Culture News

The Story Behind Lauren Lee’s New Three Birds in Flight Mural in Downtown Phoenix

A trio of birds created by Phoenix artist Lauren Lee now tower over part of Roosevelt Row, an area of downtown Phoenix that’s been named one of the nation’s best neighborhoods and art districts.

Lee’s Three Birds in Flight comprises acrylic paintings on three 10-by-10-square-foot metal panels and was installed on July 26 on a west-facing wall of iLuminate, a five-story apartment complex being built by Baron Properties. 

It’s a full-circle moment for Lee, who also painted the Three Birds mural that graced an east-facing wall of the former building located at 222 East Roosevelt. That building was demolished in March 2015 to make way for iLuminate, whose address is 290 East Roosevelt Street.

Lee painted the original Three Birds mural during the summer of 2012, when 222 East Roosevelt was home to a small gallery and boutique called greenHAUS – whose owners Cole and Dayna Reed commissioned the piece.

It was Lee's first mural, and one that became a way-finding tool for those seeking the Roosevelt Row arts district as well as a popular backdrop for casual photographers. She learned of demolition plans in December 2014.

The news spread quickly, and more than 1,000 community members signed a petition seeking to save the building – which also housed two early 1950s interior murals by Ted DeGrazia, and held historic significance as the former site of Lounge 307, Phoenix’s first gay drag bar.

But even as protestors railed against development, Lee embraced it.

She figures cities are bound to undergo change, and says artists can be part of the solutions that help move communities forward. “In many ways, this is about being friendly and working together,” Lee says.

Landing the Three Birds in Flight commission started with what she calls “spiritual serendipity.”

After learning the original mural’s fate, she ran into Chris Murdy, a key player in several Baron Properties projects, and told him she’d love to paint a mural for the new development. Soon, Baron asked her to submit a design and commissioned her to paint Three Birds in Flight.

“They’re a translation of the original birds,” Lee says. “My intention was to set them free.”

Birds are prominently featured in several of Lee’s public art works – including murals located at Oasis on Grand and next to Jaycee Park in Tempe. They’re also part of a sleeve-style tattoo on the artist’s left arm.

“Birds are a symbol of spiritual freedom,” Lee says. “I love painting them.”

Lee shared early renderings for Three Birds in Flight during Art Detour in March 2015, talking with people who came by the 222 building to see her mural or the DeGrazia murals. The latter were covered during greenHaus days.

For more than a year, Lee worked with Murdy and others on taking the design from idea to execution. Along the way, they decided to go with three mounted panels rather than a mural painted directly onto the building.

Painting five stories above the ground on a lift presents significant challenges, so Lee was happy to go the other route. Even so, it was physically demanding. “I do a lot of hand painting,” Lee says. “Painting a five-foot wing is like doing a dance.”

She’d hoped to paint the pieces at Grand ArtHaus, a new co-working artist studio space in the Grand Avenue arts district, but their size and weight made that impractical. Instead, she painted them inside iLuminate’s underground garage.

Lee spent four hours a day, over the course of eight days, painting Three Birds in Flight. At one point, she started to cry – thinking about a series of life changes that unfolded after she painted the original Three Birds, and reflecting on the new birds as an “externalization of freedom.”

After finishing on Thursday, July 21, Lee said a blessing for the birds – calling on them to “bring joy, illumination, and a sense of presence to people.”

The following week, she looked on as the three panels got hoisted into the air with a crane and bolted to the building. "I was so proud of Phoenix in that moment," Lee says. 

The panels are level with the development’s third, fourth, and fifth floors – making them visible from a significant distance. They’ll be even more prominent this fall, after Baron Properties adds lighting that will illuminate Lee’s work at night.

They’d hoped to cover the birds somehow, then unveil them during a big reveal-style ceremony, Lee says. But that plan got nixed due to challenges posed by monsoon storms – and the fact that so many people had already seen and photographed Lee’s work being installed.

Now they’re planning a big reveal for the first illumination of Lee’s work, which she expects to happen on First Friday in September or October.

In the meantime, Lee is working on several private commissions, and reflecting on the broader implications of Three Birds in Flight.

“We took a situation that was difficult,” Lee says. “And we as a community found a solution and worked hard to make it happen.”
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble