If you take a drive down 16th Street in Phoenix, you might notice a few coats of fresh paint on sections of the Mercer Mortuary building at 1541 E. Thomas Road.
The mural was originally painted by local artist Rose Johnson and a group of students in 1998. It's in her signature style; large, stylized figures of all colors and races overlap. Their hands carry a waving rainbow flag, form peace signs, and release white doves across eight panels that wrap around the building.
The mural was (and is) a symbol of peace and unity that was 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 chipping, and tags occasionally cover the faces and blocks of pastels.
It was on one of her daily commutes to work that a Phoenix resident named Rebecca DeWitt noticed the mural's deteriorating state and decided to make a few phone calls.
DeWitt's 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 (who own the Mercer building) and was given permission to clean up the tags and work on restoration.
DeWitt says that's when enlisted the help of local volunteer organization Hands Across Arizona to cover the cost of paint and to provide a few extra hands that get together 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 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.
And they all have a reason to be defensive.
Phoenix has a long history of buffing out, covering up, and knocking down walls that have been painted by local and international artists including 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 (it's why we started our own Mural City) while it's still around.
|Photo by Jamie Peachey|
|A 2009 photograph of Rose Johnson's mural on the Mercer Mortuary building on 16th Street near Thomas Road.|
Johnson's mural was commissioned in 1998 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 to clean up blight and unify the crime-ridden Coronado and other city neighborhoods and paid for more than 10 mural projects painted in the neighborhood.
Johnson's is one of the only original murals still standing and is one of the most talked about -- especially following her death in 2009 at the age of 48.
"I didn't really want to paint something that was merely decorative," Johnson told New Times just after she painted it in the late '90s.
"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 has since improved, and business has thrived. Today, Johnson's colorful people-scape is surrounded 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 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."
Dave Quan, who's painted the majority of 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 Mac piece on Paisley) ..."
The nature of preservation is tricky, though -- 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, which reads: "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 images of the mural when it was first painted so that the paint job looks as much like the original as possible.
She and Hands Across Arizona will be meeting at the mural this Saturday, February 11.
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