Filomena Cruz fosters community dialogue through art with ‘The Wall That Gives’

By Christina Campodonico

For the past eight months, Venice artist Filomena Cruz has been leaving art tiles, including those pictured below, at “The Wall That Gives” Photo By Christina Campodonico

For the past eight months, Venice artist Filomena Cruz has been leaving art tiles, including those pictured below, at “The Wall That Gives” Photo By Christina Campodonico

One morning in 2013, artist Filomena Cruz awoke to a horrific sight on the wall outside her Venice home. A beautiful mural there had been graffitied over with Nazi symbols.

“It was covered in swastikas,” recounts Cruz. “It was awful. … We had to paint over it.”

Cruz never found out who desecrated the wall, but she didn’t allow this random act of vandalism to keep her from turning the site into a positive space for community art-making.

“Walls are such a hostile time-space unit,” says Cruz. “[I thought:] Why don’t I do something that is the opposite?”

So every day for the past eight months, Cruz has taken a collaged art tile of her own making and placed it in a small square niche at the center of the wall along Pacific Avenue between Breeze Avenue and Brooks Court.

And every day that tile disappears, usually replaced by some token from an anonymous passerby.

She calls the art installation “The Wall That Gives,” or “El Muro que Da” in Spanish.

Since starting her project, Cruz has seen fruit, cash, coins, candy bars and even a cigarette box stuffed with leaves left behind. Someone even drew a clown next to the niche once, another time a tree branch over a crack in the facade.

Some might see these discards as no more than pieces of trash, these doodles as one step above graffiti, but Cruz sees them as a kind of correspondence for “The Wall That Gives.”

“It has generated some kind of mute or visual dialogue with other artists or people who just add their own flair to the wall,” says Cruz. “So it really has gone well beyond graffiti. … It makes you feel that there’s a certain degree of solidarity, of community and of people giving freely.”

Cruz also sees this activation of the wall as a healing process for the previously vandalized site.

“I think because graffiti is often read and done as an act of defiance, and since this wall is a friendly wall that gives, it sort of neutralizes that instinct to use it as a war zone,” says Cruz.

The wall has also inspired Cruz’s individual artistic practice. For every item or drawing left at the “The Wall That Gives,” Cruz replies in her own artistic way, creating a tile that responds to each gift.

“I integrate whatever I find on the wall into my art, so I’m recycling materials all the time,” says Cruz. “I call it endless recycling because I take a picture of something, I cut it, I draw a collage, then I scan it, I print it and then I use that collage to do yet another collage.”

“The Wall That Gives” is not simply a creative experiment for Cruz, but also an integral part of her work in UCLA’s Department of Spanish & Portuguese, where she’s better known as Professor Maite Zubiaurre.

At UCLA she teaches an honors course examining the cultural meaning and environmental impact of trash — themes that the “The Wall That Gives” aims to explore in everyday, urban life through the real items that are left behind.

“It’s a combination of a research project and my pedagogical practice,” says Cruz, who hopes that through her course and her artwork she can teach and “ignite compassion” in others, compelling them to see trash and the people associated with it in a new light.

“When you see a piece of trash, you’re indifferent,” says Cruz. “You get this sense of revulsion. ‘Uhh. Ugly. Why is trash here? Yuck.’ Which is the same reaction the homeless elicit — a sense of indifference and revulsion. ‘Why is this homeless [person] here?’ The same discourse is interchangeable for trash and for the homeless.”

Yet she feels that art can turn this association around.

“Art is powerful means of expression,” she says. “It really forces you to look at these things from a very different perspective. It opens up sides to a reality you would not see. … People who are trained to look at trash differently will eventually be trained to look at people differently. If you slow down and pay attention, something happens with your brain and your heart. …You are igniting the poetic imagination.”

Filomena Cruz will be leaving art tiles at “The Wall that Gives” through Aug. 25.