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Untold Arizona: Studio Mariposa creates cross-border connections through art

It’s a typical Tuesday for Bisbee-based artist Gretchen Baer.

“So we’re in Bisbee and we’re heading down to Naco, Mexico to work with kids across the border at Studio Mariposa today,” she said. “It is a free kid’s art center, that is just across the border in Naco, Mexico.”

Every week, Baer drives her spectacularly ornamented art car across the U.S.-Mexico border to Studio Mariposa — a narrow building brightly painted with giant orange and purple butterflies floating above a mountainous desert landscape, just a few blocks from the port of entry.

When she pulls up, Baer hops out to greet a young artist waiting outside the building.

Fifteen-year-old David Pérez has been part of Studio Mariposa for more than three years. He’s one of several older boys who’ve become trusted helpers at the art center.

“It feels great when I see the kids painting and I help them out,” he said. “When I’m here I’m not stressed, and I get to paint. It’s fun!”

Like a lot of the kids, David says he comes to Studio Mariposa each week for a few hours of artistic release. It’s a place where he can have fun and feel at home.

“I already told my mom that even when I turn 18, it doesn’t matter to me, I’m going to keep coming,” he said.

As school lets out, dozens of kids of all ages pour into the small studio. They pick up paint brushes, grab beads to make bracelets and tinker around on musical instruments.

“I just want them to have fun,” Baer said. “ It’s not a time to sit down and pencils and rulers and I’m trying to teach them something in particular. They do that in school. This is a time to be free and playful with art.”

She opened Studio Mariposa in January 2017.

But it grew out of another youth-centered art project Baer started in 2010 called “Border Bedazzlers.” Each week, she and a group of local kids gathered in Naco to paint the 15-foot high border fence.

“Our motto was, ‘If you can’t tear it down, bedazzle it,’” she said. “It’s turning something ugly into something beautiful.”

In six years, they painted a full mile of the fence with huge hearts, flags and suns.

Then, just after the 2016 elections, Baer found out the wall — and all of their artwork — would be torn down and replaced with a harder-to-paint steel bollard-style fence.

“So I knew that project was over. Which was kind of a particularly heartbreaking time and not the time when I wanted to abandon the kids," she said. 

So she reimagined the project, and Studio Mariposa was born as a dedicated art space for kids in Naco.

Baer says this project isn’t political. But it is an excuse to get people to cross the border.

“The more people you can bring over here and they can see how amazing and fun and cool it is. Colorful and just happy — it really is. That’s the world we want to spread,” she said. “The truth is, these kids can change the world. And when people hear about the border and think about the border and hear about the bad things, I want them to say, ‘Wait a minute, I know something good. I know a different story.’ And it’s studio Mariposa," Baer said. 

In the last three years, Studio Mariposa has not only drawn nearly 100 kids a week, but also a dedicated group of volunteers from both sides of the border in Bisbee and Naco, and from across Arizona.

There’s Maria Osbely Gutierrez, who comes by each week with her grandkids and helps pass out snacks. Everyone calls her “Nana.” “I have a lot of grandkids, now!” she said.

Emma Kieninger brings her daughters Tea and Kayla from Sierra Vista: “From the music, to the people, to the bright colors, it’s a really loving, happy, creative community.”

“I love these kids. When I come here, it’s like fuel for the heart,” said Linda Santellanes, who drives three hours from Phoenix. “We just hope it just keeps going and going. We’re starting year four, and I see this just continuing.”

“That’s what I’m most proud of: that in our fourth year, that it’s still everybody’s favorite thing to do,” Baer said.

Her goal for Studio Mariposa is longevity.

“In order to make change on a deep level, you just have to be there, week after week, year after year, and be part of their lives,” she said. “They know we’re always open, and we’re always there, and we’re real people who care about them and about being part of their lives are they grow up.”

As long as everyone is having fun, she says, she hopes to keep building those relationships at Studio Mariposa every Tuesday for as long as she can.

“There’s new kids all the time that I don’t know, you know, but some continue to come and I will know them. And other ones I might not see again,” she said. “But for anybody who continues to come back, the bonds are there.”

Kendal Blust was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2018 to 2023.