By 8:30 in the morning, the temperature neared 90 degrees in the Rio Grande Valley, but that didn’t stop a large group from assembling to witness the unveiling of Senorina “Rina” Roberts’ mosaic, Starry Starry Valley. The mosaic, fashioned after Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, has been a true labor of love for Roberts, her students, her church youth group and members of the community.
“Van Gogh is a very expressive artist, and I like his use of color and emotion,” Roberts said. “I did not want this mural to have a plain blue sky. I wanted excitement. I love the Valley, and I wanted this to reflect that love and my love for art.”
Roberts is hardly a stranger to the world of public art. She and her students created the emotive mural that covers the south wall of the Salvation Army building on 23rd and Pecan in McAllen. The bronze mustang majestically standing on McAllen Memorial High School’s front lawn, the murals at JAGZ and Floreria Amistad and another bronze mustang currently on display at Nuevo Santander Gallery are further examples of the work of Roberts and her students.
Born and raised in McAllen, Roberts graduated from McAllen High School. She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Texas-Pan American and a master’s from Texas A&I. Roberts recently transferred her doctoral work from the University of Houston to the University of Texas at Austin. For the past 12 years, Roberts has shared her love for art with her high school students at Memorial.
Likely weary of seeing the unsightly canal walls lining 2nd Street as she made her way to work each day, Roberts envisioned a Valley rendition of Van Gogh’s masterpiece. Her mosaic would depict the Valley’s landscape, highlighting cactus, sunflowers, magueys, yuccas, palms and mesquite. Like Van Gogh, Roberts created the sun as a focal point, her mosaic stars shining brilliantly in the deep Valley sky. When the project is completed, trained eyes will see the pieces of the sky trickle down and create mustangs, the mascot of Memorial High School.
Roberts first approached two members of Futuro McAllen, Rick de Julio and Greg Townsend. They loved her idea, but told her she must first develop something critical to the success of her project: a budget. Although all of the design and creative work would be done by volunteers, it takes money to buy tile and other products and to have the panels installed.
Roberts turned to Chris Lash, executive director of Keep McAllen Beautiful. Lash immediately saw the impact Roberts’ mosaic could have on the community, aesthetically and as a community-builder. KMB started the ball rolling with over $3,000 in ceramic tile. They also began collecting surplus tile from individuals throughout the community. Roberts then received a $2,000 grant from the RGV Arts Council, which she planned to use to pay for part of the installation cost.
Designing Starry Starry Valley rested solely on Roberts. Once she completed the design, she enlisted the help of her beginning and advanced art students. However, this was not a class project. Instead, Roberts and her students arrived at school by 7 each morning, working until the bell rang to begin the school day and stayed long after the last class ended. Even weekends and summer vacation couldn’t pull them away from their project. A Sunday school teacher at Monte Carmelo Assembly of God, Roberts also asked youth from her church to help, along with her family members and KMB board members. It truly became a community project.
“I often had to remind them that I’m married,” Roberts said, “because they want to stay at school working until midnight.”
Roberts did not see her hours working on the project as a burden. “I do it because I love art,” she said. “I am an artist before I am a teacher. I enjoy working with my art students and my youth group. They inspire me, and I hope I inspire them. I recognize God has given me a talent. I often refer to my art as my silent ministry. I think there is a lot students have to say. What better way to express themselves than to create art?”
It takes organization to complete a project of this magnitude.
“We have different stations,” Roberts said. “One group cuts the tile into geometric shapes. Another group puts a tile under a magazine, and I tell them to hit it one, two or three times with a mallet to create organic shapes. A third group washes and dries the tile and sorts it by color and size. One group fits the pieces together according to a piece of my design I have given them. The next group actually puts those pieces on the mosaic, and the final group trims the pieces to a specific size with the exact curves we need.”
Throughout the process, Roberts remains the lead artist in the project.
“I explain from the beginning that they cannot get their feelings hurt if I tell them to go back and re-work a specific piece,” she said. “They learn to follow my design.”
Prior to the project’s unveiling, city dignitaries spoke to the crowd. Mayor Richard Cortez explained that public art enhances our community in a number of ways, showcasing the pride we have in the way our city looks.
“I’m so excited,” he said, “that this teacher, these students and this community have embraced the Arts.”
McAllen ISD Superintendent Dr. James Ponce shared the mayor’s enthusiasm for the project. “We look forward to more projects like this,” he said.
MISD Fine Arts Director Karen Herrera remembers when Roberts first approached her about the mosaic. “I had no idea the scope, the breadth of this project,” she said. She also had no idea how much Roberts would impact the lives of her students. “She has helped students live out their passion to pursue artistic projects.” As Roberts later explained, the project also involved the development of skills. Volunteers learned about line, shape, form, value, color, space and texture. Many might be surprised to learn that mosaic art also requires a significant amount of math. It took all of these skills to create Starry Starry Valley.
Providing those in the audience with a teaser, Herrera said she was “blown away by the detail.”
As anticipation rose, Roberts provided the audience with a brief description of how the project began. She offered thanks to Rosie Larson, principal at Memorial and all of the assistant principals and to her husband, Jack Roberts (who introduced himself during the event as “Mr. Rina Roberts”) for his support and his understanding of the long hours she spends at Memorial. She also expressed gratitude for Angel Romero from Pro-Tile who is installing the mosaic, to KMB, the city’s Public Works Department and Irrigation District No. 2. Roberts offered special thanks to the interpreters in the Regional School for the Deaf program at Memorial: Mona Hamilton, Una Burbois and Jennifer Garcia. They made it possible for her most dedicated artists, deaf students in the program, to be involved.
As the students pulled the coverings from the mosaic, the entire audience responded with applause and sounds of awe. Roberts and her students beamed as everyone moved in closer to see the intricate detail of their masterpiece.
Roberts hopes Starry Starry Valley will inspire others in the community to create public art.
“It’s the voice of the community,” she said, “a cultural experience. It reflects its people in a colorful manner.” Everywhere she goes, she notices perfect locations for public art in our community.
The unveiling completed, but the echoes of praise reverberating, Roberts offers accolades of her own. “It is because of the Lord that I am able to do this,” she said. “And it is because of my high school art teacher, Pauline Gawlick, that I went to college. She promoted our art by having exhibits and taught us about public art by having us paint fire hydrants in the city and create ice castles for the museum. She has made me become who I am today.”
Now Roberts teaches her students and the community about public art. She and her artists have completed four panels using over 20 different colors. When the project is completed, 22 panels stretching 300 feet will line the canal at 2nd and Hackberry. They need help from the community to complete the project, help in the way of donated tile of any color or size and money that can be used to purchase specific tile and pay for the mosaic’s installation.
“Once the people of the community see this,” she said, “they will help.” It takes every helping hand to create masterpieces like Starry Starry Valley.
NOTE: Donations can be made by contacting KMB at 688-3241.