Katty Huertas’ first ever mural speaks to the power of community and asking for help

Washington DC-based illustrator and artist Katty Huertas has ticked off her goal to be more involved with the local art community by painting her first ever mural, which depicts a train full of human animals going about their day.

It’s been a couple of years since we last caught up with Katty Huertas and heard how she has developed her maximalist style. And in that time, she’s been keeping herself busy by getting into drawing animals and hoping to get involved with local art communities.

Her latest project brings both of these strands together, as Katty was invited to paint her first ever piece of wall art for Washington DC’s annual mural festival, Noma in Colour. Featuring a train full of humanoid animals on their way to work, the vibrant mural not only helped Katty achieve her dreams it also taught her about the value of community in the process.

Speaking to Creative Boom, Katty explains that as a figurative artist, she has long loved painting portraits and noticing subtle differences between faces. Her other love, animals, proved to be more of a challenge when it came to realising them.

“I’ve always loved animals, and I grew up with different pets,” she says. “Recently, I’ve been more interested in portraying them. Our brain is not equally trained to distinguish the variety of faces of animals from the same species, so I enjoy getting lost in those nuances. As a way of mixing my two passions, I also like putting these animals in human situations, creating an amalgamation of our worlds.”

As a former resident of Noma, Katty would see all the murals and art projects on houses as she went about her day. And the top of her bucket list for the year was to be part of the festival that takes place in the area on an annual basis. “I received an email from the organisers for the event to send a proposal inspired by the city,” she adds. “I sent two very rough concepts, and luckily they liked both!”

As a medium, murals presented something of a challenge. Katty had never made one before, but she jumped at the chance with her trademark optimism. “My approach has always been to say yes and then figure out the rest later,” she reveals. “This is a great way to learn because the pressure and deadlines activate my fight or flight response, leaving little room for self-doubt.

“I tried to approach it as I would five large canvases, the difference being that a single canvas can take me months to complete, while I only had a week to finish this one. I thought I’d rather have a window finished than four half-finished ones, so I focused on different characters each day.”

Katty’s work is very textured and rendered, so she still used her very tiny brushes to paint on the huge expanse of the wall. Cue panic. “At points, I thought I wouldn’t be able to complete it, but I also remembered that people usually don’t go extremely close to murals and that they are intended to be seen from a distance, so that helped me let go of some details,” she says.

“Asking for the help of my friends and family, especially during the first days, really made a difference, as I had multiple hands helping fill in the flat colours and providing support in other ways, too.”

The animals in the train aren’t just a random selection of critters either. Each has a purpose tied to the location and Katty’s personal history. “D.C. is a very diverse city, not only in regards to people but animals as well,” she says. “I, of course, had to include my two cats, Jerry and Larry, who have appeared in my work before. The white dog near the door of the train is my childhood dog, Kogui, who passed away somewhat recently when he was almost 18, so I also wanted to preserve his memory.”

The wall itself is very close to a dog park, so it made sense for Katty to feature two more canines. These represent the dogs of two friends who live in the neighbourhood. Her pals helped her out during the creation of the mural.

“If you’ve ever visited D.C., the rat is self-explanatory; there are so many. While I know they’re controversial, I find them cute, so I wanted to include one in the mural as well.

“Since I had so many cats and dogs, I also wanted to include more unconventional animals you also see in the city. You can see horses at Rock Creek Park and sometimes in the National Mall so that one was also fun to paint.”

Seeing as the wall for the mural was right under a train line, Katty wanted to create a mirror with her work, yet one where the imaginary train and the real-world carriages align. “I love world-building, and in my head, I was building stories for these animals,” she says. “The rat, in some ways, represents me; she’s just come from a grocery store with the essentials and a plant. If you look closely, her necklace says ‘Katty’.

“The horse is anxious to step down. He’s wearing a suit that’s a bit small, so I think of him as an eager intern working for a government official heading straight to work.

“The cats are the stylish residents of D.C.; while the city is mostly associated with politics, it also has such a vibrant creative scene, and I wanted them to represent that. There’s also tourists, of course.”

Besides being creatively fulfilling, the mural was also a learning curve for Katty. “I learned that there’s so much power in community and in asking for help,” she concludes. “That public art is so special since you get to interact with the people who will see the art the most. It’s such a different experience than creating art in a studio alone.

“I also learned that done is better than perfect. With this type of art, you can’t be too precious. I want to do more murals, and I’m already in talks for some projects for 2024, so stay tuned!”

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