Vegas Verdes: Importance of Interpretive Signs

Published November 17, 2019 in the Las Vegas Optic.

Interpretive signs can be found in many different settings including museums and other cultural institutions such as public parks and monuments. They are intended to educate and inform. If done well, they can be quite compelling.

The Gallinas River Park has, so far, two impressive interpretive signs that demand to be read and absorbed. They were conceived, designed, built and installed by groups and individuals from the Las Vegas community.

Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance personnel and others have been grappling with how to ignite enthusiasm for the restoration of the Gallinas River Park among young people. Lea Knutson, HPWA’s Executive Director, with the help of Lorraine Garcia, one-time VISTA volunteer with HPWA, submitted a grant proposal to the Santa Fe Community Foundation. The SFCF approved an educational program, the objective of which was to teach high school students about “healthy rivers”, especially a healthy Gallinas River, with an emphasis on the importance of wetlands and why we can’t do without them. Written into the grant was a task for the students. They were to create two interpretive
signs – one about the Gallinas wetlands; the other about the history and culture of the Gallinas River – and to install the signs along the river.

From the Fall of 2017 through 2018, a number of West Las Vegas High School students from Erika Guaba’s science class and McKaila Weldon’s art class met regularly to learn about their river. Dr. Elizabeth Juarros, HPWA Education Director, facilitated the program. Juarros invited experts in various fields to speak to the group. Members of the Highlands University Conservation Club, for example, taught the students what to look for in a healthy river and also discussed storm water treatment possibilities; and representatives from the Las Vegas Citizen’s Committee for Historic Preservation instructed the class in the history of the river. Many others with specialized knowledge contributed to the education of the students as well.

Toward the end of 2018, the group turned its attention to its task. The topics for the two signs were specified in the grant proposal. The students had first to decide what content could best convey information about the topics. They then designed a layout for each sign and composed a narrative. For the wetlands sign, they searched for but did not find images that could be used to illustrate the various species of plant and animal life that depend on the wetlands. The students turned to Juarros for help and she unveiled her theretofore hidden talent as an artist. She created water colors of the several birds that are common to the wetlands and enlisted her husband, Aaron Juarros to make charcoal drawings of the fish and other wetland creatures. “Perfect!” said the students. Now they had a finished hand-made sign but no way to convert it into a permanent form to adorn a free standing base.

Expert assistance arrived. Elizabeth Caldwell Miller, Las Vegas native now working in Albuquerque learned from Juarros what the West students were doing and why they were stymied, and she offered help. Miller is a graphic artist. With her knowledge and techniques, she produced a document to be printed on aluminum sign material and mounted on the sign base. The students followed the same process for sign number two. This one shows a photograph of Las Vegas taken from far above. Major streets are highlighted and their names added so that the photograph appears to be a map. Super-imposed on the map are the details of the Gallinas river and its Bosque show in blue/green and the Acequia Madre de Las Vegas (mother ditch) as a blue line with arrows to show the direction of its flow. It’s fascinating to follow the blue line of the acequia and realize that is goes directly under Bridge Street.

A photograph of the compuerta (head gate) marks the point where the Acequia Madre leaves the Gallinas. Acequias represent one of the most significant aspects of the culture and history of the Gallinas. They were the first piece of infrastructure constructed in the Gallinas River canyon and meadows. Their governance, a democracy with members of the acequia association electing leaders, predates that of the town.

The next step in the creation of the two signs was the design and fabrication of a base. An inspired idea from Aaron Juarros led to the adoption of the cottonwood leaf as a distinctive shape for the sign base. The cottonwood plays an essential role in the ecology of the Gallinas and its leaf is HPWA’s logo. Thus it seemed the ideal choice. Again, as with the sign itself, turning the cottonwood leaf into a concrete form required specialized skills. Again, the students discovered the needed skills within the community.

Aaron Juarros, master metal worker, fashioned a leaf of the size and durability needed for its job and finished it with linseed oil to bring out nature’s own colors of green, gold and brown. The two interpretive signs now stand near the river, one at the Prince/Independence Street end of the river-walk and one near Bridge Street.

Thanks to their participation in the program, the West Las Vegas High School students have acquired an appreciation for the importance of river stewardship. Furthermore, they have set the standard for the five additional interpretive signs that are to be installed in the Gallinas River Park in the Spring.

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