Paradise Valley Community College is honoring the indigenous tribes who once lived in and around the college’s Union Hills campus. This is the second ceramics project in a series of art projects requested by PVCC President Dr. Paul Dale, who envisions thoughtful and provoking artwork campus-wide in the coming years. The first, unveiled last spring, was a series of wall murals depicting the college’s eight core values.

“The Piipaash, also known as the Maricopa people, along with the Salt River Authm people lived in the area before the modern era,” explains Dustin Lopez, a PVCC alumni and Native American artist chosen to lead this project alongside David Bradley, a PVCC art professor. “This is a chance to offer history and knowledge about the people who lived here before us.”

The ceramic mural, titled Water is Life, depicts the struggle humans face with water contamination and shortage. The idea stems from the Dakota pipeline protests along the Colorado River, which shed light on the pipeline’s impact on the environment and to sites sacred to Native Americans. Indigenous nations around the country opposed the pipeline, along with the Sioux tribal nations.

“Water is the center of our being and existence. Coming together and coexisting with the other animals is important for the future generations,” says Lopez about his inspiration for the mural.

Lopez graduated from PVCC’s EMT and fire program in 2009 and worked as a firefighter until retiring in 2020. He has always been interested in celebrating his heritage and culture as an artist since he was child. He grew up in Prescott, born of the Red Streaks Running Through the Water and born for the Red Corn People of the Seama Village, and he often visited his grandmother on the Navajo reservation. In 2012, he started working in his community with the tribes and at-risk youth, specifically indigenous kids who got into trouble for graffiti.

“Indigenous people have been writing on walls for years, telling stories and strengthening their identity,” he explains. “I help to educate these kids, teaching them the fundamentals of art, creating murals to tell their stories versus tagging random markings. I give them the platform and education to reinforce their identities.”

Together, Lopez, Bradley, and graphic designer Kaily Toney are leading a team of volunteers in the early stages of developing the Water is Life ceramic mural. Toney is a member of the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian community and was brought into the project by Lopez.

The project is open to the public and is seeking additional volunteer input to help erect the mural. For those interested in getting involved, the group meets every Friday from 3 to 5 p.m. at PVCC’s Union Hills campus (located at 18401 N. 32nd Street) while school is in session. Contact [email protected] for more details.