By Tibby Plasse // Photography by José Luis Vílchez
Last July, José Luis Vílchez and Cora Rose found themselves in Idaho Falls with a broken-down, multicolored bus trying to devise a plan. One of their social media followers—long-time Teton Valley resident Angela Daft—messaged their Instagram profile explaining that she was right around the corner and they had to come visit Teton Valley, Idaho.
Art We There Yet—a traveling public art experiment—is the brain child of Vílchez, a fine art painter and professional photographer who grew up in Nicaragua. His work appears in galleries across the United States, China, India, Nicaragua, and Romania. Vílchez champions the colors of his childhood—vibrant and enlivened hues—with a backdrop of third-world poverty.
In his art school days, Vílchez concentrated on transforming rough surfaces by blending in different elements of daily life. Now, he uses his original impulses as he and Rose continue their adventure traveling to twenty-three countries in North, Central, and South America, where they plan to spend an average of a week to ten days to complete a mural in each community they visit.
In the first year of the journey (most of which was during the pandemic), the pair covered 11,000 miles and visited fourteen states. They completed thirteen community murals, held sixteen workshops, performed countless concerts, and collected over thirty terabytes of footage, photographs, and music recordings.
But their sojourn to Teton Valley was more of a three-month art residency than a quick stop.
Instead of completing one mural in Driggs, Idaho, the couple took part in four: one at Rise Coffee House, one at Citizen 33 Brewery, one at the Teton Arts Council building, and one in a Driggs Elementary School classroom. Their “art bombing” couldn’t have come at a better time, while the pandemic was affecting everyone’s daily activities. Soon, socially-distanced public painting parties and a bright palette of colors showered the Driggs community, enlivening both young and old. Also, Rose, a musician, had the opportunity to perform with local artists Michael Batdorf and Ryan Ptasnik while in town.
“We connected with so many people, and I was able to perform socially-distanced concerts in the middle of summer,” says Rose. “A personal project for me during this trip is to record one song [called ‘Roamer’] multiple times all across the country.”
Positivity and joy are deeply woven into the theme of the couple’s traveling project and their bus is a direct depiction of their mission.
“We hired my friend from art school to create the art for the bus,” says Vílchez. “We know being a gypsy can sometimes come with a negative connotation … but the bus is both colorful and tasteful, so we’re not dubbed as hippies. The bus’s mural represents my colors, my life with Cora, and my friend’s artwork altogether.”
Vílchez liked the artwork on the bus so much, that he chose to have his murals feature the same color scheme. The cantaloupe and mint shades that weave themselves throughout the Rise mural and the Citizen 33 mural tell the Art We There Yet tale. In an era when shared experiences can be challenging, the happy geometric shapes offer a good reminder that art serves us all the time, in every type of space. The Art Council’s mural (underwritten by an anonymous homeowner in Tributary) has a slightly different representation done in coordinated primary colors to reflect the building’s focus on art education.
There’s a fourth secret Art We There Yet mural in the Driggs Elementary School’s dual immersion classroom. This mural is a world map—and a project that particularly pulled on Vílchez’s heartstrings. He tells the story of being sent to the principal’s office when he was young and looking for Nicaragua on the globe while he was waiting.
“When I found Nicaragua, I couldn’t believe how small my country was compared to the rest of the world. My mind was blown!” says Vílchez. “This sparked my desire to travel.”
The classroom project also evoked a similar response from Rose, as she recollects being a Spanish student in school. “[My teacher’s] classroom was a little sanctuary for us Spanish nerds. It was decorated top to bottom with colorful fiesta banners and trinkets from markets across Central America,” says Rose. “And, a giant floor-to-ceiling map of the world.”
While the couple’s travel plans may change daily to accommodate pandemic restrictions, their intent is still the same—to visit all the countries on their list over a four-year span. Upon completion of their odyssey, Vílchez and Rose plan to return to Nicaragua to open an art and music school. Follow the duo on Instagram @artwethereyet or on their website at artwethereyet.com.