Muralists Roots Art Kollective on Art & Community Impact
As a kid, Luis Novoa was transfixed by Ave Maria, painted in 2009 by famous duo El Mac and Retna. The mural towers as a 44-foot-tall depiction of the Virgin Mary on the side of the old Guthrie Bicycles building in downtown Salt Lake City, with prayers surrounding her in calligraphy. “This Virgin Mary mural … it’s one of the main reasons why I paint murals,” says Novoa. “Those artists probably don’t even know me … but they impacted me my whole life.” Novoa is one third of Roots Art Kollective, or RAK, a group of muralists and leaders in the Salt Lake City art scene. The group’s other members, Miguel Galaz and Alan Ochoa, also reference the work’s importance on them growing up. Now, their studio is in that very building. “It was kind of a full circle moment for us,” says Novoa.
“As soon as we finish [the murals], they become yours, you know? They become the community’s.”
The trio shares a Mexican-American heritage and a West Side upbringing, and each member has a distinct style they bring to their collaborations. Galaz’s bold, symmetrical patterns, inspired by Mesoamerican motifs, form the backbone of the work. Ochoa paints detailed flora and fauna, incorporating his knowledge of ecology. Rounding out the group, Novoa adds his calligraphy. The words inspire the title of each piece and tie together its greater theme.
The three sections, though stylistically distinct from each other, synthesize into an immediately recognizable look. RAK brainstorms each mural together, bouncing ideas back and forth. At the wall, they start with measuring and drafting for Galaz’s geometry. “Once that’s laid out, we split up into our separate focal points,” says Ochoa. Galaz adds, “We each have our section that we paint, but we tend to finish at around the same time, which is cool.”
Inspired by the influential trio of 1920s Mexican muralists Los Tres Grandes, RAK joins in a rich tradition. “It’s kind of cool to see that we’re following those paths but also adding to that legacy… of storytellers on the wall,” Novoa says. As a group, they’ve painted murals all over Salt Lake City and in other states. Recently, their work was featured at the UMFA. But, they didn’t start because of these opportunities or the money that came with them. “We were just trying to paint,” says Ochoa, “for free or even at a cost to us.” Novoa agrees: “These are our communities, right? So, we want to add to them,” he says.
“If we are leaders in community art … it just makes me [think] we need to do more. We gotta do more murals that are free for the community …”
The three members of RAK are reluctant to describe themselves as leaders, but they view the acknowledgment to be validating of their efforts. “That took us by surprise,” says Galaz. “That was our goal—to kind of have an impact.” Ochoa adds, “If we are leaders in community art … it just makes me [think] we need to do more. We gotta do more murals that are free for the community … just figure out a way to make that happen. Because … even though we started painting in the West Side area, there are still not a lot of murals over there.”
The three artists were drawn to murals because they share a drive to create something big with a tangible impact. They are mindful of their power in the community and their role in adding to its beauty. “As soon as we finish [the murals], they become yours, you know? They become the community’s,” says Novoa. “So we try to take into account who will see it every day. Enjoy it, feel it, experience it.” They hope their work will encourage more local kids to make art and dream big. They are both adding to a legacy and laying the groundwork for whoever’s coming next. “[Murals] serve as inspiration while growing up and seeing that it’s possible,” Galaz says. “There’s so many ways to create art … and send a positive message that people can connect with.”
Learn more about Roots Art Kollective at their website, rootsartkollective.com, or on Instagram @therak.murals. Novoa’s art will also be featured at Urban Arts Gallery in their February show, Notes from the Margins.
Read more about local artists honoring their identities and cultures here:
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