Artists Hope to Restore Iconic Rose Johnson Mural in Phoenix

Detail of Rose Johnson's mural on 16th Street south of Thomas Road.
Detail of Rose Johnson's mural on 16th Street south of Thomas Road. Lynn Trimble
Two Phoenix artists are hoping to restore an iconic mural on 16th Street in Phoenix. It was painted in 1998 by Rose Johnson, a staple during the early days of Phoenix’s downtown arts scene.

The mural is located on the west side of 16th Street, south of Thomas Road. For years, the building housed a mortuary. It’s owned currently by the Civitan Foundation, a nonprofit focused on people living with developmental disabilities. They also purchased an adjacent building.

Titled The Prayer of St. Francis, the mural features images of diverse community members along with phrases from a Catholic prayer heavy with admonitions to love and have hope. The mural wraps around three portions of the building.

Artists Maggie Keane and Lucretia Torva want to restore the mural, and they’re working together on a plan to make it happen. Neither knew Johnson, but both say they’ve long admired her work.

“The mural is very complex,” Torva says. “I see something different every time I look at it.”

click to enlarge Part of the east-facing portion of Rose Johnson's mural in the Coronado neighborhood. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Part of the east-facing portion of Rose Johnson's mural in the Coronado neighborhood.
Lynn Trimble
Both Torva and Keane have painted several murals around downtown Phoenix. The most prominent works include Keane’s Prince mural painted earlier this year just off Grand Avenue. Both women have murals in the Oak Street alley not far from the site of Johnson’s iconic piece.

Johnson died in 2009, after moving from Bisbee to Bali. She’s widely respected in the Phoenix art community, but that hasn’t stopped people from defacing her work.

Several graffiti writers have painted over the parts of the mural in recent years, covering significant portions of Johnson’s portraiture on the north-facing wall. Graffiti has gone up on several additional murals in the area, as well.

click to enlarge The north-facing portion of Rose Johnson's mural in September 2019. - LYNN TRIMBLE
The north-facing portion of Rose Johnson's mural in September 2019.
Lynn Trimble
There are several steps to restoring the mural, according to Torva.

First, it needs to be power-washed to remove the dirt and loose paint. Then, they’d have to scrape off any paint that’s peeled over time and prime the surface. Finally, they have to paint out the existing graffiti, Torva says.

“I can see the whole project taking a month or two,” Keane says.

Last week, the artists put out a call on social media asking for the public's help. They’re searching for photos of the mural after it was first painted, eager to see the original colors of the piece.

“We’ve seen really bright colors in some of her other works, so we’re wondering if the mural had bold colors before it faded,” Torva says.

Of course, it all depends on whether Civitan decides to preserve the mural.

Recently, Keane spoke with a representative from the foundation about making it happen. Torva is hoping to talk with city officials about relocating a bus stop that partially blocks the mural.

At this point, there's no formal plan to fix the mural, according to Civitan CEO Dawn Trapp. "We're not sure with that mural," she says. "We're still trying to figure out what we can do."

Trapp says their board will meet later this month to talk about plans for the two buildings, and expects to have more information about the mural's fate following those discussions.

click to enlarge The south-facing portion of Rose Johnson's 1998 mural. - LYNN TRIMBLE
The south-facing portion of Rose Johnson's 1998 mural.
Lynn Trimble
Of course, people who live in the area will likely want to weigh in on any plans for the artwork. Keane has lived in the area for many years, and both Keane and Torva are eager to engage with the Coronado Neighborhood Association.

The neighborhood association hadn't responded to New Times' request for comment as of this writing. But the association has previously addressed the mural's condition.

Michael Anderson heads the neighborhood association’s board of directors. Back in 2017, he launched a Go GoFundMe campaign to crowdsource $7,500 for restoration efforts, raising just $548 before the campaign closed. At the time, he estimated it would cost $10,000 to repair and restore just the south-facing portion of the mural.

Even so, Keane and Torva are optimistic.

There’s less structural damage than they expected, they say. And they feel confident that proper surface preparation and anti-graffiti coating would help a restored mural fare well over time.

Keane expects there will be skepticism. But it hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm or tempered her resolve. “I’m just really excited about the whole thing happening,” she says.
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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