Visual Arts

The Mural Has Two Faces

It's tough to miss the new mural wrapping the Mercer Mortuary building, on the southwest corner of 16th Street and Thomas Road. Its big, stylized figures and scenes in bold colors radiate just the sort of up-with-people exuberance you'd hope to find in a neighborhood that has been fighting crime and blight for more than a decade.

Painted by Phoenix artist Rose Johnson, the mural depicts a scene of friendly urban diversity and struggle. People of all persuasions and colors are heaving and hoeing their way upward past crime, drugs, gangs and prostitution to reach that glorious hallelujah day of community salvation.

"It's all very positive stuff and a bit gooey," says Johnson, "but it really had to be that way."

After all, this isn't simply art. It's community-building. Or rather, painting on behalf of that difficult cause. Americans are notoriously skittish about mixing art and civic necessity. But in times of crisis--a constant in some parts of American cities--we've regularly found ways to put artists to work. The Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) employed thousands of painters and sculptors to provide mostly upbeat murals and sculpture for all sorts of public buildings and spaces. And in the past few decades, arts commissions and agencies around the country have tapped artists to create visual therapies for neighborhoods suffering from a range of social ills.

No arts agency was involved in the Mercer Mortuary mural. It was commissioned by the Greater Coronado Neighborhood Association as a minuscule part of a $1.9 million federal Department of Justice Comprehensive Communities Program grant to combat crime, blight and just plain ugliness in Coronado and other city neighborhoods.

Lieutenant Kim Humphrey, Phoenix Police Department's CCP grant coordinator, estimates that a third of the total went for projects and programs in the Coronado neighborhood. Community activists say that about $11,000 of that amount paid for the creation of 10 murals in the area stretching from I-10 to Seventh Street and Thomas Road to the Squaw Peak Parkway. All of them have been painted in the past two and a half years. A few were done by students from North High School. Yet most are the work of Phoenix artists.

According to Kim van der Veen, who administered the first year of the grant for Coronado, the mural money came from a pot initially earmarked for graffiti-busting and beautification. "The original grant application called for putting 'cat's claw and/or paint' on the walls," she says. "But I'm an art person, so I said, 'cat's claw and/or paint?' We have a wonderful opportunity here to do murals and work with the community."

So, as often happens with these kinds of projects, graffiti-busting quickly led to a broader social purpose. "We really wanted to involve as many children and neighborhood residents as possible in the projects," says John Bomhoff, an art teacher who organized Coronado's mural projects. Reason being that involvement breeds a sense of belonging, and youngsters who feel they belong to a place are less likely to go after it with markers and spray cans. "The other part of that," says Bomhoff, "is that kids doing graffiti sometimes see themselves as artists and are more likely to respect the works of other artists."

Thus far, the theory has held. None of the Coronado murals has been significantly vandalized or tagged. Students from North High School created several murals in the neighborhood around the school. They've also joined students from the Phoenix Art Institute in assisting Johnson and the other artists. In all, says Bomhoff, about 300 youngsters have worked on the 10 murals.

Initially, it was tough linking artists and sites, says van der Veen. "Some of the earlier murals went in around North High School, because the school and residents of the area were receptive. But once the momentum started, artists began coming to us and asking if they could be involved in the project."

Bomhoff says it was equally difficult at the outset to get businesses involved. But that wasn't the case with the owners of Mercer Mortuary. Its manager, Doug Ireland, got wind of the mural projects about a year and a half ago, when he joined the neighborhood association, and saw them as a good way to build some needed bridges in the community. "We met with Rose and talked a bit about some possible themes," he says, "but we pretty much left her alone to come up with the overall idea."

"I didn't really want to paint something that was merely decorative," says Johnson. "I wanted the mural to speak to the reality and diversity of the neighborhood. And I wanted it to deliver a positive message."

Which is about par for the course. Murals--particularly outdoor ones--have always been a form of advocacy--a word from the sponsor, or whoever owns the wall or bought the paints. This was as true in Giotto's time as it was for WPA artists, and more recent, East Los Angeles, Latin American and Northern Ireland muralists. Occasionally, surprises do appear. The most storied one of this century was the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera's inclusion of Vladimir Lenin in a mural that the Rockefeller family had commissioned for New York's Rockefeller Center in the 1930s. In PC-speak, Rivera was simply celebrating the diversity of the economic community. But the commies lost then, too. The Rockefellers demolished the mural and sent Rivera packing.

No such surprises lurk in Johnson's mural, which comprises eight panels and runs about 180 feet. Johnson says the panels inset between the columns of the masonry building lent themselves to painting a story. "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 images of drug use, prostitution and crime in the earlier panels feature a bit of the area's seedier side. But the sad-to-happy story quickly shows the cavalry arriving in the form of an airborne spirit reaching down to turn a bullet into a flower and the police collaring a burglar. Then it's on to a happier pictorial flurry of doctors and nurses caring for people, schoolchildren carrying books, streets full of families, yards full of gardens and other obvious symbols of springtime optimism and hope.

To hammer the message home, Johnson has quoted Benito Juarez, in Spanish, across the south wall: "Respect for the rights of others is peace." And 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."

Johnson clearly took her lead from Diego Rivera's rotund stylizations and rhythms of thronging crowds and dense landscapes. She's done a fairly good job of incorporating those effects into her own lyrical sense of illustration. But her characterizations of figures in the mural are weak, their faces and poses generic. They are kinds of people, rather than individuals. So they have none of the intimacy or pathos you'd find in the works of Rivera, or the self-reflective presence you'd find in the faces in a Giotto.

But these kinds of considerations don't really matter. "To me it says the truth about this place," says Richard Hernandez, a 15-year resident of the area and a community leader in the McDowell Manors neighborhood, adjacent to the mural. "It tells where we came from and where we want to go. Sure, there's drugs, suffering, misery and sadness here, but we're all trying to go to that better place that Saint Francis Assisi says."

The fact is, this and the other Coronado neighborhood murals mean more as a community process than they do as works of art. Maybe they help to halt graffiti, or to brighten bleak city walls with some uplifting food for thought. Yet, ultimately, they offer a kind of social therapy that many communities haven't been able to get any other way: "One of the things I noticed," says Bomhoff, "is that when people were out there painting, it was quiet, not a sound. It was very soothing. I hate to make too much of this, but once when we had about 20-25 people of all different ages painting together, everybody was focused and you just felt kind of bonded by that.