By Christina Autry
For the past ten years, the International District has been home to 22 distinctive globes, installed and painted at the inception of the district. These two-ton concrete globes, engraved with “ID” and displayed on the medians of Bellaire, Beechnut, and Bissonnet, help to increase awareness that “yes, you are in the International District.”
That is, as long as you know what “ID” refers to. Partly out of a desire to provide more clarity for folks unfamiliar with the district, and partly out of enthusiasm to install relevant public art in the neighborhood, the globes are getting an impressive makeover. Inspiration struck while brainstorming the concept of community art, and Deputy Executive Director Natali Hurtado and the Board of Directors came across the work of local artist Armando Castelan.
Armando is a local muralist who has painted hundreds of murals, including the Café Bustelo popup that drew so much excitement in Houston earlier this year. He added a 3D effect to the decorative skull still-life he painted onto the shipping container across from Ninfa’s on Navigation, which has since been admired and photographed by countless visitors. Armando’s work can be seen in restaurants, businesses, and public spaces not only in Houston but around Texas.
“After seeing his beautiful murals, we were very impressed, and were excited to work with him,” says Hurtado. “We wanted someone who could bring passion and talent for what they do to this area,” she adds. It became clear that the best course of action for this project was to re-design the spheres in a way that the whole community will be able to identify with.
“We decided that we wanted our art to center around the cultures represented by residents in the district,” explains Hurtado. “I think it will mean a lot for people to see the countries they’ve come from celebrated publicly in their own community.”
Alief ISD, which overlaps with the district, provided the board with statistics on what countries their students and families originated from. The district then randomly assigned countries to existing globes by drawing the locations from a hat. “Once they gave me the final list, I started researching and designing,” says Armando. Continents as well as countries are in the lineup, with colorful scenes depicting Asia, Africa, the Americas, Caribbean, the Middle East, and of course, Texas – and Alief.
On November 15,th Armando’s first brushstroke began the process of transforming the spheres from simply resembling globes to representing the global influence that defines Alief. “This is an exciting opportunity to incorporate the theme of diversity and bring color to the intersections,” he says. The designs he has created show a remarkable amount of detail as well as boldness to be perceived clearly by drivers and pedestrians. He expects to take 2-3 days per globe, and finish all 22 within the next couple months.
Kneeling in the middle of the median clad in a reflective yellow vest, with cups of paint and brushes beside his new spherical canvas, Armando listens to music on headphones rather than the constant distracting hum of Bellaire traffic. His first creation, a blue and orange bird with a contrasting yellow background, stares to the right as Armando completes his portrait. This sphere will serve as one of two “Welcome” markers, greeting drivers as they enter the district.
“This blue and orange bird is not a particular species. It represents birds from every country,” Armando says. “Birds started popping up in my work about five years ago, symbolizing my respect for animals, and appreciation for nature,” he explains.
“I’ve been drawing since I was five years old. I remember that’s when I learned how to draw a 3D hat. Something clicked, and I knew I had to keep drawing,” Armando recalls. Although Armando is a longtime artist in the Houston area, he has been working independently as a small business owner for the past two years. “This will be the biggest project I’ve done independently so far,” he says.
Visitors will soon have a visual representation of the extraordinary diversity of Alief, adding even more credit to the Alief motto, “The friendliest, most diverse community in Houston.” When you’re in the district, look for Armando in the grassy medians, engrossed in outlining the roof of the Taj Mahal, or filling in the silhouette of a giraffe in the setting sun. Bring him a word of encouragement as he honors the mosaic of cultures within the International District, one brushstroke at a time.