The piece, which is untitled as of this writing, fills a tall concrete wall at the Center's Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum, located in the Phoenix suburb's downtown district. It rises two stories within a courtyard just south of Main Street.
Mesa Arts Center commissioned the mural as part of its 10th anniversary celebration, says Tiffany Fairall, associate curator for Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum. Fairall suggested the commission, and says she's been working with El Mac on the mural project since last May or June. She's long followed his work and describes him as an "incredible artist."
From May 13 to August 7, the museum's main gallery will feature an exhibition of the artist's work titled "El Mac: Aerosol Exalted." It's coming from the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, where it was created. El Mac is hoping he'll have time to paint a new piece to show at the museum as well, and the museum plans to offer a limited edition El Mac print in conjunction with the exhibition's opening.
The new mural depicts a young woman holding a single long-stem red rose, her eyes looking downward. It’s the image of Karen Bracamonte, a Phoenix woman expecting her first child on May 11, just two days before the exhibition of El Mac’s work opens at the museum. Karen, and her husband, Ariel Bracamonte, are longtime friends of El Mac. Once their son is born, El Mac will be his godfather.
It's not the first time El Mac and Ariel have brought fresh street art to the Valley. In January, El Mac and David Choe, another Los Angeles-based street artist of international acclaim, painted a mural called La Medusa on an exterior wall at Cobra Arcade Bar, which Ariel owns and operates in downtown Phoenix.
It looked like a small reunion was taking place in the courtyard off the museum on the night of Monday, March 14. El Mac had finished painting the piece and was joined not only by the Bracamontes, but also longtime friends Niba DelCastillo and Mando Rascon. DelCastillo is a Phoenix photographer who documents the local mural scene, and Rascon is a Mesa tattoo and graffiti artist (who just happens to have a small graffiti piece posted outside Lulubell Toy Bodega, just up the road from the arts center).
Rascon painted the highest portion of the mural, which surrounds the top of the young woman’s head and looks like a modern take on the iconic corona imagery of classical art. When El Mac signed the piece Monday night, he added Rascon’s name. It’s fitting, El Mac says, because Rascon lives in Mesa just a few blocks from the mural site, and the two have a long history of making art together.
"He's kind of like a humble, hometown hero," El Mac says of Rascon. "He's been one of the most talented graffiti writers in Phoenix since the early 1990s." Last year, El Mac, Rascon, and Pablo Luna, another street art veteran, painted a mural together on an exterior wall at the Heavy Pedal in Phoenix.
El Mac says he considered several designs before choosing to use Karen's image. He’d also thought about depicting his father, but figured that image could work in other places. For the Mesa mural, he needed an image that was tall but slender. Before starting, his design had to get MAC approval.
Knowing Mesa’s reputation for being a conservative city, El Mac says he wanted to paint a mural people would enjoy rather than finding offensive. But it’s still filled with subtle meaning, he says. Karen immigrated to the United States from Guatemala a decade or so ago, so painting her face was a way to elevate the faces of all immigrants during a time when so many people are devaluing immigrant lives and contributions. "I painted an image of an immigrant who's participating here and adopting aspects of America culture," El Mac says.
"I didn't want to be overtly political," he says. "Doing public art means having a responsibility to do work with the public in mind." Several factors ultimately influenced his choice of subject matter. "I try to balance doing work that has soul in it and is significant to me, and that lots of others will enjoy."
Still, he offers this cautionary note: "Trying to make everybody happy is not a great recipe for making art."
El Mac started the mural on Friday, March 4, but didn’t want much fanfare. People flock to see him paint once word gets out on social media. And although he’s used to having an audience, he says that pausing to talk with people tends to slow the work down and make it hard to stay on deadline, which isn't exactly desirable when working on a piece he says took at least 100 hours to paint. Most days, he’d arrive late afternoon or early evening. Some days, he’d work into the wee hours or past dawn.
The mural was done completely with aerosol enamel paint, and a specific type of cap that helps give his work its characteristic pattern of circles and lines. He built the piece in layers, starting with an outline, then adding lighter colors and the medium gray paint that comprises much of the woman’s skin. Using seven or eight colors, he then added darker lines over time.
Now that it’s done, viewers are free to speculate about what it might mean. Located next to a balcony, at a venue used by Mesa’s Southwest Shakespeare Company, it’s easy to imagine the young woman holding the rose as a modern-day Juliet. Roses abound in Mesa, where Mesa Community College keeps a rose garden, so that’s another bridge between art and community. El Mac intentionally created the flower to look like it was growing up from the earth, saying, "I wanted it to have an organic feel."
From the sidewalk along Main Street, where a relatively new Valley Metro Light Rail line runs, a band of fencing around the courtyard stands between viewer and mural. For some, it may conjure images of border barriers or the walls people build between one another. But others may see a mural filled with hope – in part because of the way El Mac chose to finish the piece.
El Mac left the bottom of the concrete column bare, surrounded by an arch that gives it an altar-like feel. It prompts reflection on the potential of all children – and their future.
For the artist, there’s a much simpler explanation. “It’s all about love,” El Mac says. “And [metro] Phoenix needs all the love it can get.”