California Literary Review

After Image

Art, Architecture and Design

Arizona and the Politics of Mural Painting

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June 7th, 2010 at 9:49 am

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Smoke + Gun by Alice Leora Briggs

Artists Pamela J. Smith and R.E. Wall sit on the scaffolding in front of the Miller Valley School Mural titled “Go on Green” in Prescott, Ariz.
[Photo by Matt Hinshaw, The Daily Courier/AP, Image source: USA Today]

Public artworks have always inspired controversy. By existing in communal space, they convey ideas about local residents. When people disagree about what imagery best represents their neighborhood, trouble ensues. Murals are particularly good at sparking debate. Unfortunately disputes over the large scale paintings often reflect fierce, thinly-veiled class and racial anxieties.

A 2008 battle over a proposed  mural in Philadelphia was particularly ugly. When the renowned Philadelphia Mural Arts Program was commission to create a piece in the tony Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, a small group of elite residents raised a ruckus. Some opponents objected to the mural’s design, which featured construction workers assembling a sculpture of lady justice. These grumblings were quelled once the artist, Michael Webb, agreed to switch out the day laborers for less intimidating conservationists (I’m not kidding). Others opposed placing any mural in Rittenhouse Square. Murals have traditionally gone up in edgier parts of Philly and some residents feared that their upscale neighborhood might suddenly be associated with these locations.

The battle over the Rittenhouse Square mural eventually heated up to such a degree that the project was scrapped. Now a piece in the city of Prescott, Arizona is under attack. The “Go on Green” mural was designed to encourage methods of transportation that are  friendly to the environment. The piece spreads across two walls outside the ethnically diverse Miller Valley Elementary School and depicts the faces of actual students. Sound harmless enough? The controversy stems from the artists’ decision to focus the mural around the image of a Hispanic child.  Principal, Jeff Lane asked the painters to lighten the faces of the children depicted. (He claims that his concerns were about how the faces were shaded – not about the children’s ethnicity). Then City Councilman and radio host, Steve Blair got a hold of the story. The notion that an image of a little brown boy might be placed in a central location in his fair town proved too much for him to handle. Blair objected vehemently to the mural, saying “to depict the biggest picture on that building as a black person, I would have to ask the question, ‘why?'” Perhaps someone should inform Mr. Blair that black and hispanic are not synonymous and that it’s generally a good idea to check one’s facts before spewing hate speech. Blair also suggested that the child’s ethnicity reflected “who’s President of the United States today.” Never would have seen that one coming. Blair was later fired from his job at the KYCA radio station for his comments.

What is even more shocking than the ignorant remarks of two misguided individuals is the despicable reaction of many community members to the mural. As the artists worked on the painting, assisted by a group of school children, they were  periodically screamed at by passersby and called a number of racial epithets.

Murals are designed to unite communities, create beauty and celebrate common values. The horrific reaction to “Go on Green” makes a mockery of these noble intentions. One cannot help but wonder how this fallout is being interpreted by the children of Miller Valley Elementary, who learned at a young age that their faces are seen as an insult to their community.

  • Tim Diesch

    I suppose it’s cold comfort, but Prescott Councilman Steve Blair was fired from his radio show. Miller Valley school superintendent and principal apologized and pledged that the mural will not be “lightened.”

    I too have thought about the students in this flap–an aspect of this problem that I think most people understandably overlook as the visceral reaction to the news takes hold. I just hope the kids who were used as models for the mural, the kids who helped paint the mural and the entire student body of that school understand that the bigoted opinions of a few racist fools do not reflect the character or nature of Prescott as a whole, or the opinions of society at large, for that matter.

  • apkl

    People like animals and flowers. A mural doesn’t have to make a statement. That’s for bus adverts. Just have a mural of desert flora and fauna, and put in a fountain. In our home town, someone painted celebrating Hispanic (Mexican) heritage, even though the towns farming heritage is mostly Portuguese and Italian. The complaints were not about the redundant subject (there are already tributes to farm workers around town) but the mediocre painting job. It looks like a drawing on a cheap chamber of commerce brochure, only it’s 20 feet high! There is also a mural at the local elementary school which features the Virgin of Guadelupe as a centerprice. With all the fuss about “separation of church and state” I would have thought the religion police would have jumped all over it, but political correctness trumped such concerns.

  • http://courierwatch.blogspot.com Steven Ayres, Prescott AZ

    What both the local and national media have missed or glossed over is that this mural was a curriculum project designed to encourage the kids involved and their peers in general to walk or bike to school (serving the underlying goal of reducing childhood obesity and diabetes), and for this purpose it was largely funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation through a local nonprofit under the Safe Routes to School program, created by Congress in 2005. It’s not about race, diversity or even community-building per se, so the shouting about it from the right derives entirely from seeing a nonwhite child depicted larger than life on the side of a school building in sight of a major intersection. It’s all completely over the top.

  • tobiasfrent

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiX5p8NL040

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mPIRKnaCKzo

    Some nice audio from Steve Blair’s radio show including the now famous:

    “I am not a racist but………,” line as well as a conversation with fellow councilman John Hanna’s wife Sherry about how terrible diversity is for everyone..

    Here is an other interesting story about Blair. A few months ago he had a Spanish Census banner removed from the center of town as it did not reflect his community:

    http://www.dcourier.com/main.asp?SectionID=1&SubSectionID=1086&ArticleID=78660

  • Benito

    “All Men are created equal”! The founders had it right, when attempting to form a perfect union and they also knew that they were not there yet but knew we one day would get there. Lincoln moved us forward as did JFK and LBJ. This Nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.

    It is my contention that this AZ law is not constitutional and will fail when challenged (unless, of course, they keep adding more amendments), pretty funny for this so called perfect law, that many internet blogs claim it was copied “Word for Word” from the Federal law, which I frankly do not believe, if it was then no amendments would have been made, right?, of course.

    As for the undocumented workers, as was attributed to Ronald Reagan “It’s the Economy, Stupid”. When the economy is good we say let’s all celebrate “Cinco de Mayo, my brothers” but when the economy is down “it’s all your fault, you damn immigrant”. This too will pass. The real problem is the narcos, arms and people smugglers and that’s what the focus should be on.

    Don’t you find it funny that no one ever voted for Brewer for Governor, it’s all about politics and getting elected, do not be fooled. Busy Brewer has passed S.B. 1070, no permit conceal weapons law, the famous Birthers law, banning Ethic studies law, (could she be behind the Mural in Prescott, Arizona) and if history is a lesson she should look up Arizona’s House Bill 2779 from two years ago (which failed when legally challenged) and the craziest one the boycotted Martin Luther King Day, not wanting another holiday, how crazy is that. I believe there is an undercurrent to their enactment of new laws, they real love following a distinct pattern. Poor Brewer, last week, she first she said her Dad had died in Germany fighting the Nazi in World War II (war ended 1945) and we find out her father was never in Germany and died in California in 1955 (watch the spin doctors go into overdrive) and then she went to Washington and came back empty as always, poor dear.

  • Brian White

    The heads of the mural project, Wall & friends, are the ones that missed the point of the project, which was to promote school children to walk or bike to school. I live here and by looking at the mural I don’t get a transportation theme from it. The giant schoolboy front and center dominates anything that could be construed as a concern for the health of school children. What does one giant, out of proportion, by the way, schoolboy mean? One, that he is more important than anything else in the mural; two, that he is looming over everyone in the entire community; and three,it displeases half of the area’s population. A large bicycle might have made the point!

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