A communal art project brings healing to Uvalde residents

Uvalde Love Project’s mosaic mural is made up of tiles handmade by community members.

By Alexandra HartAugust 30, 2023 2:43 pm,

The town of Uvalde is full of memorials to the students and teachers killed during last year’s school shooting at Robb Elementary. 

Around town you’ll find a painted mural for each of the 21 victims – signs reading “Uvalde Strong” still sit in store windows. 

Now, another mural – this time a mosaic – has been completed. The art piece was organized by the Uvalde Love Project and was unveiled this past weekend. 

Wanda Montemayor is an Austin-based art therapist behind the Uvalde Love Project. She spoke with  Texas Standard about the project and how art can heal. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Tell us more about the Uvalde Love Project. What is it exactly and what do y’all do?

Wanda Montemayor: The Uvalde Love Project is a community art therapy project that’s based in healing-centered engagement, which is a mouthful. But basically, we wanted to do something that really brought the community together, and a lot of those paintings were singularly done – it was like one or two artists, or maybe a few artists.

But this mural in particular, this mosaic mural, 2,200 people participated – community members – in making a tile during group therapy and at schools. So we partnered with the art teachers who are really our leaders in this project.

It took over the course of a year, you know, and healing trauma isn’t something that’s just going to be overnight. It takes trust. It takes people being able to be comfortable with you to process things. So we took a year and we’re going to continue services for one more year.

Courtesy of Wanda Montemayor

Before we talk about the mosaic proper, how does art therapy work? What is it exactly?

A lot of people think art therapy is like coloring mandalas and stuff like that. But it’s not.

The occupation of art therapy has been around since the forties. And what it is – and there’s different kinds of art therapy – but the real basic aspect of it is that art therapy tells a story that we don’t have words for. And so this mural, you see a beautiful product, but mostly art therapy is about the process. It’s about the connection. It gives words to things that don’t necessarily have words.

Trauma is stored in the brain, not where the verbal part is – the frontal cortex is where talk therapy accesses. The amygdala is more of your primal brain, and that’s where trauma is, and that’s where art therapy addresses and gets in there and helps actually physically get it out of your body.

Just to be clear, the therapeutic value is in the creativity. Is that right?

That is correct.

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So, as I understand it, one of the big goals of the Uvalde Love Project was to complete this mosaic. Can you describe it for our listeners?

The mosaic mural is 361 inches long and 121 inches tall. So it’s a little under 300 square feet.

The teachers helped design it, so they wanted images of nature, they wanted something that celebrates the community, but they also wanted to highlight the those fallen. And so they decided on 21 butterflies. And so the Austin Mosaic Guild was one of our partners and different artists made these beautiful glass mosaic murals. That’s the only glass in the mural.

Now there’s probably 200 or 300 ceramic butterflies, so the entire mosaic is made of handmade tile. There’s no commercial tile at all involved in the mural. And then there’s also fields of beautiful flowers, the blanket flowers.

Courtesy of Wanda Montemayor

Their mascot’s the coyote, so we have a large coyote and a baby coyote. And Uvalde is actually called Tree City. The other thing that you’re taken away with is how many trees. It’s also the Honey City – that’s what they’re known for, too. So there’s a lot of pollinators, which is butterflies and bees, you can see in this.

And then there’s also these really special clouds, which the staff and teachers made their names and they made messages in the clouds. So this is a happy, warm, healing mural.

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So dedication ceremony was over the weekend in Uvalde. What’s the community reception been to this project?

Oh my God, it was amazing.

So again, I think I told you 200 people participated. A lot of those were children. That’s one out of eight people in Uvalde. Most of those are children.

So our team went to Sacred Heart, a local Catholic school, which went from 40 to 120 children after the shooting. We were able to make tiles with every single child and staff there, and then the teachers and the Uvalde Elementary, they made it with all of their classrooms. And so the children made these beautiful tiles.

We had 350 people at the dedication. It was an amazing turnout. We had dancers, we had singers. It was fantastic.

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