Making the Mold
Las Cruces sculptor Kelley S. Hestir, best known for her Bataan
memorial, makes memories in three dimensions.
by Jeff Berg
Island life is the thing of dreams for most people, but not for Kelley S. Hestir, this issue's cover artist. A one-time resident of Guam, Hawai'i, Tasmania, the Mariana Islands and the Virgin Islands, Hestir came back (as many people seem to do) to Las Cruces for its feel of "home."
Hestir is best known locally for her "Heroes of Bataan" sculpture and memorial at Las Cruces' Veterans Park, which last month won the Art in Public Places Award from the Doña Ana Arts Council. She is also an illustrator, painter and graphic artist, and co-founded Las Cruces' Art Forms Association and For the Love of Art Month.
"Even as a child, I knew I wanted to be an artist," Hestir says. "Those are some of my earliest memories. My older brother and sister were in grade school, so I entertained myself by making things, cutting things out of paper and such. I had an artistic mom who was very encouraging and I was also influenced by Miss Levine."
"Miss Levine" was a Las Cruces Public Schools art teacher back during Hestir's grade school days. According to Hestir, she was quite the instructor and was extremely active in getting students to learn art and then to get it displayed for the public.
"She would take all the best from Las Cruces Public Schools and have a big show in Mesilla. She did a thing called ‘Living Pictures,' which were life-size reproductions using kids in the pictures."
This, combined with continued encouragement, sealed Hestir's fate as an art major.
"I first learned about sculpting in high school. I can also draw and paint, but I liked sculpting the most. It is a bit of an overlooked art," Hestir says.
"My dad, Bill, worked at NMSU for a while and he was very encouraging as well," she goes on. "I went to UNM for a while and lived in Albuquerque for 16 years, and later my dad went to work for the Department of the Interior and was stationed in the Marianas and then in Guam for three years."
It doesn't happen often that a place will have a shortage of artists, but that is what Hestir found in the Pacific islands. There was a genuine shortage of skilled artists in a good job market, and her college art experience helped her land a graphic design position.
This was back in the "old days" of cut and paste by hand with an Xacto knife and a waxing machine, when creativity wasn't done by a click of a computer mouse.
"I went to work for a magazine called Glimpses," she recalls. "It was a high-quality, full-color glossy that covered living and traveling in Micronesia.
"But I had a desire to return to school, so I went to the University of Hawai'i, and got my bachelor's and master's, and also taught for a while. My interests were in sculpture and jewelry."
Then a relationship ended and Hestir laughs when she says, "I went home to Mom and Dad" — and found herself back in Las Cruces in 1995.
"I found myself at home in more ways than one," she adds. "I had always felt that Las Cruces was home."
She soon found a graphics job and started settling back into Las Cruces. Her background and some mentors such as Ben Bolt, Larry Sheffield and Brian Colon helped her get a bit of recognition.
A big break came when Hestir was commissioned to do the life-size "Heroes of Bataan" statue that was dedicated in 2002 and cleaned up and rededicated earlier this year.
The piece was from an idea by Joe Martinez, who had two uncles who took place in the horrific Bataan Death March in 1942, which included 1,800 soldiers from New Mexico, and by former Senator Pete Domenici.
Hestir says, "I knew they wanted three soldiers, two on the outside helping the one in the middle. It was the story of one brother being helped by another. Another artist did some sketch work with that and there was support for that idea."
Hestir says that she could have used at least two years to finish the work, but instead had only nine months. She worked with some "before and after" photos of Martinez' uncles, Juan and Pepe Baldonado of Tularosa, but had to interpret some of the work, since the pictures were only front views of the two men.
She adds that the work is meant to represent everybody, both Filipino and American, not just the Baldonados. "Their faces and Joe's were used as references."
Hestir added the memorial walkway, which symbolically represents those who started the march and those who finished it. The footsteps are from actual survivors of the Death March, of which fewer than 100 of the Americans involved still survive.
"Gerry Schurtz was most instrumental in helping with the footprints," she says. "His father was from Deming and Gerry has been working to keep the survivors and their families together."
Hestir shares the bittersweet story of how she got the first set of footprints: "I was working with Gerry, getting ready to do them, and got a call from Gerry saying that one of the survivors was in the hospital in intensive care, and we'd better hurry. But by the time I got to the hospital, he had passed away. But the family and IC staff let me take his footprints."
The man, Lorenzo Banegas, was one of three Death March survivors who saw Hestir's three-foot model of the proposed work and gave it their approval. Later, Hestir was surprised and pleased to find that Banegas' grand-nephew was one of her students at NMSU, where she teaches an art class.
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