McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Artist Ruth Hoyt’s fingers were covered in colored chalk as she followed a grid in her hand and tried to map the design of a green jay, the official bird of the city of McAllen. Her canvas: a concrete irrigation pipe.
Border Report caught up with Hoyt, 67, earlier this month as she was beginning to paint her first of three irrigation pipes — a city-wide art project in which colorful and cultural motifs are painted on these old water devices that farmers used to channel water from the Rio Grande north of the border.
“We are painting irrigation pipes with anything that represents McAllen,” Hoyt said.
Like many artists in South Texas, she volunteers her time and talent to paint these pipes that stick up several feet from the ground every few blocks and were put in decades ago to help bring water to what used to be an agricultural hub.
Now, most of the farms have been sold and subdivided into urban subdivisions full of homes and apartments. And that’s why officials with the nonprofit Keep McAllen Beautiful began the Irrigation Pipe Public Art Project to beautify these stacks and spread colorful culture about the Rio Grande Valley.
“We get a lot of positive feedback from the public because they really enjoy the artwork,” Chris Lash, program manager for Keep McAllen Beautiful, told Border Report this week.
Lash said the project began several years ago and started with the tiling of pipes, but that cost about $5,000 per pipe. So a couple of years ago, they put a call out for volunteer artists and have been overwhelmed by the response.
About 55 irrigation pipes so far have been painted or tiled, Lash said.
About 55 irrigation pipes have been painted or tiled throughout McAllen, Texas, through the nonprofit Keep McAllen Beautiful’s project. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)
There are about 200 pipes throughout the city, so there are many more to beautify.
“We’ve been focusing on planning on painting them to beautify them because, you know, it’s just a concrete column basically. And so we thought, what a better way to introduce public art to McAllen than to bring artists together to paint on these pipes,” Lash said.
She says they work in collaboration with the various irrigation districts to gain permission and access to the pipes, some dating back to the 1800s.
“They devised a series of canals to bring the water from the river to the agricultural land. But in doing so they needed to come up with a way to control the flow of the irrigation. And so what they did is they put these pipes in there to control the flow of the water, but also to serve kind of as like a breathing tube for when the water came, it would release any air pressure as well. And so there they were very functional. And to this day, there are some that are still functioning that still bring the water to the farmers,” Lash said.
The pipes vary in size. Some are wells. Some are called breathing tubes. Some can reroute water.
And now some are pieces of art.
“This is my first one; I’m a novice,” a smiling Hoyt said as she and her sister, Kim Marx, of Missouri, squinted in the sun studying their map design and concocting ways to put the design on the curving pipe stack.
“ I love the culture here and this project. I’m really honored to be a part of it,” Hoyt said.
A panel of judges from the nonprofit vote and approve all the designs. They supply all of the supplies the artists need, but they don’t pay for their time.
Artist Ruth Hoyt, 67, of McAllen, Texas, sketches a design on Nov. 1, 2022, on an irrigation pipe with the help of her sister Kim Marx, of Missouri. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)
Hoyt, who is a bird photographer, submitted three art designs and all three were approved.
Her second pipe is of a crested caracara; the third will be several birds.
Border Report returned on Wednesday to her first completed pipe, which is painted in vibrant blues and greens.
The caracara, however, is still in sketch form. And her third pipe has not yet been started.
A green jay mural, left, was completed by artist Ruth Hoyt. Her crested caracara design, right, however, remained unfinished on Nov. 23, 2022, as part of Keep McAllen Beautiful’s public art irrigation project. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)
“The pipes come in all different shapes, all different sizes. So it is a process. In turn what they bring to us is beautiful artwork for the community to enjoy,” Lash said. “It not only helps the community but also the artists love it because it brings a lot of exposure to them.”