I’m in the process of moving. While the great majority of the tasks associated with this process are painful and expensive, there are a few delights hiding in the corners. One of them is the opportunity to discover and uncover both the obvious and the hidden treasures a new town has to offer.
I don’t remember seeing many murals the last time I was in zip code 86001 – Flagstaff, Arizona. If you follow this blog, you know that public art in general and murals in specific are a bit of an obsession for me, so, had they been there, I’m pretty sure I would have noticed them.
As a result, I was shocked by the amount of brightly colored building walls that greeted me when I arrived to town last month. Sometime between my last visit (which I think was in 2006) and now, Flagstaff became something of a mural mecca – especially considering it boasts a population of only 68,000 people. Public art is enough of a draw that a downloadable map to sculptures and murals is available on the city’s tourist-oriented website.
In the course of my explorations around town, I had already noticed about half of the murals mentioned on the map; however, I had to embark upon a dedicated hunting mission to find the rest. As is often the case, in the course of seeking out the mapped murals, I found a bunch of additional ones that are flying under the radar. Perhaps they are “pirate” murals, or just impromptu and informal artistic expressions; either way, they’re the kind of thing that makes me a very happy camper.
Flagstaff’s most famous mural is probably the Mother Myth, located adjacent to both the railroad tracks and Route 66 – the dual conduits that comprise the spinal cord of this city. Created by a local twosome that calls themselves the Mural Mice, the series of panels describes the history of this high desert city from right to left – east to west, in other words – the direction in which the progress happened. It pays particular attention to the Route 66 phenomenon, one that was partly responsible for this city’s boom cycles. In the final panel, the road has been deserted and replaced with Interstate 40, the high speed thoroughfare that more efficiently connects southwestern desert cities to one another today.
The Mural Mice collaborated with artist Sky Black to create Flagstaff’s – and Arizona’s – largest mural on the side of the historic Orpheum Theater.
This former downtown movie house was abandoned with the advent of the strip mall multiplex northeast of town. After laying dormant for a while, however, the building was purchased and revived as a concert hall. In 2014, city taxes, along with support from over ninety local business and five hundred individual donors, funded the creation of Sound of Flight, a truly distinctive 4500 square foot panel. It depicts birds emerging from a piano and taking to flight over the Grand Canyon. Along the way they pass replicas of Rodin’s The Thinker and Michelangelo’s David. The mural took over a year to complete, and the Flagstaff Arts Council tracked its progress in posts.
While Mother Myth might be the most famous mural in town and Sound of Flight is probably the most grandiose, from what I can tell, a smaller one called The Veridic Gardens of Effie Leroux might be the most beloved – at least amongst a certain set. This mural by Joe Sorren is located in Heritage Square, at the heart of the city’s historic and commercial center. Its scene unfolds along a restaurant’s cylindrical wall, and it is populated by fanciful fairy tale-like creatures with oversized heads and eyes. The mural was nine months in the making, and its iconography supposedly contains references to Picasso’s Guernica and Klimt’s The Kiss. I haven’t been able to locate these figures yet because the popular patio bar has been too crowded to allow for close examination of its artwork.
Other big, hard-to-miss murals in town include The Lumberjack Mural, by Mural Joe, which celebrates the life of Flagstaff’s Northern Arizona University students (called Lumberjacks) and The Cow Mural, painted in 2000 and recently refreshed by the Mural Mice. The building which hosts the giant holstein was once a historic armory; later it became a furniture store, and now it houses a Natural Grocers supermarket.
Personally, of the big splashy murals, I’m a fan of the cycling panel on the side of the Absolute Bikes building. It, too, is huge and fanciful, but it also celebrates biking, a favorite Flagstaff pastime. Created by mountain biker Lyle Motley over a two month period in 2007, it hides a number of funny little details (like band aids on skinned knees and elbows) for the close observer.
That said, I like the small hidden murals best of all. I had drive to an unfamiliar neighborhood to track down the four-panel series at Puente de Hoxho Elementary. In the process, I discovered that the school provides a trilingual immersion program (English, Spainsh, and Navajo) for its K-5 kids. Professional artists created the visions for these works, but students did the painting.
I’m also fond of another collaborative community effort called What Flows Beneath Our Feet. Located along a block south of downtown, right near what is destined to become my favorite breakfast joint, it’s bright, symbolic, and high-impact style consistently grabs my attention.
That last favorite isn’t on the city map; I think it may have been painted quite recently. I stumbled upon many other murals that didn’t make the official document as well. And, on top of that, I was unable to find all the works listed on the map…which means I’ve got many more hours of mural hunting ahead of me. This is good news.
Perhaps during the two years I’m slated to spend in Flagstaff, a few more public expressions might crop up.
If I’m lucky, maybe someone will let me participate in the painting of one.