Millions of travelers have passed by Paul Coze’s massive mixed-media mural at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Now, the mural itself is destined to travel, as part of significant airport renovations. The Phoenix is being moved from a Terminal 2 lobby to the airport’s rental car center in 2021.
Coze moved from France to Phoenix in 1954 and created several public artworks before his death in 1974. The mural was funded through the city's aviation department and is one of the first public artworks commissioned by the city.
It's been nearly 60 years since the piece was first installed in 1962. It's 16 feet high, 75 feet wide, and was created with 52 different materials, including mosaic glass, gemstones, shells, and vintage toys. It’s composed of three panels anchored by a central Phoenix bird that appears to be rising in flight. The panels represent the city’s past, present, and future. But for a time, the mural’s future was in doubt.
When the airport announced plans to shutter Terminal 2 back in 1992, some began to fret about the mural’s fate. More recently, discussions have focused on specific locations that might accommodate the piece, ranging from community settings to another airport terminal. The official decision to relocate the mural to the rental car center came just this year.
The FAA weighed in back in 2006 when it signed a memo of understanding with the city. That agreement called for relocating all three panels of the mural together, in a public area at the airport, according to minutes from a March 2019 meeting of the city’s historic preservation commission.
Moving the mural to a new site would have presented significant complications, according to Edward Jensen, a member of the city’s arts and culture commission, who addressed the issue during the group’s August 2019 meeting. Moving the mural off-site would require transferring ownership of the artwork, meaning the FAA would no longer help with maintaining the mural.
Instead, The Phoenix will stay at the airport, and the FAA will assist with funding the move. Several airport locations were considered, including Terminal 3. The new site is situated in the central escalator hall of the rental car center, where a solid wall to hold the mural will replace an existing glass curtain wall.
The mural is being installed near a dichroic glass installation by Ed Carpenter. The artworks pair well together, says Gary Martelli, who heads the Phoenix Airport Museum. “The colors and light from the glass really complement the mural,” he says. "When I saw the mock-up of the mural in that space, it almost looked like they had been designed to be shown together.”
The airport will provide important context for the mural by creating display cases where they can showcase historical documents, models for specific details of the mural, interpretive text, and other mural-related materials. “We’ll have spotting scopes so people can look at different parts of the mural because it has such incredible materiality,” Martelli says.
Due to the logistics of transporting the mural, officials are still working on the exact timing of when to move it, so they’ve yet to announce a date that people can see The Phoenix in its new home. “The relocation will probably take three consecutive nights,” according to Tyler Finkle. He's a project manager with International Chimney Corporation, the firm that's handling the move.
As the mural relocation gets closer, the airport will share details on social media and announce plans for a special event to celebrate the artwork.
They’ll have other causes for celebration, as well. There’s new art, including a terrazzo floor by Bill Dambrova, and a Sky Train extension coming to the center. “The train will make it easier for people to access the art inside the rental center,” Martelli says. “We’re calling it the art train.”
For now, all eyes are on the Coze mural. “It’s an amazing piece of art,” Martelli says. “We’re excited about people getting the chance to experience it in new ways.”
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