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Bloomberg Mayors Challenge: Artist Santiago Jaramillo Partners with Denver Department of Public Health & Environment to Promote Air-Quality Awareness at Denver Schools


Air quality art cartEven if artist Santiago Jaramillo didn’t suffer from asthma, he would still want to devote some of his work to environmental issues.

“It’s so important that people understand that what is happening with the planet affects everyone, because of climate change, yes, but also because of the spiritual connections between the environment and our health,” says the Denver native and third-generation Westwood resident. “I am hopeful that what we’re doing will help raise awareness and get people motivated to find out more.”

What Jaramillo is doing is using his talents as a painter who specializes in the styles of contemporary Aztec and Chicano art to put a spotlight on environmentally related topics—including painting some of the air-quality sensors that the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment’s (DDPHE) Division of Environmental Quality has installed at Denver-area schools.

DDPHE also has partnered with The Trust for Public Land on a project with Jaramillo and four other artists, who are painting paletas (ice cream carts) that have been fitted with air-quality sensors to help address climate change issues within Denver communities—essentially turning them into mobile weather stations.

“We took one of the beautiful carts that Santiago painted to an event in the community,” says Michael Ogletree, DDPHE’s Air Quality Program Manager for the City and County of Denver. “The eye-catching appeal of the artwork caught the attention of many residents, who were drawn in by the vibrant colors. We then used that opportunity to educate the residents about air quality, which went really well.”

Air quality art cartThat event led DDPHE to join with Jaramillo—as well as artists Jose Mares and Josiah Lee Lopez, and Jaramillo’s daughter Lala Jaramillo and stepson Santiago Padilla Jaramillo, also artists—to engage with the pilot schools involved in DDPHE’s air-quality monitoring program to style their sensors with inspiration from participating school communities, including Sabin WorldSwanseaFairviewMorgridge Academy and Garden Place Academy.

DDPHE will share with the public at large how the monitors work, what the information reveals, and how the data will affect responses. Schools will be able to download the data at any time to use in their classrooms, and the information will be shared with the community and with researchers, to be used to improve future air-quality monitoring systems and their impact. Creating art out of them is an additional way to engage students and help them become vested in the project.

“The kids at each of the participating schools will give us input as to what they want to see on the air-quality sensors,” Jaramillo explains, “and then all of us artists will take those suggestions and turn them into art on the sensors.”

The 2018 Mayors Challenge provided the first steps toward funding the critical and urgent mission of addressing poor air quality. The competition is one of the first investments in the Bloomberg American Cities Initiative, an effort to help U.S. cities generate innovation and advance policy. On February 20, Denver was announced as one of 35 Champion Cities for the 2018 Bloomberg Mayors Challenge.

Air quality art cartWhen Jaramillo heard about the program, he knew he needed to be a part of it. As a lifelong Westwood resident, he has had to deal with the effects of asthma since childhood, and his kids have all experienced severe allergies or asthma, as well. Air pollution harms everyone, but children are more susceptible to its acute and long-term health effects, including decreased lung function, increased respiratory infections and missed days of school – all of which are issues for students with asthma attending Denver-area schools.

“This is a way I can give back and address something that I understand personally,” he says. “Because we’re trying to tie it all together with respect for the Earth and indigenous beliefs, it has a very deep connection to community, and the art part is something that kids can really relate to.”

It takes Jaramillo about four or five days to paint one of the shaped air-quality sensors. “You have to sand it and prime it, and then kind of figure out how to approach the painting part,” he says. “It’s a very odd canvas, because it’s hard to get straight lines right. But it’s fun to see how it turns out, and it’s very cool that it’s something that will be used for such an important purpose.”

What has been crucial to DDPHE all along is that the information gathered will be shared openly, in a collaborative outreach that will produce a menu of options that schools—and the surrounding community—can choose from, depending on the potential impact of the data gleaned from the monitoring systems. If chosen for one of Bloomberg’s four $1 million grants or the single $5 million grant, DDPHE then would be able to expand the monitoring program starting next school year, with an eventual goal of implementing it in all 230 of DPS’ sites.

“We’re all so connected, that's why we have to get involved in things like this,” Jaramillo says. “We have to take care of each other.”

For more information on Denver’s air-quality monitoring entry in the 2018 Bloomberg Mayors Challenge, visit the Champion Cities page. To see all of the critical work DDPHE is doing for Public Health and the Environment, follow us on Twitter and Facebook.