Rose Johnson’s Prayer of St. Francis Mural to Undergo Restoration, Reimagining

The south-facing wall of The Prayer of St. Francis mural on the Hansen Mortuary building at 16th Street and Thomas Road.
The south-facing wall of The Prayer of St. Francis mural on the Hansen Mortuary building at 16th Street and Thomas Road. Lauren Cusimano
A preservation plan has been announced for the iconic Phoenix mural The Prayer of St. Francis. Painted by the late Phoenix artist Rose Johnson — and then by students of North High School — on the Hansen Mortuary building at the southwest corner of 16th Street and Thomas Road, the mural has a crumbling foundation, heavy smatterings of graffiti, and elemental damage.

In August 2016, the City of Phoenix contacted the Hansen Mortuary group with a warning about graffiti on the roofline of the building. This prompted the Coronado Neighborhood Association and local artists to team up for a two-part restoration and preservation plan scheduled to begin this April and be complete by May 2017.

In 2012, volunteers painted over a portion of the mural in an attempt to restore it. Community backlash came quickly. And there's a good chance some will react negatively to this effort, too.

That's because the new plan involves painting over both the east- and north-facing walls of the mural.

Painted in 1998, Johnson's mural displays a gathered crowd of people from different races, showcasing the hardships of the Coronado neighborhood during the time of its conception. The Catholic prayer for which the work is named outlines the figures, reading in part, "Where there is hatred, let me sow love."

Today, it is one of Johnson's only remaining public works in Phoenix and one of her most well known, too. She died in 2009 at the age of 48.

Kim Blake, a Phoenix photographer and longtime friend of Johnson’s, remembers when The Prayer of St. Francis was fresh. “She used children from the community, which was cool, but she highlighted the good and the bad," Blake says.

“Rose was beyond words,” Blake says, “Her paintings and murals spoke for her.”

But this mural, one of the oldest along the street-art hub that is 16th Street, has been deteriorating for years.

According to Michael Anderson, president of the Coronado Neighborhood Association, the mural needs professional attention due to unwavering sunlight and a steady peppering of graffiti.

Hence, the need for a plan.

Part one of the plan entails a preservation effort focusing on the mortuary's south-facing wall, and part two calls for local artists to reimagine the remaining sides.

click to enlarge Signs of graffiti on Rose Johnson's mural. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
Signs of graffiti on Rose Johnson's mural.
Lauren Cusimano
Anderson got involved with the mural after Doug Ireland of Hansen Mortuaries reached out to the Coronado Neighborhood Association. Ireland had been contacted by the City of Phoenix about graffiti over the mural.

“He knew the history of the mural, so he was sensitive to just not blasting it full of brown paint," Anderson says.

As a temporary measure, Ireland did paint over the bit of graffiti the city was most concerned about, and then the Neighborhood Services Department's case against the building was closed.

But Ireland says that he and the Hansen family have been talking about restoring The Prayer of St. Francis for a while now, but cost and manpower were prohibitive. The graffiti complaint spurred them into action.

"When the City of Phoenix sent us a notice of graffiti violation last year," Ireland says in an e-mail to New Times, "it prompted us to reach out once again to those groups in the neighborhood who were instrumental in organizing and assisting in the original project in 1998."

The Coronado Neighborhood Association originally commissioned the mural in 1998 as one of 10 mural projects for the neighborhood. A portion of funds for the project came from a $1.9 million federal Department of Justice Comprehensive Communities Program grant.

“[Hansen Mortuaries] reached out to me in hopes that I might be able to come up with a strategy for doing something with it – at least making the neighborhood aware that there’s a problem and we need to fix it,” Anderson says. So he held meetings with Coronado residents to address the current state of the mural.

“There are still plenty of people in the neighborhood that knew Rose,” he says. However, the more Anderson looked into it, the more apparent it became that the problem went deeper than graffiti.

The biggest problem is the state of the wall itself, more so than the graffiti. “Fundamentally, the wall is disintegrating,” Anderson says. “Big chunks of the wall are coming off.”

Ed Lebow with the City of Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture agrees. “There are always condition issues with outdoor murals,” he says in an e-mail. Since the wall faces south and east, he says, it gets a good deal of sunlight.

click to enlarge "Big chunks of the wall are coming off,” says Michael Anderson, president of the Coronado Neighborhood Association. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
"Big chunks of the wall are coming off,” says Michael Anderson, president of the Coronado Neighborhood Association.
Lauren Cusimano
The Coronado Neighborhood Association called in mural conservator Gary Hulbert to assess the walls, and see if it was possible to save the mural. The conservator quoted a six-figure restoration cost.

The association then called in Arizona artist Karlito Miller Espinosa, better known as Mata Ruda. “His assessment was that it’s so far gone, that if you were to try and restore it, it’s no longer Rose’s,” says Anderson. “It’s like paint by numbers basically.”

Years ago, someone did try taking the paint-by-numbers approach.

In 2012, Phoenix resident Rebecca DeWitt and some Hands Across Arizona volunteers started repainting part of the mural, but were met with opposition from area artists with the concern that any restoration efforts should be handled by professional artists.

However, Espinosa had what Anderson considered an interesting idea. He proposed that Phoenix muralists come in and reimagine Johnson’s original theme after taking care of the underlying problem – the condition of the wall. The east- and north-facing sides only will be restored, and then repainted.

“Once we have that wall sured up, we’ll start reaching out to artists,” he says. Then the “reimagining” stage will begin, when area artists will paint a mural with the same artistic theme and idea as Johnson did.

“But we were also sensitive to that fact that this is a pretty important piece, not just to the neighborhood but to the city,” Anderson says. “The south-facing wall is the least damaged, either by elements or graffiti, so we determined that it would be feasible to save that part of the mural. In talking to the neighborhood, they seemed to think that was the most viable plan, so that’s the plan going forward. We’re going to try and save the south wall.”

Anderson says the restoration and preservation processes are set to begin in April, with completion scheduled for the end of May. But, he notes, there's no guarantee that the south-facing wall can be fully preserved.

click to enlarge The state of the wall beneath Rose Johnson's mural. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
The state of the wall beneath Rose Johnson's mural.
Lauren Cusimano
Anderson says the graffiti can be taken care of, and the structure is fairly sound on the building's south side. The wall will be restored and sealed with anti-graffiti coating. “Along with that, we would put a plaque of some kind that would have a photo of the entire [original] mural and a brief story about Rose, paying homage to the original artist,” he says, “So that’s the plan.”

Anderson says just saving the south-facing wall will cost about $10,000. “The neighborhood is contributing to it, and Hansen Mortuary is very interested in helping the neighborhood, so they’re putting in some money as well,” he says. Hansen Mortuaries has committed to $1,500 toward the preservation, and now the Coronado Neighborhood Association is raising the remaining funds for the mural. “We’re still looking at about $7,500,” Anderson says.

The Coronado Neighborhood Association has started a GoFundMe page with the goal of covering the remaining costs. They have raised $425 as of this writing.
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Lauren Cusimano is Phoenix New Times' food and drink editor. She is a journalist and food waste writer based in Tempe. Joys include eating wings, riding bikes, knowing everyone at the bar, talking too much about The Simpsons, and falling asleep while reading.
Contact: Lauren Cusimano