the star mural in elko nevada by sebas velasco

High Desert Renaissance: Elko’s Public Art Revival

What’s six feet tall, weighs 110 pounds, and is seen all over Elko? Visitors wandering this historic cowboy town might be surprised to spot more than four dozen oversized polyurethane boots, each with a unique paint job representing Elko’s rich legacy.

From dozens of larger-than-life cowboy boots to more than 100 vibrant murals, Elko’s public art scene is thriving.

Boot Camp

The boots are part of Elko’s artistic blossoming. Despite being home to only about 20,000 residents, this community prioritizes the arts, boasting its own orchestra, five independent theater companies, and a smattering of galleries strung through downtown.

“There’s no other big city around here,” says Catherine Wines, an architect and Elko County native. “People are surprised by the diversity of our artistic community. But we had to do it ourselves.”

Wines led the Elko Arts and Culture Advisory Council that, quite literally, put the decorative boots on the ground. In 2017, the town kicked off its centennial by commissioning 36 artists to adorn the 6-foot boots with images representing the town’s history and culture.

“We’re a blue-collar town, and most people wear boots,” says Wines to explain the cowboy-style canvases.

elko centennial cowboy boot by janet weeks
Artist: Janet Weeks
elko cowboy boot sculptures by sidne teske
Artist: Sidne Teske

These works include a Central Pacific train steaming through the Rubies, Basque dancers waving flags, and vaqueros shepherding mule trains through “the Last Cowtown in the West.”

Now numbering almost 50, the colorful tributes stand proudly around town—in front of the public library, local college, government offices, and businesses. All the boots tell a story, and discovering them is a veritable urban scavenger hunt.

In front of the LP Insurance building, Inga Ojala’s boot depicts a trout-filled stream rushing down the Rubies, flanked by a mountain goat and bighorn sheep. The guitar-and-banjo festooned boot at the Western Folklife Center was painted by Tuscarora artist Sidne Teske; metal sculptor Susan Church provided the realistic spur. Teske’s boot is “branded” with Western Folklife Center letters. 

Wines and her sister-in-law Heather even had a hand in creating one of the mighty boots. Their piece, titled “Starry Elko Night,” is an homage to Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” with the Elko skyline replacing Saint Remy. Wines’ architecture background served her well in creating the buildings; the pair had more difficulty copying van Gogh’s inimitable night sky.

murals in elko nevada
Murals from left to right: “Forbidden Fruit” by Angie Terrell, “Symbiotic” by Rachel Pittaro, “For Sarah Sweetwater” by Simone Turner, “Rodeo Roper” by Gina Holmberg

MURALS WITHOUT BORDERS

For the centennial endeavor, nearly all the artists were from Elko and its environs. In 2019, the arts council went a bit further afield for its next project.

Eric Brooks, co-founder of Art Spot Reno, had found success producing mural festivals in Reno, Fernley, and Carson City and approached Elko with a similar idea. 

“I felt that the creation of so much public art in just a weekend would be positively compounded in smaller, rural communities,” explains Brooks.

Thus began the second phase of beautifying downtown: the Elko Mural Expo. Originally, the idea behind covering Elko with murals was purely cosmetic: Many older downtown buildings had simply lost their luster and were crying out for a splash of color.

In September 2019, 40 artists—some local, but others from as far away as Buenos Aires and the Basque Country—gathered in Elko for one memorable three-day weekend. Their assignment was clear: Paint more than 60 murals across the hard-edged town’s hard-edged surfaces. The artists were given total creative freedom and utilized an array of tools ranging from spray cans to airbrushes to stencils. 

elko nevada mural by mike lucido
Mural: “Surf N Turf” by Mike Lucido
the star mural in elko nevada by sebas velasco
Mural: “Untitled” by Sebas Velasco

Spring Creek artisan Simone Turner’s library mural—a simulated stack of two-foot tomes of E.B. White, George Orwell, C.S. Lewis and others—was a collaboration with Elko teenagers. Turner’s joy is palpable when describing the collaboration with local youth: “Painting two-foot tall books? Yes please!” 

Even celebrity artists were drawn to the festival. When Elko first petitioned world-renowned muralist Sebas Velasco to paint, he declined, citing an engagement in Portugal. Then he found out about Elko’s rich Basque history—Velasco was born in Burgos, Spain, 50 miles from the Basque Country. He changed his itinerary and traveled to the event, where he painted a mural depicting members of the Elko Basque Club.

Reno-born artist Erik Burke also drew inspiration from Elko’s Euskadi heritage with his multi-paneled work on the wall of Basque eatery Ogi Deli Bar & Pintxos. It includes a traditional Basque wagon, legendary accordionist Bernardo Yanci, and depictions of “arborglyphs,” a local tradition whereby shepherds carved their initials into aspen trees. Burke, who now has five murals in Elko, made frequent trips to Elko as a young man and, as he says, “more or less absorbed the people and feeling when I was there.”

In subsequent years, more muralists came, the scene was repeated, and now Elko boasts 100-plus concrete canvases that draw on both the mythical and real life. Today, visitors will find whimsical jackalopes, Mexican dolls, Native American imagery, and cowboy scenes, all a slice of life in this diverse community.

ogi deli mural by erik burke in elko nevada
Mural: “Ogi Deli” by Erik Burke

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of Nevada Magazine & Visitor Guide. See the complete issue at NevadaMagazine.com.