Córdoba read extensively about Madison's history, then observed the city directly.
What does Madison's soul look like?
Mexican muralist José Guadalupe Ríos Córdoba has been asking himself this question since arriving in town last month from Madison's Mexican sister city, Tepatitlán. As part of an international artist exchange, he will soon begin working on a mural for the Madison Municipal Building.
The mural is designed to convey both the heart and history of Madison. Visitors can watch Córdoba paint it until Aug. 15 in the Doty Street entryway. There will be a dedication ceremony at noon on Aug. 18.
The exchange was the idea of Sal Carranza, co-chair of Madison's Sister City Collaboration Committee. A Kickstarter campaign called Bringing Madison's History to Life has been launched to raise funds to help the project continue. The exchange began with local muralist Sharon Kilfoy creating a mural at a Tepatitlán elementary school.
"Sharon is considered our resident community artist," Carranza says. "Jose is their resident official artist. He is recognized all over."
Kilfoy mentions an impressive mural Córdoba created in Tepatitlán's city hall.
"You walk through it and pass into an open-air courtyard. The mural covers both sides of the wall and the ceilings. It's just wonderful."
Córdoba paints in a Mexican mural tradition that reached its peak from the 1920s through the 1950s. Begun as a way for illiterate citizens to learn their own history, the tradition remains a powerful, pictorial display of what is important to the people of a specific area.
Córdoba read extensively about Madison's history, then observed the city directly. He also received input from local residents. His final design incorporates many of their ideas.
In the planned mural, the Capitol is surrounded by several ethnic groups that helped build Madison: Ho Chunk Native Americans, Europeans, African Americans and Latinos. Also represented are major historical contributions by the progressive movement, equal opportunity legislation, the women's movement, the UW, and the gay and lesbian community. Córdoba plans to fit in some of the protests and rallies that have occurred here as well.
"Jose didn't want the mural to be politicized, but when he spoke to Mayor Soglin, [the mayor] said that Madison has a tradition of progressive activism. Jose felt he could portray that best by using silhouettes of rallies and protest signs, without representing any one particular event," Carranza says.
References to the environmental movement and dairy farming are planned, along with depictions of lesser-known figures like Cordelia Harvey, who cared for orphans during the Civil War.
Córdoba was deeply moved by Harvey's compassion. He says it points to what he finally discovered to be the true soul of Madison: human rights.
"The delegation that first came to sign the sister city agreement said they felt that Madison is a utopian city," Córdoba says. "I wanted to confirm what they told me, and I did. Madison is a beautiful city, a diverse city, a city of high ideals. I hope that people in Madison will see themselves reflected. And see how the world sees them."