Artists Gabriel and Isaac Fortoul — a.k.a. The Fortoul Brothers — are creating a massive mural in the Garfield neighborhood of downtown Phoenix.
It’s going up on a south-facing wall of Garfield Elementary School along McKinley Street, and will wrap around a portion of the east-facing wall, measuring more than 200 feet in length. So far, the mural is untitled.
“This is a wall that we’ve seen for the past 14 years,” Gabriel says. He and Isaac are homeowners in the historic neighborhood, where they’re currently working to transform one of two houses into a studio and gallery space.
“It was a blank canvas sitting in front of us,” Gabriel says of the site.
They started the mural in early January, and expect to finish in late March. They’ll be painting on and off, depending on their travel schedule and other projects in the works. Another Phoenix artist, Ken Situ, is helping to paint the giant piece.
It's the newest addition to the Garfield neighborhood, where the Alwun House has been a staple of the arts scene for several decades. Recently, the historic house and arts space received $100,000 from the city of Phoenix to create an adjacent art park. The area has become a hub of activity in recent years, with the addition of Gallo Blanco and Welcome Diner, as well as The Pueblo plant shop operated by Michael Lanier of The Bosque in Roosevelt Row.
The Garfield Elementary School mural was commissioned by the Mollen Foundation, which promotes healthy eating habits for youth. It’s not the first time the foundation has worked with the Fortouls. Proceeds from Fortoul Brothers merchandise sold during the 2017 Lost Lake Festival went to the foundation. (The festival also featured artwork by the Fortouls on its three main stages.)
The Fortoul Brothers have been especially active in recent months.
In December 2017, they participated in a Phoenix Art Museum event that featured local creatives talking about their favorite pieces of Latin American art. For their segment, the brothers chose an unconventional approach. Isaac made large-scale marker drawings while Gabriel spoke, then gave them all away to people at the free community event.
“We want to be more involved in the community now that we have a voice that is being recognized,” Gabriel says. “The mural is an opportunity to be involved in education and community gardening in our own neighborhood.”
The mural will serve as a backdrop for garden beds, where students and community members will grow and harvest food. That makes it a good match for the Fortouls, whose art practice is rooted in respect for nature.
“Sustainability is central in all the artwork we do,” Gabriel says. “This is where we’re starting, and we want to spread the message on a nonverbal level.”
The mural is anchored on the south-facing wall by an image of the sun. For the east-facing wall, the moon will be a central focus. In between, viewers will see familiar Fortoul Brothers themes, such as food, water, air, and shelter.
“The imagery represents abundance, an oasis,” Gabriel says. “It’s a way of reconnecting with the earth and traditions of indigenous people. What I’m inspired by most is their respect for the earth.”
It’s a sentiment reflected in earlier exhibitions of their work, including two 40Owls art shows in a pop-up exhibition space along Central Avenue. The brothers created the 40Owls moniker by playing with the phonetic pronunciation of their last name, and adding a twist on the infinity symbol that’s prevalent in their work.
Their November 2014 show included drawings, paintings, prints, and sculpture, but also incorporated wooden logs, green plant material, cinder blocks, and piles of sawdust. For their March 2016 show, the artists used off-white paper file folders to create 33 large-scale teardrops, then suspended them from the gallery’s rafters. Most recently, they exhibited tarot card-size drawings at the Shortcut Gallery space operated by Phoenix General and Framed Ewe.
“Murals are really new for us,” Gabriel says. To date, they’ve painted just eight or so, including pieces in New York and Los Angeles. Moving forward, they’d like to create three or four murals a year. “We have one going up in a prime Phoenix location,” Gabriel says of a future project. But they’re not ready to disclose the exact site or timing just yet.
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They’ve got several other projects in the works, including renovating one of two adjacent homes they own in the Garfield neighborhood to include studio and gallery space, where they can create and show their own work. They’re planning to present a 40Owls exhibition there sometime in 2018.
They’ll also be working with Valley Metro Light Rail on art for a future extension along Central Avenue into South Phoenix. Currently, a shoe they created for the Phoenix Suns is installed at the light rail station at Central Avenue and Roosevelt Street.
But that’s just the short list of what the Fortoul Brothers have planned for 2018.
“We’re pretty prolific,” Gabriel says. “There will be a lot of surprises.”