When news spread earlier this year that the building most recently occupied by a small business called GreenHAUS would be demolished to make way for a new housing development, a community uproar ensued. Some lamented the loss of the building located at 222 East Roosevelt Street, which once housed the city’s first gay bar. Others wanted to preserve two interior murals by Ted DeGrazia, whose iconic images of children and nature were a pop culture hit during the mid-20th century.
But many mourned the fate of Lauren Lee’s Three Birds, a mural located on an east-facing wall on the northwest corner of Roosevelt and Third Streets in the Roosevelt Row arts district until the building’s destruction earlier this year. The company demolishing the building, Baron Properties, announced it would be working with Lee to create an exterior design element featuring three of her iconic birds, but Lee has been keeping busy in the meantime with other projects – including painting the first public mural commission by the City of Tempe. It's located next to Jaycee Park, in a residential neighborhood not far from downtown Tempe.
Lee’s newest mural, completed just this week, features a woman lying on her side with waves of hair that mirror the shape of gentle, rolling hills. She’s adorned with nearly 100 flowers and accompanied by five birds — including three located near her feet, where people have already started stopping to take photos the way they once did at her Roosevelt Row mural. Community involvement in this work actually started last year, when finalists for the mural project that drew dozens of submissions got to present their ideas to both the City and members of the community.
“The community said they wanted an iconic mural,” Lee says. But she wanted to do more than simply replicate her prior Three Birds piece, which was the first mural she ever painted. “I wanted something that people would come and interact with,” she says. “There are lots of little activated spaces,” she says. Lee describes one spot with two birds located near the reclined figure's head as a “perfect spot” for taking pictures of kids.
Lee started painting the mural on May 5, hoping to finish by June 15. It took about a week longer than expected, in part because the summer heat limited the number of hours she could work on the piece each day. For the most part, Lee told us, she’s been painting Monday through Friday from at least 8 a.m. to noon.
“I set out to create a landmark,” she says of her new mural. Titled Don’t Wake the Dreamer, the piece is 16 feet long and 153 feet high. After Lee picked the background color, the City painted the wall she began by painting a simple, dark outline filled in one section at a time with additional color and detail. “All the decisions are complex ones,” she told New Times when she about midway through the process. When the time came to paint the first rose, for example, Lee says she had to choose a style, technique, color, brush shape, and more. “It’s very interpretive and intuitive,” she says of bringing the design to life.
Lee’s hatchback car, loaded with supplies including boxes filled with paints and the bright toy beach pails that sometimes hold multiple brushes while she’s working, sat parked on gravel adjacent to the foot-end of her mural as she painted. Most days she donned sunglasses, a hat, and a bandana-style scarf. And she kept her favorite ladder handy for painting the tallest parts of the mural, including flowers that reach 10 feet high.
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Painting such a large work can be overwhelming, she says. “I really have to take it step by step.” Lee says she approached painting the mural like as if it was an athletic event, which meant no texting or other distractions, and got massages every two weeks or so during the mural painting process. But the work was well worth it. The City of Tempe commissioned the piece for $12,000.
It’s the people she met while painting that really made the project special, she says. One woman stopped to tell her about a girl who had died near the area, saying she would always think of the mural as a memorial to the child. “Everyone has their story,” Lee says. “I think that this could be a national piece.”
Find more information on Lauren Lee's website.