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When the “Sound of Flight’ mural was completed in November on the eastern wall of the Orpheum Theater, it elevated the cache and visibility of Flagstaff’s public art downtown. The creators — Flagstaff artist Sky Black, R.E. Wall and Margaret Dewar — hold that it is the largest public mural in the state of Arizona. And a number of reports have filtered in of visitors discovering the work and spending notable time to view and photograph it.

The success of this large-scale painting raises the question of whether this could become part of a more expansive public art movement. Is there more on the way?

In a city that has a Bed, Board and Beverage tax — known more by its shorthand BBB — that includes earmarks for beautification and public art, it is likely more dollars will be on hand to bring more projects to completion based on trends (See related story).

The fund appears to be expanding, as the number of bars and hotels are on the rise. There is a sense that how this money is earmarked and designated could lead to Flagstaff being even more recognized as a strong, state and regional public art hub. For R.E. Wall, who joins Margaret Dewar as one of the Mural Mice public art duo, it would be part of a greater evolution.

“Art is happening all over the place,” he said in a recent sit-down interview. “There was a time you could go from the top to the bottom of the state and see little to no public art. I’ve seen a lot of change in the state of Arizona. Tucson has a great program and Flagstaff is right in the game with it. I look at Flagstaff like a beacon at the top of the state of Arizona when it comes to public art. But we have to keep raising the bar. We have to do better.”

The walls can talk

The concept of public art has been integrated in Flagstaff for a number of decades. Renowned surrealist artist and former Flagstaff resident Joe Sorren made his impression on the town in 2000 when he completed “The Verdic Gardens of Effie Leroux” on the silo of the Old Town Shops.

Sorren has been joined by others, such as Lyle Motely, who painted a large-scale mural on the building of Absolute Bikes on its west-facing wall Leroux Street in 2007.

The public art projects beyond that are nearly too numerous to name, but they include the Route 66 Mural at Lumberyard Brewing Company that Wall and Dewar painted under their Mural Mice banner, as well as the Centennial Mural painted on the train station wall just under the current Route 66 by Redwing Nez.

These different art projects are sometimes funded entirely by the city public art fund. Other times they are a blend of city and private donors or completely private or commercially supported.

Anne Doyle is the current chair of the city of Flagstaff’s Beautification and Public Art Commission, an all-volunteer board known more commonly by its shorthand BPAC. She explained that artists can and do approach them for funding of projects they want to do.

In the case of “Sound of Flight,” Black was the artist and he requested what is known as a Beautification in Action, or BIA, grant for his idea. This $2,500 in seed money can help an artist get started. He added to that amount $5,000 from the Art & Science Fund, a separate grant-based pool also financed by BBB taxes.

“What’s neat about the BIA grant is that it was the brainchild of two members of BPAC eight years ago,” Doyle said. “They wanted to have an opportunity for people to beautify their neighborhoods with plants and the like. This $2,500 isn’t and it is a significant amount of money. It’s enough to help get projects started. And with all of those projects, one of the stipulations is to have community involvement.”

The other major funding stream that comes from BPAC for public art is under a five-year plan. Mark Di Lucido, who is with the city’s Economic Vitality Division and works closely with the commission, explained that this usually involves BPAC identifying a project within the community, securing funds year over year for that project, and then eventually issuing a call for artists.

An example of the five-year plan in motion is the Route 66 mural. The commission identified the south-facing wall of the Lumberyard Brewing Company on Phoenix Avenue as ripe for public art. They assembled $25,000 for the project and put out a call to artists. The Mural Mice answered the call and received the full funding to paint the mural. Di Lucido is a big of the artists, the quality of project and its overall success.

“What I tell people is that if you’re doing a drive-by of the Route 66 mural, you’re missing it,” he said. “You gotta get out of your car and look. (Wall and Dewar) are so creative. They do just a great job artistically and culturally of telling the story.”

Another new mural to town funded by BPAC is known commonly as the King’s Inn Mural. Located west of the intersection of Route 66 and Enterprise, the mural is painted on two walls that face out to Route 66. An estimated 20,000 motorists a day pass by the mural. As public art on a private space, Di Lucido noted that the city does create a licensing agreement with the owner to protect the investment.

Doyle noted that this location choice came about as part of an effort known as “Vision Flagstaff,” where residents are invited to go to a website, visionflagstaff.com, and pitch ideas for public art. Then, if that idea gets at least 50 likes by other users, BPAC will pursue it.

The artist, David Mullins of Washington State, ultimately brought the winning idea to the board. It’s somewhat abstract but, according to the artists’ statement its design was “inspired by the flying fins and gleaming grills of the ‘style over substance’ cars” from the 1940s and 1950s.

“From what we hear, the guests of the hotel there just love it,” said Di Lucido, who added that the owner also hired the artist to paint the accents and details of the hotel to play off of the mural.

The public challenge

While some public art projects have had mostly ringing endorsements — like the Route 66 mural and early response to King’s Inn from the hotelier and guests, others have not been met with the same broad support. Still others have stirred some kind of debate. One of the most famous ones that did not work was called “The Solar Calendar.”

Located on Route 66 near Postal Boulevard, the tall translucent cubes were supposed to light up in certain sequences. But the project was plagued with problems and derided by some locals, who nicknamed the project the “Alien Outhouses.”

After someone crashed their car into the art project the city once paid $50,000 for, city staff decided to remove the towers due to the safety hazard in 2010. Ill-fated projects such as this one make the BPAC at least a little cautious about what it will fund. The sensibility and decency of the art is also a factor.

“We are managing public funds,” Doyle said. “I always think about how we are representing the public. Would the public want us to spend their funds on a dance performance in the park or would they rather us do a bronze sculpture that will be there for 30 years? It all gets really fun when we start to look at these different ideas … As far as (content), we don’t want to censor artists. But we’re spending public money, so we do have to be careful.”

In one of more curious debates about public art recently, Black decided to paint a bird flying by the Statute of David that appears in “Sound of Flight.” The bird blocks the genitalia from view.

“I’m sure there will be many interpretations and reactions to my decision to cover David’s penis,” Black shared. “However, it was a decided from the start to keep it PG-13. It goes with my style, too.”

That quibble aside, Black, Wall and Dewar said that “Sound of Flight” has received huge positive public reception and shows how much people want public art.

“Public art plays a huge roll in a community, and, with ‘Sound of Flight,’ we found out how much a community plays a role in public art,” Black said.

For Wall, he said that he understands that public art has to be generally embraced by the community, but that it also has to make a statement.

“Conservative art would be as simple and nonthreatening as possible,” he said. “But art that means anything to people, that has meant anything throughout history, reaches their souls. It’s so powerful and it’s very humbling."

Future of the form

The Downtown Business Alliance also has other ideas, as it is integrated into the public art scene. It collects a district tax to further enhance improvements in the downtown area. Terry Madeksza, executive director of the Alliance, said they are funding strong pieces of functional work in innovative and artistic bike racks, which will be on the streets this summer.

Madeksza said the DBA could be playing a role in bringing a certain kind of public art sensibility to the streets.

“I would like to see more public art that causes something to stop and interact with it,” she said. “For example, we’re looking at doing free little libraries. I’d love to see them placed downtown and work with local artists to give each of them a unique look."

Madeksza echoed the sentiments of others involved in civic planning and improvements, as well as artists interviewed who have worked on public art projects.

“Public art is a priority,” she said. “It contributes to what makes a community unique. The more public art we have, the more attention we’ll get from visitors and residents.”

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Features editor Seth Muller can be reached at (928) 913-8668 or smuller@azdailysun.com

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