Carolyn Toronto touches up a painting on the southern side of the border… (Wendy Layton )
BISBEE, Ariz. — They can't tear it down, so they decided to do the next best thing. They painted it.
For nearly a year, a contingent of artists from southeastern Arizona has joined forces with Mexican children to paint portions of the 650 miles of border fence separating the United States and Mexico.
Some see the border wall as an obstruction, a political symbol of the chasm between two nations. Others view it as the first line in protection for the nation. These artists, who call themselves the Border Bedazzlers, view the barrier that snakes across the Sonoran Desert as a blank canvas.
So far, a collection of artists, children, a minister and musician turned 30 panels of rusted metal border wall into murals featuring rainbows, hearts and brilliant landscapes alongside declarations of friendship and peace.
They've colored only about a mile of the wall. Still, Bisbee artists Gretchen Baer and Carolyn Toronto say the effort has a profound result — building community between two nations that share a contentious and anxious relationship, fueled by calls to fortify the border from a raging drug war and mass migration.
"The wall that was built to keep us apart is bringing us together," Baer said of the four painting sessions they've held at the Mexican side of the fence in Naco, which abuts an Arizona town with the same name.
She hopes others who live along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico frontier will notice and take a paint brush to their local border wall, too.
"The goal is to just keep it going as long as we can," Baer said, driving to Naco on a recent day. Cans of paint bounced in the trunk of her car as she negotiated the desert highway, whizzing by green-and-white Border Patrol vehicles on the watch.
"There are hundreds of miles of border wall, which is like hundreds of miles of empty canvas," she said.
The idea came to Baer two years ago. The 49-year-old native of Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, a 20-year resident of the eclectic desert town of Old Bisbee, is known for vibrant oil paintings. Baer thought it would be a good idea to bring art to what she called an ugly border wall. She created a couple of dozen shirts inscribed with the name Border Bedazzlers, but the effort didn't get off the ground until this year.
This spring, Toronto teamed up with Seth Polley, minister for St. John's Episcopal Church in Bisbee, to paint one panel of the border fence in Naco, Mexico. He provided the paint, she the manpower. The result is an image of two doves lifting up the Mexican and American flags, revealing a sunny desert road that appears to split the fence, toward a grinning sun.
"Wow, I have a lot of paint left over," Toronto told Baer after the project. "Let's keep doing it."
Monday was Baer's fourth painting trip to Naco. She's famous in Bisbee for her 1989 Toyota that serves as an artistic shrine to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Baer's a fan, she explained, as she pulled up to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection station in Naco, Ariz.
A U.S. customs agent eyed the decked-out ride. Splashes of yellow and sky blue drape the sedan. Glued-on seashells and rhinestone-like gems frame a stylized portrait of Clinton's face on the hood.
"What are you going to do on the other side?" the agent asked.
"We're working on a painting project," she replied.
"On your car?" the agent asked.
"No," Baer said, chuckling slightly. The agent waved her through.
A bit after 3 p.m., six Bisbee artists doused the wall with blue, yellow and red. Slowly, local children joined in. A couple of newbies approached, timidly asking for a brush. The regulars asked for specific colors.
An hour later, the weathered and pock-marked steel barrier was transformed into a multicolored backdrop for children at play.
For a few hours, the local children forgot they were next to a wall that's intended to keep them out, Baer said.
"It's just a big jungle gym for them," she said.
At times, Baer and the other adults have to remind the children not to try to crawl through holes under the fence — probably dug by border crossers — or to climb above the wall when they get carried away with play.
"We're thumbing our noses at this structure of exclusivity, anxiety and corruption of governments that can't work out this situation for their people," Toronto said.
Most of the kids, however, see it as an opportunity to play and paint on a gigantic space.
"I just like to paint," said Damian Villa, 15. He crafted a large leaf in the shape of an infinity sign.
The Bedazzlers chose to paint only in Mexico, bypassing the bureaucratic hurdles they'd likely encounter to paint on the U.S side of the wall. The Mexican government doesn't seem to mind, and the community likes the murals, said Maria Elena Borquez, who heads the Naco museum and invites neighborhood children to paint.
Toronto motioned to three men curiously looking on, telling them in choppy Spanish to come on over and paint.
They said they would if they weren't on a brief break from their Mexican customs job at the border.
Still, Martin Eduardo Ortiz liked what the painters were doing.
"This goes to show … not all Americans think badly of Mexico and Mexicans… that they're not all afraid to come here," he said. "There's also the perception that Americans treat Mexicans badly. To the contrary. Not all Americans are bad, there are good people. Look, they come here and paint."
Earlier this year, Toronto traveled to Europe, where she gazed at an 8-foot concrete remnant of the Berlin Wall.
"Things do change," she recalled thinking. "People thought this was a wall that would never go away."
Toronto believes she'll be around when the U.S.-Mexico fence falls. When it does, she says, she'll sell each panel for $1,000 a pop.
And donate the money to charity.