were judged on the craftiness of their sunflower hats; at another, an elderly couple danced beside a sunflower lamp shade to the country tunes of a local musician.
Melaragno has volunteered at the festival since she arrived in Mountainair seven years ago. She said the small town thrives through local art. She also helps run the Cibola Art Gallery, a location held together by the volunteer work of other local artists. She said the gallery’s artwork helps encourage visitors to continue coming back to Mountainair.
“We get people who are coming from Belen and Manzano and all around,” she said. “The gallery has a nice reputation, so we bring people into town and when they’re in town they get something to eat, they’ll buy some groceries and it all sort of works.”
Mural artist Tomas Wolff organized a community mural during the festival, inviting passersby and their children to paint alongside him. Wolff got his start as a community muralist in Pennsylvania before continuing his work in Mountainair seven years ago.
“When I was living on the east coast in Pennsylvania, this was my main outlet, through community murals,” said Wolff. “I like working with community people, (making) art a social force rather than it being some pretty pictures.”
Wolff is a member of the Manzano Mountain Art Council and has helped organize community murals throughout the town. Wolff said the project first began with a mural along the north wall of the town’s local market.
Adorned with shades of bright reds and greens, the vegetable basket depicted was pieced together by local artists and citizens with no prior experience in art, he said.
Since then, murals have spread throughout Mountainair. An elaborate quilt mosaic stretches alongside the local senior center while a turquoise and red caduceus and ice cream cone adorn the nearby ‘Meds and More’ soda fountain’s wall.
Wolff said exposure towards creating community murals can help small towns like Mountainair.
“Mountainair is a depressed community — it is economically poor and so we’re sort of isolated out here,” he said. “One of the ways to get a community to revive is to get together. It is at the basis of community development, I think. Getting people to communicate, talk and share some of their ideas … art is one of the best ways to do that.”
New York native Donna Deiner has three years of Sunflower Festival volunteer experience under her belt. Deiner, who was in charge of the festival’s information booth, raffles and T-shirts, said she and her husband retired to Mountainair after her son began attending school in New Mexico.
“We knew that when we retired we were not going to stay in New York,” she said. “I’ve found my second home.”
Deiner is also a member of the town’s mentorship program, where she monitors the education progress of an elementary school student. She said the town’s push toward community murals helps create a tighter community.
“This is a very special place,” Deiner said. “It’s blessed; It brings people together.”