Thomas Gin is a man without borders and yet a man who has grown up ever aware of a border.
SMC Community Ed’s new mosaic arts instructor – who begins in March – crosses the U.S.-Mexico border every weekend when he travels from Los Angeles to an arts co-op he started in the poor Mexicali neighborhood he grew up in to teach mosaic art.
He has brought in artists from all over the world to work on a mile-long mural on a border wall separating Mexicali and Calexico – as well as other nonprofit arts projects.
He risked major injury – and indeed was tear-gassed – by climbing to the top of that same border fence, which was being torn down for construction of a new barrier, to try to save the murals that had taken the international team of artists three years to create.
Gin moved from Mexico to Los Angeles at the age of 23. He gained an interest in mosaic art when he remodeled his home in Mexicali and included many stylistic designs with the material he had available. During the years that followed, he made numerous mosaics from recyclable materials.
He was formally taught the craft of mosaic by Carmelo Fiannaca, who taught several years for Community Ed before recently returning to his native Sicily. Fiannaca selected Gin to be his successor, and Gin will teach Introduction to Mosaic Art and Mosaic Art II beginning March 2.
“I learned a lot from Carmelo,” Gin said. “He’s the best.”
The birth of Gin as a community arts activist was serendipitous – and involved mosaic art. In 2013 he repaired a pothole in the street of his childhood neighborhood and covered it with a mosaic. When he received a positive reception from the neighborhood, he realized the power that the art of mosaic has to create social change in a community.
He then founded the nonprofit, non-governmental organization El Arte Salva: Proyecto Calle 13 to transform his childhood neighborhood, the barrio Santa Clara in Mexicali, one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
In 2016 he transformed his home, just steps away from the border fence, into an artist residency that has attracted artists from Italy, Tijuana, Mexico City, and UC Berkeley.
In 2017 the group focused on painting murals on the border fence between Calexico and Mexicali. The destruction of that fence in 2018 led to Gin’s dramatic effort last year to save the 35 murals.
As reported by Voice of San Diego, Gin had tried to physically drag one of the pieces across the border to save some of the murals. When that didn’t work, he climbed on top of another one and refused to come down. A La Crónica photojournalist captured the tense moment.
When Gin wouldn’t come down, Border Patrol officials fired tear gas in his direction, which caused him to lose his grip – but he managed to avoid falling off completely. Officials then tried once more to talk things out with Gin. They promised to meet with him soon to see how Border Patrol could help save the murals.
Gin agreed, and climbed off. In the end, only one of 35 pieces was saved – the mural of Aztec leader Cuauhtémoc by local artists Pablo Castañeda and Eduardo Kintero. The piece is currently displayed in the art collective’s studio just a couple steps away from its original location.
The estimated $18-million project replaced just over two miles of a 1990s 12-foot barrier made of steel Vietnam War-era military aircraft landing mats with 30-foot bollards — poles placed close together to restrict entry but allow people on either side to see through.
In February 2018, Gin established La Joyita, a co-operative gallery that offers classes in the arts and hosts free events for the public. With about 50 students altogether, ranging in age from 5 to 80 years old, La Joyita has a gallery and performance stage and offers classes in mosaic, painting, sculpture, drawing, dance and more. Students from the University of Mexicali, UC Berkeley and USC help out at La Joyita, Gin said. And La Joyita participants help out the community by painting houses and curbs, filling potholes and more.
Gin has been teaching mosaic-making classes every other month at Stained Glassed Supplies in Pasadena since 2017. He has also taught mosaic-making workshops at Centro Estatal de Las Artes (CEART) in Mexicali.
El Arte Salva: Proyecto Calle 13 has received bi-national media attention from numerous agencies such as La Voz de la Frontera, The Voice of San Diego and TV Azteca. In late 2018, the artists of El Arte Salva: Proyecto Calle 13 and Thomas Gin were awarded “Artists of the Year” by the media agency La Crónica in Mexicali.