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Before he connected with Court Youth Center (CYC), Las Cruces native Nazario Sandoval was a young teenager hanging out on the street and expressing himself through graffiti and other sometimes illegal behavior.
“One of the city police came to Court Youth Center circa 1998 and said, ‘We picked up this kid who thinks he is an artist and is tagging the whole town. Can you do something with him so we don’t have to put him jail?’” Oliver-Lewis remembers. “Of course, I said ‘sure,’ and because of Nazario, we started our very successful CYC graff program. We created exhibits, sold their creations, conducted workshops and explained how graff was part of the visual art landscape.”
“If it wasn’t for (CYC founder) Irene Oliver-Lewis, I’d just barely be getting out of prison or I’d be dead,” said Sandoval, who is now a successful artist living in Albuquerque and sharing his art in Las Cruces, Mesilla and all over the state.
“He says I changed his life,” Oliver-Lewis said, “but in retrospect, he changed my life and how I worked with alternative youth artists. I love him dearly and am so proud of all he has accomplished.”
“People like her really took a chance on people like us,” Sandoval said. “She gave us a job, she gave us free (art) supplies. Now it’s my turn to kind of give back.”
During a recent visit to Rio Grande Preparatory Institute, an alternative high school in Las Cruces, Sandoval helped students create a large mural.
“I reached five kids that day,” he said, plus one student whom he described as a loner.
“’Work on this by yourself,’” Sandoval told her. “She got to do an amazing piece,” he said.
Sandoval connected with 65 third graders doing an art demonstration at Hatch Valley Elementary School earlier this year.
“It came out really, really good,” he said.
During a late May interview, Sandoval said he had scheduled visits to other schools and community groups in the state every weekend into July. And he was in Las Cruces and Mesilla visiting students, artists and community leaders every weekend in May.
“Even if we reach three of our youth to turn them around to do something else,” Sandoval will consider his visit a success, he said.
“Everything is there,” Sandoval tells older students. “If you want it, go get it. If it doesn’t work that way, try it another way. Just because you live in a small town doesn’t mean you can’t have big dreams.”
With his CYC experience as the turning point in his life, “now I’m doing what Irene has done for us,” Sandoval said, “the big circle of life, or art.”
Sandoval’s first art show in his hometown was at Nopalitos Galería Las Cruces’ Mesquite Historic District in March. More than 200 people attended the show, he said, including an 80-year-old former high school teacher of Sandoval’s.
“I had to thank her too,” he said.
Sandoval described his art as “like abstract expressionism with a modern flair.” His artwork is “free flowing,” Sandoval said. “No rules. It puts a lot of balance bank in my life.”
He also works at an Albuquerque bank.
“I work full time and I do art full time,” Sandoval said.
“He was always self-motivated, full of energy and had integrity for his art and other artists,” Oliver-Lewis said.