Find Arizona murals in a new children's book by Phoenix artist Isaac Caruso | Phoenix New Times
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Phoenix muralist Isaac Caruso's work is on display in his new children's book

'Sam and Sara' includes more than 50 murals Caruso painted all over Arizona.
Main Street in Cottonwood is one of 24 communities hosting 56 murals that Isaac Caruso painted for "Sam and Sara."
Main Street in Cottonwood is one of 24 communities hosting 56 murals that Isaac Caruso painted for "Sam and Sara." Isaac Caruso

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Local professional muralist Isaac Caruso, who has painted works for clients ranging from APS to Z’Tejas, has published a children’s book showcasing 56 murals he painted in 24 communities throughout Arizona over four years. It’s the first children’s book ever to be illustrated with photos of murals.

The idea for "Sam and Sara," a book about the transformative power of daydreaming and imagination, had been in the works for more than a decade. But it took the pause of the pandemic to give Caruso time to travel and create.

The inspiration came from his own experience with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Although Caruso got specialized attention in gifted classes, he says, “Teachers didn’t appreciate my learning style, how energetic I was, how independent I was in the classroom.”

He adds, “It can be a blessing and a curse if you don’t know how to handle it. I’ve always been able to do five things at once but never been able to do one thing at a time.”

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"Sam and Sara" by Isaac Caruso is illustrated with photos of 56 murals he painted throughout Arizona.
Isaac Caruso

"Sam and Sara" traces the life of two “figments,” as Caruso calls them, who have adventures on land, in the sea and even in the air as they ride astride a hawk in search of Phoenix. In it, Caruso wrote that he “hopes it will inspire our creative, neurodivergent community to embrace their imagination.”

Another goal of the book is to spur tourism in some of the smaller cities around Arizona. Caruso encourages people to hit the road and see as many murals as they can in real life.

“This whole project is my love letter to Arizona as a state,” he says.

Caruso, who grew up in north Phoenix, started developing the idea for the book in earnest while attending Northern Arizona University about 10 years ago. He wanted to write a story and illustrate it with murals that he painted in various places.

The first mural went up in Montevideo, Uruguay, while Caruso lived there for a month in 2013 doing murals at hostels up and down the nation’s west coast in exchange for boarding. However, he notes, “I realized that I was biting off a little more than I could chew.”

Caruso returned to the U.S. and from 2015 to 2017 worked as a creative director for a website technology startup, where he became a partner. But he yearned to be a full-time artist, so he sold his shares and began looking for commissions.

His first big win was landing a $30,000 grant to paint a 500-foot-long mural at Spaces of Opportunity community garden in South Phoenix. Caruso was chosen over many of the Valley’s top artists, and has been making a living as an artist ever since.

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A mural in Ajo depicts the main characters of "Sam and Sara" riding atop a hawk.
Isaac Caruso

Caruso’s murals, which are about 80 percent spray-painted with the remaining painted by brush, are in almost every community across the Valley. APS commissioned three behind The Churchill on Roosevelt Row, and he’s worked for entities including Free Arts, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Scottsdale Public Art, among many others.

He even did a residency in the Arctic for two weeks with other artists and climatologists to comment on global warming. He wasn’t able to leave a work of art there, but one of his pieces for APS behind The Churchill in Phoenix depicts the Arctic.

“We’re all connected, and when things go bad, it’ll be the hottest places and coldest that get affected first,” Caruso says.

He’s also painted in Europe, Israel and Russia, and has a goal of putting a mural on every continent. Currently, he’s working on lining up a residency in Antarctica as he continues to work on commissions.

Robert Nethercut, COO of Z’Tejas, says the company chose Caruso over others they considered to do large-scale murals at all of their restaurants in Arizona and Texas because his work “just popped.”

And they liked the fact that Caruso uses local landmarks and iconic images, such as Tovrea Castle and the Hayden Flour Mill.

“For people who are local, who grew up there, they can really connect with the artwork,” Nethercut says.

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Artist Isaac Caruso dedicated "Sam and Sara" to his late companion, Gustavo, a bull terrier rescue who traveled around the state with him as he painted murals for the book.
Isaac Caruso

Four years ago, Caruso started writing "Sam and Sara" again along with a series of sketches that he wanted to paint as murals. He contacted chambers of commerce across Arizona to offer free art if they’d provide a wall.

The first mural for the book went up in Black Canyon City in December 2019, followed by Camp Verde. Then work came to a halt when the economy was shut down, so Caruso took advantage of the time off by going full steam ahead on the project.

He started a Patreon account and raised $5,000 “from people who were kind enough to believe in the project,” he says; their names are on a thank-you page in the book.

But Caruso also credits his dog, Gustavo, a bull terrier rescue to whom the book is dedicated, as his “co-creator.” The two of them traveled the entire time together in a converted van with solar panels, but sadly, Gustavo passed away in November 2022 from a growth in his brain.

Now that "Sam and Sara" is out, Washington Elementary School District, where Caruso attended, bought copies for all of its schools, and others around the state are buying them as well. It’s sold online and at Uptown Phoenix, a retail space by W.H. Smith in Terminal 4 at the Phoenix airport near gate D11.

“We try to bring in a real flavor of what the city is about,” says Nina Terjesen, a divisional vice president of W. H. Smith North America. The company began as a bookseller, she explains, noting, “This is a great way to tie in street art that resonates with the community with W.H. Smith’s mission of supporting literacy.”

Caruso also painted a mural in the store and will paint a mural and sell books at Canal Convergence, the largest outdoor arts festival in Arizona, on Nov. 4 in Scottsdale. There, attendees will be able to interact with the “figments” in the mural as they come to life in augmented reality on their phones.

Another big project in the works is a 17-foot-tall sculpture of a phoenix for the Valley Metro’s light rail extension that will be placed near Central Avenue and Lincoln Street. It’s Caruso’s first foray into the medium.

Meanwhile, Caruso continues to spread the word about "Sam and Sara."

“We as a society need to recognize [ADD] not as a disability but as a superpower so people, in general, can harness it and realize their full potential and be happier,” he says.
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