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Dec 21

Purple Shades of Refuge

Posted on December 21, 2021 at 8:46 AM by Ceci Vasconcellos

Purple Shades of Refuge

I must be honest – when I first saw the big purple octopus-looking structure in Lions Park, I didn’t get it. Why was there a disfigured sea creature near the swimming pool? Was it some sort of play structure deemed too dangerous for children? Did it tie in with tennis somehow? What was the ball on top? Did the swirls represent an athletic symbol… no, they’re snails maybe …which has nothing to do with tennis. Hmmmm This purple giant not only seemed out of place, but it was just so…confusing. 

Still, it intrigued me. 

I got out of my car. I wanted to see it up close. I walked underneath it to explore its inner workings. It was a hot day but as I entered, I immediately noticed the temperature underneath was much cooler. Ahhh. It felt like I was in a cave. There was a circular slab of concrete in the middle, perfect for sitting or even laying on to look up at the cone like shape of the top. At the base of the structure, there were handprints of all sizes with names associated to them embedded in the concrete. There was a story here…I was sure.

Years later, when I became art coordinator, I discovSierra Middle School Children helping artist with constructionered the purple giant is one of the City’s public art pieces and it was time to give it some TLC maintenance. I was excited, because I knew I would have the opportunity to meet the artist who created this intriguing piece of art and finally get the story behind its creation and how he drew great inspiration from the area in which we live.

This is the story of Refuge. Local artist Andrew Nagem designed and constructed Refuge over two-and-a-half-years with the help of hundreds of local school children. Nagem used ancient engineering techniques that cause the refreshing air flow to happen naturally, which is why the temperature remains comfortable underneath the structure. Pretty cool, right? He also used local landmark, La Cueva (near Dripping Springs), as inspiration for the four cave-like entrance points that face north, south, east, and west.

Nagem also explained the structure depicts four abstract figures resting back-to-back symbolizing community. The heads allude to the fossils found in the Robledo Mountains and other surrounding mountains as well as to nature, that binds us together. The purple color is a tribute to the color of the Organ Mountains at sunset as well as the positive feelings allegedly generated by purple amethyst crystals. 

Sculpture in the primed phaseDavid Twitty, welder, sitting on top of Refuge structure

 Top Photo: Artist Andrew Nagem works with Sierra Middle School students on Refuge.*      Left Photo: Sculpture under construction.*   Right Photo: Help from Dona Ana Community College Welding Technology.* 

The globe on top, representing Earth, is covered with ceramic tiles depicting local plants and animals made by Las Cruces and White Sands Missile Range schoolchildren in the mid-90’s. The circular bench underneath the sculpture is made of Rio Grande River stone and carved with a labyrinth “from the indigenous cultures that represents the link between human brain activity and the connection to the Earth as a whole” according to the artist, making it the perfect place to rest from the heat. The names and handprints of many of the children who helped construct Refuge are preserved in the cement floor, reflecting the pride they must have felt when the project was completed in 1995.


Refuge bench with labyrinth


                           Ceramic tiles being made for sculptureRefuge Globe with ceramic animals on top of sculpture 

Photos from Left to Right:  Ceramic elements designed and sculpted by school children.*  Close-up of tiles as they look today. Stone slab labyrinth sits in center of Refuge. 

After seeing it many times driving by, exploring it up close, and listening to the artist talk about Refuge, the purple giant has grown on me. I like it. Sometimes public art is like that. Sometimes, no matter how often an art piece is seen, it just doesn’t inspire appreciation. That’s ok. Sometimes, its story needs to be told to truly appreciate the beauty of it. Go sit in the cool shade of this purple cave and maybe, just maybe you’ll hear the whispers of the children’s voices telling you their story of creating Refuge.

Refuge at night in Lions Park

Night photo of Refuge in present time.*


* Photo credit: Andrew Nagem 


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