How one remaining piece of the Pueblo levee is an effort to preserve the art and ashes of Pueblo artist Judith Pierce.
To top half of the original Corn Maiden mural by Cynthia Ramu containing the ashes of artist Judith Pierce. The slab currently rests on a hill overlooking the Pueblo levee. (Anthony Settipani for PULP)
She sits on a hill overlooking the silent stretch of gray, unadorned slabs of concrete she used to call home.
In 2016, the head and shoulders of Cynthia Ramu’s house-sized rendition of “The Corn Maiden,” a painting originally created by Pueblo artist Judith Pierce, was chiseled out of the face of Pueblo’s Arkansas River Levee, where it had stood beside the burbling waters of the river for more than 20 years. When the time came to rebuild the levee to modern standards, this piece alone was saved, and now sits upon a hillside beside the Main Street trailhead, about a block down from the Rawlings Library. Soon, this lonely piece of art will stand as the last remnant of a living project that spans 40 years of Pueblo history. This project once lined the walls of the levee, and even held a Guinness World Record for largest outdoor mural.
But there is something else that’s special about this particular piece of art. It contains the physical remains of the artist herself — her ashes — mixed into the colors of the paint.
“I made a promise to the artist [Pierce] when she was in her later years,” says Ramu. “I had met her one day with some friends, because I really admired her work.”
By the time the two had met, Pierce was already in the twilight of her life.
“She did a lot of ink resists, which is kind of toxic stuff,” Ramu explains. “So when we met this day, she was like, ‘I’ve always wanted to paint on the levee, but my days are done.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, pick a piece, and I’ll help you get it on the wall!'”
Ramu has been the coordinator of the Pueblo Arkansas Levee Mural Project, a series of murals and community artworks painted directly upon the walls of the Arkansas River levee, for over 20 years.
Since 1979, the massive man-made embankment alongside the Arkansas River has served not only to keep the waters of the river at bay, but also as a concrete canvas for painters and artists from around Colorado and the world. In 1995, it was officially designated the longest outdoor mural in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records at 178,200 square feet, and still growing. That same year, Pierce and Ramu began the collaboration that would etch the Corn Maiden indelibly upon the history of Pueblo.
Once it was decided that Ramu would help Pierce achieve her goal of adding one of her works to the levee, the question became “Which one?” Ultimately, the two decided on the Corn Maiden, a green-robed figure out of Native American legend surrounded by flowers, vines and stalks of corn before a clear, blue sky.
Before Ramu could begin work on the painting, however, Pierce’s health gave out.
“We had agreed on the location, and a few days after, she had passed away,” Ramu said. “It was winter time. I started gridding it out and blocking it in. I invited her friends to memorialize who she was and what she meant to everyone. Over time we put her ashes in the seven chakras [points of spiritual vitality within the human body], and that actually was one of the important things that helped us save the piece.”
The Corn Maiden watched over the levee for almost 20 years, but eventually her time on the wall would end.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began a renewed certification of levees around the nation, in hopes of preventing further catastrophes like Katrina. After inspecting the Pueblo levees, which had originally been constructed in the 1920s, FEMA determined that major construction work needed to take place in order to bring them up to modern safety standards.
“It was a hundred years old,” said Corinne Koehler, president of the Pueblo Conservancy District, which owns and manages the levee. “There were a lot of places where the concrete was slipping, there were voids behind it, et. cetera. So it was no longer safe.”
The fact that Pierce’s physical remains were housed within the painting ultimately carried enough weight that the city agreed that the piece should be saved. In March of 2016, while the rest of the levee was demolished and rebuilt, the top panel of the Corn Maiden was carved out and spirited away from the demolition zone.
For Ramu, even having saved a piece of her painting, watching the destruction of her work was a difficult thing to do.
“I bought a home right across from the levee, so actually, until the day they actually took out the Corn Maiden I would go out there every morning and just admire her. It was really hard when they took that piece off the wall,” she said, as her voice broke.
Once the section of mural was removed, the question became what to do with it.
“We were pretty much told ‘We need to get this piece out of here,'” said Bill Zwick, a capital projects manager with the City of Pueblo Planning & Community Development department, who helped save the piece. Zwick explained that the artwork couldn’t be kept in the river bottom area, for fear that the ongoing construction and demolition work would damage or destroy it.
The El Pueblo Museum, which already houses the impressive cross-section of Pueblo’s Old Monarch (better remembered as The Hanging Tree) was a top choice, but ultimately decided that the museum simply couldn’t accommodate the ten-ton slab of concrete.
According to Zwick, many members of the community expressed desire to get the piece installed as a full-size sculpture or memorial plaza, but without the ability to fund such a project, the first priority became simply getting the piece of the mural out of the danger zone of the river bottom.
“We just kind of put it on the shelf, up on the hill,” Zwick said. “It’s kind of a temporary thing. So we’re just waiting for people to come in and spearhead that and raise funds for a permanent place for it.”
Whatever is decided, the clock is ticking. The Maiden’s angular features have grown somewhat weathered over the years; her striking brown eyes painted black by nameless vandals. Broken shards of stone and steel rebar poke out from the ragged surface of the concrete where it was sawed away.
Ramu plans to work with a team of engineers, the city, and the new owner of the property at the top of the hill to fabricate a permanent installation for the piece, which will both better display it for passers-by and protect it from future acts of vandalism. There’s even been talk of renaming the Main Street trailhead at which the painting currently sits to “The Corn Maiden Trail” in honor of the mural, the artwork, and Pierce herself.
“She’s near and dear to my heart, and she should be standing up and looking over the levee,” said Ramu. “She was the guardian.”
In the mythology of the American Indian nations, the Corn Maiden, or Corn Mother, was a figure who embodied both hope and tragedy. In one version of her legend, she cared for her people during a time of great famine, by producing grains of corn from within her own body. When her people became curious and asked her where the food was coming from, she told them it must remain a secret. They were not to ask again, or the blessings would cease.
Eventually, the people discovered how the corn was being produced, and turned on the Corn Maiden. They accused her of dabbling in witchcraft, and had her put to death. Soon after her body was laid to rest and buried, however, stalks of corn began to sprout from the place where her body lay.
The people in this story are known today as the Pueblo People, a term used to encompass a large number of tribes and villages located throughout Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. They are well-known as early farmers of corn and cotton who, rather than following a nomadic lifestyle, lived in permanent villages called Pueblos.
Despite their betrayal, the people of the Corn Maiden — the people of the Pueblo — would never go hungry again. From her tragic demise came the seeds of her people’s future, allowing them to not just survive, but to thrive in their lifestyle. Perhaps a similar fate awaits the remains of Pierce’s Corn Maiden, sitting and watching from atop its vantage point above the Arkansas River.