"Unite" by Rick Rodriguez.

Art adds color to our life. Imagine how dark and gloomy the world would be without music, movies, paintings, books and other forms of artistic expression.

The MAEX Academy is doing its part to ensure that our world doesn’t turn gray. The nonprofit organization—whose mission “is to advocate for the artistic enrichment of the youth and community” via workshops, panels and public art—recently commissioned an art piece that showcases the power of the arts.

According to a press release, the goal of “Unite”—a 5-by-3-foot aerosol paint on board and canvas painted by Rick Rodriguez—is “to commemorate the current state of affairs and remind us of the common practice of coming together as a community and supporting one another as we move forward as one. The message implores us to UNITE in a state of mutual sympathy or empathy for our neighbors that have faced the most adversity in this trying time.”

The press release continues: “The Old English-style typography is mostly associated with Latin American street subculture and Chicano artist movements representing the artist’s American heritage. These colors were chosen for their given meanings: the red, to represent passion and love; the yellow, to represent optimism and enlightenment; and the orange, to represent happiness, encouragement and creativity. These are all ideals that we can share together as a collective and are to remind us of what it truly means to be part of a community.”

I spoke to two people related to the project, Rowland Gomez and Carol Adney.

“It was my idea from the start,” said Adney. “I was anxious and distressed by COVID, and when the murders (that launched this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests) happened, I became more distressed. I wanted to think of something I could do about what was going on. A long time ago, when I was an artist-in-residence in Indianapolis, I headed a program to have artists paint actual billboard paper, which was then mounted on billboards around the city. There were about 40 paintings that went up around the city. That came to mind, and most of my life has been involved in art, so that’s really my language. I thought we should do something where we could make a piece of art that talks about social justice and respect.”

Gomez, the founder of MAEX Academy, said he got involved in the project a little later.

“The concept was created by Carol and a couple of her colleagues in the art community, as well as Pete Salcido (a street artist who runs Flat Black Art Supplies),” Gomez said. “Initially, this project was going to be a mural, and it was going to be called ‘Unity.’ Pete reached out to me, and then I got involved. We started talking about the political connotations of the word ‘unity.’ We started pitching around a couple of words, and I suggested ‘unite.’ It felt a little more unassociated, and that was really the idea behind the concept—to create a piece to get people together during this pandemic.”

Adney originally had bigger ideas for the project.

“I sent out an email survey to local people, and was thinking of having a quote that talked about social justice and equality,” said Adney. “I got feedback from 31 people with suggestions, but then I realized a quote would be too long for a sign, so we decided to just have one word. We didn’t want to be political or create any animosity; we just wanted to create a sense of community and positivity, and get beyond the stress of things. We sent out more surveys looking for one word.

“That’s how it evolved. It was with a lot of local input, which was nice, because it got people thinking about the whole concept. I wanted a local involvement. We have a large Hispanic community in the Coachella Valley, and I wanted that community to be involved. Amy Lawrence from the city of Palm Desert recommended I talk to Pete Salcido at the Flat Black shop. Pete helped me find an artist, Rick Rodriguez.”

Gomez said the piece was originally slated to be a mural at the Westfield Palm Desert, but at the last minute, mall management changed its mind.

“I thought to myself, ‘What’s another way to share public art? Rather than a mural on a wall, what if we used an alternative? Something we can display on a wall instead?’ So eventually, it became a canvas.”

The work has a temporary home at Flat Black, which is located at the Westfield Palm Desert.

“I wanted to find a place to put this in the community so people would get the concept,” Adney said. “We want have it at temporary locations, in as many places as we can get it. I talked to a billboard company, and possibly in June and July, it would be mounted on a billboard here locally. Someone from a TV station was interested, and we might persuade them to come and cover the next place we have it installed.”

Said Gomez: “The goal of this public piece is that it’s a call to action. It’s with the MAEX Academy. Everyone that’s involved in the organization is highly creative. The concept of this piece is to create a space to unite amongst artists. … The goal is to share this concept of unity, and to hang it and display it publicly.”

The MAEX Academy is also working on a series of free workshops for all forms of art.

“This first workshop will be a virtual poetry workshop,” said Gomez. “The goal is to shoot it right after Thanksgiving, and it will be instructed by Michael Cuevas, who works for the Palm Springs Unified School District. There are a lot of different styles and mediums of art, so the workshops themselves will be an introduction to art. … We did a pop-locking (dance) workshop for last year’s edition of the STREET music and arts festival at the Westfield mall, so that’s another medium we’ll be exploring.”

The pandemic is forcing these workshops to be virtual for now. Gomez said he welcomes this use of technology.

“With incorporating technology, you gear toward people who are in the educational system now, like these young individuals,” said Gomez. “It’s also young professionals, like college students, as well as your average, everyday working individual in their 20s and 30s.”

Gomez said he believes arts can even be therapy, of sorts, leading to better mental health.

“I started working for the Boys and Girls Club of the Coachella Valley in 2010, and at the Indio Teen Center in 2009. I was in a recording-studio environment for both of those places. It was very interesting to see the types of students that would come in. … I could tell that working through these processes were very therapeutic and uplifting. I’ve had exchanges with different students I’ve worked with in the past, and they let me know how being in the recording studio created a space for them to grow and expand. You don’t have to become a professional at this form of expression, but there are definitely parallels that you can apply and find to build other values, morals and skill sets in your own life.

“Mental health isn’t age-related, so something like that is really to create the means for even adults to express themselves, and to explore something that they had interest in, but never had resources. The goal is to create the resource, and allow people to tap into things.”

As for “Unite” piece, the organization is actively looking for new places to host it.

“We’re hoping to gain some community support. We’ve been in contact with the city of Palm Desert to see if we can find a wall,” said Gomez. “We’re still looking to the community to gain support to actually transfer this canvas piece onto a wall.”

For more information, visit www.maexacademy.org.

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Matt King

Matt King is a freelance writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. A creative at heart, his love for music thrust him into the world of journalism at 17 years old, and he hasn't looked back. Before...