Visual Arts

Mural Obligation: Preserving Art and Building Community

If you drive on 16th Street in Central Phoenix, you might notice a few coats of fresh paint on sections of the Mercer Mortuary building, at 1541 East Thomas Road.

The mural originally was painted in 1998 by the late Rose Johnson and a group of students and serves as an unofficial memorial to Johnson, who died in 2009. The piece is done in her signature style: Large, stylized figures of all colors and races overlap. Across eight panels that wrap around the building, the figures' hands carry a waving rainbow flag, form peace signs, and release white doves.

The mural was (and still is) a symbol of peace and unity, painted long before the area became known as "Calle 16," where bright murals by local artists pop up on a regular basis.

Almost 14 years after Johnson finished the mural on Mercer Mortuary, the paint is chipped and faded. Tags occasionally cover the faces and blocks of pastels.

It was on one of her daily commutes that Phoenix resident Rebecca DeWitt noticed the mural's deteriorating state and decided to make a few phone calls. 

DeWitt is frank about her position in the arts community; she's not a professional artist, but she says she's always appreciated the mural and was sad to see it fading.

She talked to the Hansen family of Phoenix-based Hansen Mortuaries (which owns the Mercer building) and was given permission to remove graffiti tags and work on restoration. 

DeWitt says that's when she enlisted the help of volunteer organization Hands Across Arizona to cover the cost of paint and provide a few people willing to wield a brush once a month to bring back Johnson's vision.

But it hasn't been an easy paint job.

DeWitt says that since she started painting a couple of months ago, she's been approached by a few of Johnson's friends, who are concerned about the authenticity of the restoration and the legacy of one of Johnson's only remaining public works in Phoenix.

It's awkward, but true. You need only look at the work DeWitt and her fellow volunteers have done to see that a proper restoration is not taking place. And this raises the question: Is it better to simply let Rose Johnson's work fade or re-create it in such a way that is not quite doing justice to the original?

Phoenix has a long history of buffing out, covering up, and knocking down walls that have been painted by such local and international artists as Ted DeGrazia, El Mac, and Keith Haring. As murals and public artwork gain local support, artist groups have emphasized the importance of public artwork and documenting ephemera while it's still around.

Johnson's mural was commissioned by the Greater Coronado Neighborhood Association and was funded by a sliver of a $1.9 million federal Department of Justice Comprehensive Communities Program grant. The program, aimed at cleaning up blight and unifying crime-ridden Coronado and other city neighborhoods, paid for more than 10 mural projects in the neighborhood.

 Johnson's is one of the only original murals still existing and is one of the most talked about — especially following her death in 2009 at age 48.

"I didn't really want to paint something that was merely decorative," Johnson told New Times just after she painted it in 1998.

 "I wanted the mural to speak to the reality and diversity of the neighborhood. And I wanted it to deliver a positive message . . . So I decided to make it a story about people. People struggling, people in despair, people working together and moving toward hope and solutions."

The neighborhood crime rate since has improved and business has thrived. Today, Johnson's colorful people-scape is surrounded — particularly on 16th Street — by works that outshine her chipping paint and fading letters. But local artist Jenny Ignaszewski says the mural and message should stick around.

"I think it's worth trying to restore, but [I] think it needs to be restored by a team of artists," she says. "There are a couple of people in town who would have better ideas who might be able to do it. Angela Cazel-Jahn was one of the original artists commissioned under the original grant. Her mural on Summit High School's wall on McDowell is still holding up good, and her style is just right."

David Quan, who's painted the majority of the murals on Grand Avenue and a few throughout the Valley, agrees. "Any effort to preserve public work is important. I only hope they do it well. Good art deserves to be preserved, and I get so mad when people paint over paintings I love — like that [El] Mac piece on Paisley [Violin] . . ."

But preservation is tricky — and expensive. Dana Teel, who works at the mortuary, says she remembers a group of artists and high school students touching up parts of the mural in 2005 with funding from the school and the city. She says that while she's heard about Calle 16 artists wanting to be involved, the mortuary was never contacted directly by the group.

"Nobody wants to mess with someone else's work, but something needed to be done," she says. "That's why we were so happy when [DeWitt] called . . . It was a neat mural — it still is. I'm just glad that there are people around who want to help."

The words on Johnson's mural are fading, but if you squint, you can make out her homages to Benito Juarez, in Spanish, across the south wall: "Respect for the rights of others is peace," and to Saint Francis of Assisi across the main wall: "Where there is hatred, let us sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. And where there is sadness, joy."

DeWitt says the group is open to any help and that she's currently looking for original images of the mural so that the paint job looks as much like the original as possible.

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Claire Lawton
Contact: Claire Lawton