By Christina Autry

The Alief YMCA in the International District has become home to a new masterfully painted mural by prominent artist and Alief native, Lee Washington. UP Art Studios has teamed up with five Houston artists to create 2020 Census-themed murals in strategically located neighborhoods. Washington has created many iconic murals in the Houston area, including “mini murals,” a project also completed in partnership with UP Art Studios.

Houston’s local census office is striving to increase the number of census respondents in neighborhoods that have typically been undercounted. The organization hopes to improve awareness of the census and the importance of completing it, for the benefit of the community itself. The International District is collaborating with census organization in different capacities to encourage participation.

One of the avenues chosen to accomplish this goal is through public murals designed by artists affiliated with these particular neighborhoods: Alief, Gulfton, Montrose, Aldine, and the Third Ward. “We surveyed each community to get feedback about what their community is all about,” says Elia Quiles, founder of UP Art. “We gave the reports to the artists and they interpreted the ideas into their main theme.”

For the creation of Alief’s mural, which was completed in April, “the overall theme was the concept of a snapshot of the community,” says Quiles. The yellow wall depicts a woman taking a selfie with a phone camera, alluding to the mission of capturing a picture of the community through the census. The map silhouette behind the woman hints at the international cultures that define our district.

Before the project began, the International District partnered with UP Art to assist in finding a location for the mural. “We helped identify a wall in the district that was visible and had buy-in from the property owners,” says Natali Hurtado, Deputy Executive Director of the International District. The perfect location ended up being the Alief Family YMCA, who will leave the mural up at least until the end of 2020.

UP Art is a consulting firm for public art which facilitates the connections between artists, communities, corporations and municipalities. The firm was founded by Elia and Noah Quiles in 2012. “Noah wanted to get back to his roots to give back to the community,” says Elia. “At first, I was helping him on a part-time basis, but by about 2015, I left my corporate job to do this full-time,” she remembers. “It became ingrained in our life, everything we do revolves around art.”

Elia describes her role largely as a project manager for the many artistic endeavors that the company is involved with around Houston. “For this project in particular, the task was to foster community engagement, find the location, and work with Washington on the design. We do everything except the actual art,” she says.

In addition to the new mural, the census office has partnered with the International District to reach residents during ongoing food distribution events during the Covid-19 pandemic. “We are serving seven apartment complexes in our district by distributing boxes of produce, non-perishables, milk and dairy, to every single unit.

Sewa International provides the food and manages the logistics. We provide funding, day-of security, and flyers to notify residents.” Census representatives simultaneously pass out information via flyers, though they hope in the future to send information electronically in a variety of languages.

As of now, according to, Houston has a 52.2% response rate, indicating that a little less than half of us still need to fill out our census information. In their words, “The 2020 Census will determine congressional representation, inform hundreds of billions in federal funding every year, and provide data that will impact communities for the next decade.” Completing the census is a critical part of caring and investing in the community in which you live. Let’s all say “Yes! to the census” this summer.


UP Art Houston:
Complete the census:
Lee Washington: @leetheonelee