Locals: Citizen of the Year & Unsung Heroes

Local artist gives of his time & heart

He sees the best in his community and inspires the best in others.

For Kelly Cross, owner of Studio 508 in Belen, being part of a community has been a long time coming, but he’s jumped right in, giving his all to the Hub City in any way he can.

Cross, this year’s News-Bulletin’s Citizen of the Year, is fairly new to the city, but he’s donated countless hours of his time and a big chunk of his heart to making his adopted home the best it can be. For Cross, art and the art community in Belen has brought him back to life after spending much of his adult life either working or drinking. He retired from both in 2014 and decided he needed to work on himself and procure his own happiness.

After taking a leap of faith and retiring early at the age of 62, Cross went off the grid, purchasing a small home and farm in Veguita with no running water or electricity.

“I cashed out everything, sold everything,” Cross said. “I told myself I had to survive. This was not about getting better, it was about survival and finding the strength in me. I’m what matters.”

The experience was so empowering for Cross he began to once again feel a sense of pride in himself, and began to reconnect with his creative side. He began to draw and to sculpt again — skills he had long lost.

Then, one fateful day, he found himself on Becker Avenue and noticed a particularly interesting zebra in front of the Belen Art League Gallery. It was a time he will always remember as a day of reawakening. Initially thinking it was a thrift store, Cross and a friend walked into the gallery.

“Quanta Hinson was at the gallery that day and she made it such an incredible experience,” Cross remembers. “She took us on a tour, told us the history of the art league. We thoroughly enjoyed it and I thought to myself I have to join the art league.”

On that day, Cross made the decision it was time to face reality and once again become a member of society. He immediately signed up for an art class, became a member of the art league and decided to start volunteering. First it was once a month, then once a week and now he’s the volunteer manager of the gallery.

“I wanted to volunteer for the sake of loving to do it. I had nothing to gain financially from it; I just wanted to give and be a part of something,” he said. “I wanted to be involved — I was ready to be involved with people again. I felt I was strong enough and I could have a healthy relationship with people again. As an alcoholic, I couldn’t.”

Jo’l Moore, president of the Belen Art League, who, along with Belen Councilor Ronnie Torres, nominated Cross to be honored, said, “Once a member, Kelly quickly became one of the strongest volunteers in the art league. He discovered the plethora of artistic talent in Belen and he decided he wanted to help promote both the arts and the artists.

“He puts in many hours making sure new members are recognized with a showing wall all of their own, and to ensure the gallery display is always vibrant and interesting.”

Cross is in awe of the BAL membership, saying they’re welcoming and inspiring.

“It isn’t an elitist group,” he says. “The doors are open to anybody and everybody. If it’s art to you then it’s art to them. You are as important as anyone else in this gallery. Everyone gets the same treatment, everybody plays by the same rules.”

Cross believes the Belen Art League has been the springboard for what’s been happening in Belen’s art district, saying they’ve instituted a place of community, something he hadn’t felt in a long time.

While volunteering at the gallery, Cross began having dreams again, this time as he stared out the window looking across the street at an abandoned building. One day, he thought, that building could and would be something more.

With his foresight and determination, it is.

Cross purchased the building, worked day and night emptying the piles of debris, cleaning and refurbishing it to be his home, his studio and a gallery where other artists could exhibit their work. After months of hard work, his dream — Studio 508 — was finally a reality.

Since opening the studio last year, he’s lent the space to numerous artists to display and sell their art. Not only has he opened his home to his creative counterparts free of charge, but also to the public to enjoy the art as well.

When asked why he would do such a thing, Cross simply answered, “There are just so many reasons why to do it, and not many reasons why not to do it.

“It was a lot of work; it was a true labor of love,” he said of his home, who he shares it with his two rescue dogs, Otis, a basset hound, and Buddy, a Dachshund mix. “I always envisioned it as a gallery. If you’re a starving artist, how can they give up 50 to 60 percent of their profit to pay a gallery to display their art,” he added. “They did the work. I just think it’s fair to give artists the experience and the exposure without having to give anything up.”

Kelly Cross has opened up his home in Belen as a gallery space for artists. He also volunteers at the Belen Art League, the Bugg Lights Museum and with the Belen MainStreet Partnership. -Clara Garcia | News-Bulletin photos

Relocating to Belen and into his refurbished building more than a year ago has given Cross a new lease on life, he says.

“Moving to Belen was like coming home,” Cross said. “It gave me a reason to wake up every morning and get out there and be part of something. This is where I belong.”

“Kelly has brought a sense of ‘you can do it — you’re a great talent — you’re a fantastic artist’ to many local people who are trying to make a name for themselves in the art community,” said Torres. “The look of pride says it all when they have a one-man or woman show in the free space Kelly provides.”

Kelly Cross, this year’s Citizen of the Year, has worked to help local artists as well as set up the new Bugg Lights Museum in Belen.

Not only has Cross volunteered his time at the Belen Art League Gallery, and in creating his own, he’s also made time to help in the creation of the new Bugg Lights Museum. From January until the museum opened in late June, Cross, Torres and a few other volunteers worked nearly every weekend and every available night working on the building and refurbishing the characters in the display.

“It was a very proud time for us,” Cross said. “I went to the Bugg’s house every winter since the early 1980s and watched it grow. I know the heart and the love the family put into it. When Ronnie said we were going to restore it, I didn’t hesitate to volunteer.”

After the museum opened, there was a need for someone to manage it — and that person was Cross. While earning a stipend through the New Mexico Aging and Longterm Service program, Cross welcomes visitors from noon to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.

Along with being one of the volunteers who created the mural at the Belen Veterans Visitor’s Center earlier this year, Cross is someone who always wants to help the community.

His latest endeavor is as a board member of the Belen MainStreet Partnership, an organization whose mission is to revitalize and preserve the downtown area. He is the chairman of the events committee and is gearing up for the organizations first Scarecrow Festival, scheduled from 4-8 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 26, on Becker Avenue between Fifth and Sixth streets.

“Meeting Kelly is kind of like meeting the Dali Llama or the Buddha,” Moore says of her friend. “There is just something about him that is so warm and loving that your own heart expands when you are with him. He is a joyful being who opens his heart to all he meets.

“He displays no negativity regarding his feelings about others. He’s like the person I’ve always wanted to be,” she adds. “I believe that being this type of community member is equally, if not more, important than any type of actions.”

When Cross learned of the honor, he was surprised — very surprised, he said.

“It is an honor to be recognized by a community that I absolutely love and adore,” Cross said. “I don’t do what I do to get praise. It’s just who I am and what I do. It feels good and it’s beneficial. I do appreciate it very much.”

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin, as well as the executive editor of El Defensor Chieftain, the News-Bulletin's sister paper in Socorro.
Clara is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.