By Ray Stern
By New Times
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The $50,000 mural was Paul Johnson's idea. According to the artist, the prominent politico in the mural is not Paul Johnson. Not entirely, at least. (Beatrice Moore claims she sees Paul Johnson in the mural in three different places.) "I tried for an archetype," says Coplin, "a young-politician kind of thing, somewhere between Bruce Babbitt, Terry Goddard and Paul Johnson."
From the beginning, the mural commission was designated for Arizona artists only. Coplin, collaborating with a staffer from the Arizona Historical Foundation, was panel-picked for the project from a field of more than 60 applicants.
After Coplin was approved for the project by the city council, a bizarre episode ensued in which a disgruntled muralist who didn't get the job actually forced the art-spooked council into a second vote. Coplin won again, and spent two months doing the actual brushwork--but not before six months of preliminary legwork. Coplin says he previewed a sketch of the mural to 14 different constituencies. City councilmembers were approached individually for advance peeks. Input was sought. Input was given. Councilman Salomon Leija suggested revisions that ultimately resulted in the insertion of more brown faces into Coplin's interpretation of Phoenix history. Elsewhere in the piece, the role of the lone conquistador was considerably diminished at the behest of other previewers.
"History is a relative thing," says Coplin, who salted the canvas with several sly gags, including an homage to the Squaw Peak Pots. "It depends on what your perspective is, and what side of the fence you were viewing it from. 'Christopher Columbus discovered America.' That's very insulting to Native Americans, right?
"I included a conquistador to begin with. The idea of conquistadors having any heroic stature in the Southwest is objectionable to the Chicano community. "I think I gave him a little too much relevance [in the sketch]. You could see him well. Some people voiced the opinion that that looked like what all muralists have done, and that is, 'The great and conquering conquistadors' and the idea that, 'Isn't this wonderful?'"
The conquistador in the finished painting is depicted in silhouette, almost completely obscured by another figure. No problem, says Coplin. "In fact, it is public art. That is a definition that includes the public.
"I'm willing to listen to people and hear what their concerns are and work within that framework.
"The people at the Phoenix Arts Commission kept saying to me, 'How do you feel? Do you feel that your work is being compromised? Do you have a problem with this?' They were willing to back me 100 percent. "But I was willing to work on those parameters."
No problem, says arts commissioner Goldsmith. "The mural, because it was going to be in City Hall, was going to be a political concern to the occupants of that building," he says. "The good artists, the ones who want to do public art, realize the public context of the art we're doing. They're better prepared than we are to deal with that!"
Problem, says Terry Goddard. "There was some talk early on of having each district councilperson have his own arts program," remembers Goddard of the commission's formative period. "I convinced them that that's the last thing they want to be. They'd end up arguing about colors and sculpture styles. They'd be overwhelmed by something they know nothing about. "I don't think they should ever be involved on the front end. . . .
"I don't think anybody looks at the city council for creativity on items of public beautification. I'm afraid that's where we're headed."
No. 1 with a bullet
The mayor hopes to form a coalition of parties to work together on his MASK (Melting Arms, Saving Kids) sculpture idea, including the arts commission, Mothers Against Gangs and the Phoenix Suns (perhaps to contribute their own personal sidearms to the premeltdown pile).
Then, the idea is to snag the artwork dollars from a "designated revenue source"--by linking it to a capital-improvement project already under way--and get the thing done.
"It doesn't matter to me what piece they select," Johnson says. "It doesn't matter to me what it looks like. What matters to me is that it becomes a memorial to kids and individuals who've died by violence that's taking place on our streets."
Downtown artist and former arts commissioner Beatrice Moore doesn't buy it. "I think it's grandstanding," she says. "His support of the arts has been so small. He uses arts when he can to his advantage. But it's been a fight with him the whole way, as far as I'm concerned."
Moore and ASU photography professor Mark Klett were the only two arts commissioners who were denied reappointment last year after requesting it.
Both had been outspoken critics of City Hall's efforts to curb the commission. (Moore: "I get a little bit tired, because I'm an artist, of people not considering me part of 'the community.'") Klett is remembered for testily debating a deputy city manager on Channel 8's Horizon show at the hottest moment of the postpots budget conflagration.
"With any politician, there's a certain educational process you have to go through," says Moore. "With Johnson . . . I don't think he understands the economic-development importance of the arts, even though it's been hit home to him again and again."
Johnson argues that he does, too, understand the value of national column inches devoted to his arts commission. "Anytime you get national notoriety, there's a benefit in that it's just a pride builder for the community," he says. "There may be other economic impact, as well. It may be hard to gauge."