Vintage Phoenix Memory: From the Ashes

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Even when I haven't always loved living in Phoenix, I've always loved returning here -- from any trip, long or short -- so long as I get to return via Sky Harbor International Airport's Terminal 2. This smaller terminal, completed in 1962, is more navigable than the monster-size Terminals 3 and 4 and features a covered parking lot only a few yards away. Blissfully easy.

But more than the ease and comfort of this old-school terminal (which I have heard is doomed to be demolished in the near future -- although every flack at Phoenix Sky Harbor has assured me the mural will be spared), I love the 16-by-75-foot mural created by artist Paul Coze, made to honor both the building and the Valley of the Sun in its prime.

See also: "Messin' with the Masters" Remixes Art History at Mesa Contemporary Arts

A longtime landmark, the mixed-media mural brings together 52 different materials -- mostly mosaic tiles, but also Sonoran sand, aluminum sheeting, and oil paint -- applied to canvas and then attached directly to the wall.

Each of its three panels pay tribute to a different era in Arizona. The Earth is an homage to the Hohokam, the earliest prehistoric desert dwellers, as well as to current Arizona tribes, Arizona's Latino community, the LDS "Mormon Battalion," and the Southern Pacific Railroad. The mural's center panel, Water and Fire, offers the requisite blazing Phoenix bird of Greek mythology, rising from a desert date tree and surrounded by clouds raining into our very own Roosevelt Lake, the first water project of the National Reclamation Act of 1902. The third panel, The Air, is a hopeful tribute to Arizona's future that portrays outstretched hands, reaching for a sky filled with modernist symbols of ranching, mining, and agriculture.

It's a lot prettier than it sounds.

Coze, well-known in his native France, moved to the United States in the '30s and to Phoenix, as the French Consul to Arizona, in 1954. He ran an art school and became a favored public artist, commissioned to do many sculptures and murals here.

Fortunately for us, the Terminal 2 mural isn't the only one of those artworks remaining. His Western and Native Indian murals hang still in the largely passé Veterans Memorial Coliseum, and one of his giant wall paintings graces offices at the Phoenix City Council chambers. Coze's best-known piece is also his most ravaged: The 18-foot-tall bronze and glass Phoenix that graces the entry to Town and Country Shopping Center at Camelback Road and 20th Street, created in 1958, has been treated more like a pesky crow. It's still there, but it's been moved at least once, remounted to a new pedestal, and -- horrors! -- even painted white.

I can almost bear the damage done to the Town and Country bird, so long as I get to sometimes see Coze's Terminal 2 mural. To my eyes, the Phoenix in this assemblage promises something greater -- glamour, art, history -- than the city itself offers. I love this prominent artwork, but my relationship with it is bittersweet.

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