Throughout his career, Mexico City-based artist, Libre Gutierrez has used art as a way to bring communities together. Working alone and with nonprofit organizations around the world, he creates murals that explore themes of pollution, global warming, and migration, but also of unity, hope, and resiliency. It was in the outskirts of his hometown Tijuana where he first invited children to paint with him.
“Eighteen years ago, you couldn’t get a wall downtown [in Tijuana] because people hated the idea of spray paint,” he tells Hyperallergic. So Gutierrez and his friends painted on the outskirts, and local kids circled around to watch. “I didn’t want them to be voyeurs, so I asked if they wanted to participate.” It happened organically, but Gutierrez saw the power of art in changing attitudes and providing hope to struggling communities and began seeking out these opportunities.
For his latest series, Transportapueblos, Companion of Migrants, Gutierrez created five wooden coyote sculptures that share helpful information and needed supplies such as water and maps to help migrants traveling through Mexico. Gutierrez chose the animal for its symbolic implications since “coyote” is the term used to describe people who help migrants cross the border, but also because it’s his “power animal.” It was through his volunteer work at Casa Touchán, a migrant shelter in Mexico City, that Gutierrez learned that many migrants weren’t aware of the resources available to them. There are 84 migrant shelters in Mexico, but some don’t know they exist. He spoke with migrants who shared stories of getting lost on the route, worrying about their safety, and not knowing what cities served as entry points into the United States. Gutierrez sat down with eight men from the shelter to create a list of resources that would be helpful to those journeying through Mexico.
Because he wanted to fully understand the hardships firsthand, Gutierrez joined a caravan on “La Bestia,” or the beast, a name given to the cargo trains that transport migrants through Mexico. The journey through Mexico is so perilous that migrants often decide that the train is their best option, even though there are numerous stories of passengers falling, losing limbs, or being targets of criminals.
“I was replicating what the migrants told me about the train — it’s cold, it’s dangerous, it’s hard,” he says. “I wanted to know the experience in order for me not to replicate it, but to have lived it.”
Gutierrez spent 10 days traveling north on top the trains alongside families, many of whom were traveling with small children. “We were threatened, and we were treated really well,” he says. “Whenever the train would stop, we were always cautious, but mostly people came with water and food.” The experience deepened his resolve to do more.
Gutierrez initially planned to share the information that would be helpful to migrants on large signs that he would place along the trail through Mexico, but when he received an unexpected grant from the Kindle Project in 2016, he decided to create coyote sculptures. He had been paining coyotes since his college days, so he was familiar with the image that he wanted to create. To Gutierrez, the transition from painting murals to constructing large sculptures felt natural because of his background in architecture. “I’ve always felt that I’m more of a sculptor than a painter,” he says. He sketches each design and then uses computer-aided design (CAD) to create a floor plan before welding the metal base, often from tall heights and shaky ladders. The frame is covered in slabs of recycled wood, which is “tattooed” with a map of Mexico on one side and resources available to migrants on the other. Shelving inside the tail serves as a collection center for supplies. Each design is unique and the information shared is specific to the statue’s location. “I hate when you go to a museum and you can’t get close to a piece. My sculptures are contrary to that — I want people to write on them and leave messages,” he explains.
In Tapachula, Chiapas, Gutierrez created a mother and cub coyote after his experience on “La Bestia” alongside families traveling with small children and due to his desire to show the female perspective. The mama coyote stands at almost 11 feet tall and looks down protectively at her cub. On the top of her back sit colorful homes that double as birdhouses, sporting flags representing countries affected by the migrant crisis. Through the partnership of the organization Sin Fronteras, Gutierrez was able to work alongside migrants from four other countries on the Tapachula sculptures. “Transpoartapueblos: Los Resilientes,” which is part of the series and was created in partnership with NOW Art LA and the Museum of Social Justice, sits outside the LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in Los Angeles.
Working with the community is what drives Gutierrez and his work. “I believe we are all children of migration. Whenever we travel, we bring our colors, our pueblos or towns, our culture, our music, our food,” he says. “It’s always with us.”