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Look! Up on the wall. ... It's a bird! Near some planes! It's supermural!
And since last month, when officials at Sky Harbor International Airport announced the upcoming closure of Terminal 2, the future of the famed phoenix mural has been up in the air. Installed in the spring of 1962, the 16-foot-high, 75-foot-long mural has been eyed by millions, easily making it the most-viewed artwork in the Valley. The mural (currently valued at $75,000 for insurance purposes) combines paint, plastic, broken shells, glass, petrified wood, seaweed, sand and turquoise-52 materials in all, one for each week of the year. The three-dimensional bird is also the best-known work of the late Paul Coze, a local artist whose other public works include the Native American-themed exterior of the former Blue Cross/Blue Shield building at 331 West Indian School, murals inside Veterans' Memorial Coliseum and the stained-glass phoenix that stands outside Town & Country Shopping Center.
More people go through Terminal 2 than have been to the Phoenix Art Museum," says Rick Martinez, Sky Harbor's public information officer.
Martinez admits that for the moment, at least, salvaging the 30-year-old mural isn't the No. 1 priority around Sky Harbor. Right now, everybody is understandably more concerned about moving airlines from one terminal to the other, that kind of stuff," he explains. We haven't forgotten about that mural, though. It's the most popular piece of art we own."
Martinez reports that questions about the artwork's fate surfaced almost immediately after the decision to shutter Terminal 2 was made public.
When people heard that Terminal 2 was going to be closed or torn down, they really concerned themselves with that piece," echoes Lennee Eller, curator of Sky Harbor's art collection. Some pieces of art take on lives of their own, and obviously this mural is one of those. In Phoenix, that mural is more than a piece of art-it's become a cultural landmark."
But just how the city intends to remove the mammoth mural from its moorings remains undecided.
We haven't got that figured out just yet," Martinez confesses with a chuckle. I do know one thing, though. Whatever we wind up doing, it's going to be a bear. That mural was inlaid in the wall as they built it, so now it's actually part of the building."
If the Terminal 2 phaseout unfolds as scheduled, the city has several years to ponder that off-the-wall puzzler. Current plans call for the terminal to remain in use until next summer, when the seven airlines currently operating out of the building move east to Terminal 3. According to Martinez, the city intends to keep the empty terminal in its back pocket" for the next several years, just in case a carrier suddenly needs a lot of new gates all at once. However, Martinez says that in all probability the building will be razed within the next five years.
The city's decision to save the mural has been greeted with guarded enthusiasm within the Valley's art community. Most observers, however, applaud the effort while doubting the practicality of the plan. I don't know what they plan to do with it, but I think it's great that there's an attempt being made to save it," says Jim Ballinger, director of the Phoenix Art Museum.
Paul Coze was not a national or internationally famous artist by any means," says Ballinger of the artist, who died in 1974 at age 71. But when the Phoenix metro area was growing, Coze was a figure that helped galvanize a lot of interest in the arts around here. A lot of people knew him and bought a lot of his smaller paintings, some of which were pretty darn nice." Ballinger reports that the museum still fields calls from travelers who want to know who created the airport mural and whether they can buy other examples of the artist's work.
I think if you were to put that mural on some kind of artistic Richter scale, it'd be of greater value as a kind of Phoenix artistic monument rather than as a great piece of art," says Ballinger. Arguing the purists' point of view, he points out that it would be artistically incorrect to salvage just a portion of the mural, since large-scale pieces of art are often intended to read" left to right. The big question," Ballinger says, is what do you do with something that big?"
What you don't do, some insist, is relocate the mural to a space for which it wasn't originally intended.
Basically it's a museum piece," says Muriel Magenta, an Arizona State University art professor. And while Magenta agrees that the colossal Coze collage is worth preserving as a historical monument, she thinks it would be a big mistake to remount it in a contemporary setting-say, another airport terminal. That mural is an example of something that's very much of its time, an illustrative mural-style piece that relates to the 1940s and 1950s," Magenta says. Unless you had a museum area of the airport, it's out of character with what I hope artists of today are trying to do visually."
But at least one person intimately involved in the creation of the mural doesn't hold up much hope that Sky Harbor's famous phoenix will ever rise again.
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