A man pulled over recently while driving through a Tempe neighborhood where the faces of five deceased musicians dot a white wall that runs along the sidewalk. He stopped to talk with Tommy Gwinn, who built the wall along his back yard with a friend last year, eager to create a memorial that would reflect his love for the local music scene.
“That happens a lot,” Gwinn told Phoenix New Times after the man drove away. It was Friday morning, June 5, and the slightly overcast sky made the colorful portraits painted by Mesa artist Gina Ribaudo pop.
She’s been working on the mural for several months now, painting primarily in the early morning hours just after sunrise, helping Gwinn to further his dream of drawing music lovers from around the Valley to the site, where he’ll eventually install markers memorializing each musician.
Gwinn manages a local jazz/funk band called Jade Road in addition to working as a building manager for University of Arizona at the Phoenix Biomedical Campus in Roosevelt Row, a downtown area that’s filled with mural art and home to music venues from The Lost Leaf to The Nash.
Last year, Gwinn launched an online platform for celebrating the birthdays of rock, pop, and R & B musicians who’ve “left us to play the big stage in the sky.” It’s a Facebook page called Rock ‘n Roll Heaven - Tempe. That’s where Gwinn first shared his mural concept.
Early on, he considered focusing on “bigger international musicians like Hendrix, Morrison, and Mercury” thinking it would bring in more funding for the project. But Gwinn’s Facebook followers suggested he highlight “hometown rockers” from the Phoenix area instead — and he ran with it.
First, he explored various music murals around the country, eager to get a feel for different styles. He talked with local artists, but ended up being especially drawn to eight portraits of iconic musicians painted last year at The Gateway shopping complex in Salt Lake City.
Gwinn discovered that the artist of the Utah paintings is based in Mesa, where she has a downtown arts studio. Ribaudo is one of three Arizona artists who painted portraits of renowned musicians for a 2018 project at Tempe Marketplace, which is called The Greats Wall: A Mural of Musical Masters.
Ribaudo painted five musicians on Gwinn’s wall located at 1992 East Richards Drive, using cinderblocks painted a crisp white color as her canvas. The wall is 55 feet long, and each portrait is nearly 80 inches in height and almost 8 feet wide.
There’s extra space on either side of the current lineup, so Gwinn has room to memorialize more musicians after they die. “I hope it’s a long time before we need to do that,” he says.
So far the wall includes Vince Welnick, Glen Buxton, Doug Hopkins, Chester Bennington, and Mike Condello. Between them, they’ve played with Alice Cooper, Gin Blossoms, Linkin Park, Stone Temple Pilots, The Grateful Dead, and The Tubes, and appeared on the Arizona TV classic The Wallace and Ladmo Show.
Gwinn decided which musicians to feature based on “the imprint they left on rock music and the hearts of those of us in the Valley who loved them.” He's titled the mural Valley Rockstar Memorial.
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Although he's never met the musicians, Gwinn says he’s mindful of the ways challenges from depression to alcoholism affected their lives. “Many of us would assume their lives were always dark and gray,” Gwinn says.
But Gwinn has a different perspective. "The truth is that they all had beautiful personalities," he says. "They lived, laughed, and loved."
Hence his decision to commission Ribaudo, whose work is filled with vibrant brushstrokes.
“I knew she could bring out their color.”