Public art project shines a spotlight on Phoenix’s street murals
Even though artist Danielle Foushée had spent considerable time studying public art projects across the country, she had no idea how vibrant the street art scene was in Phoenix. But when she moved to the Valley in 2016 to take a position at Arizona State University as assistant professor of design, she soon realized the creative tour de force happening in the city.
“Phoenix was a black hole in my mind in terms of street art,” says Foushée. “Then I took a walk through central Phoenix and Roosevelt Row and started to see all the murals. I fell in love.”
Her affection for local street art blossomed into the Phoenix Mural Project, a volunteer initiative to create a digital map of street murals so residents and visitors could easily tour the paintings.
“The creative energy in Phoenix’s street art culture is so different and unique from other places I have lived, such as Seattle, Detroit and Los Angeles,” says Foushée, founder and director of the project. “There’s an amazing vitality to the murals here and I needed to record and share it with others.”
Foushée began geo-tagging images on a Google map and quickly had 200 murals documented on her virtual archival guide, which snowballed into her meeting many of the artists and learning their stories. Today, more than 400 murals—many of which appear on block walls, apartment complexes, corporate buildings and restaurants—are pinpointed on the Phoenix Mural Project’s map that includes clusters of works in zones and neighborhoods such as Roosevelt Row, Grand Avenue, Calle 16, and the alley at 15th Street and Oak.
Foushée is using the project’s platform to showcase muralists’ talents and to increase community awareness that Phoenix is a hub of arts and culture, which helps legitimize the public art medium.
“People are coming out of the woodwork to support the project. It gives others a completely different view of a group of artists they didn’t know anything about,” she says. “That’s why I created the Phoenix Mural Project. It helps changes minds about different kinds of people and art.”
Foushée is also hoping the exposure generates patronage of the diverse artists and more respect for their high level of artistry that runs the gamut in style, themes and imagery. In May, she hosted the Phoenix Mural Festival where more than 80 muralists were commissioned to do 51 paintings across the city.
Professional artist and well-known muralist Hugo Medina, who has painted 50 murals in Phoenix, agrees the Phoenix Mural Project gives well-deserved attention and credibility to a talented pool of muralists who have helped shape the street art culture that has been evolving for years.
“In 2009, there were only a handful of muralists in Phoenix. It’s growing and developing. The talent here is amazing,” says Medina, adding that he believes the spotlight cast from the Phoenix Mural Project helps level the artistic playing field. “The advantage of public murals is that it takes art out of the galleries and museums for everyone to see and appreciate.”
Plus, the mural momentum, which attracts artists from all over the world who leave their expressive mark on the city, has helped make Phoenix a destination.
“Before, [Phoenix] was a ghost town and everything closed at 5 p.m. But when artists starting painting murals and opening studios, everyone wanted to come downtown. Developers started to build, then restaurants and other business started opening and downtown became a place to be. The muralists made it the scene.”
While mapping murals is a priority of the Phoenix Mural Project, it’s also expanding its community outreach and focus. The project recently received funding from ASU to create an ongoing docu-series featuring the artists’ work. Another initiative—a partnership with Phoenix poet laureate Rosemarie Dombrowski, and Hope College and Career Readiness Academy in South Phoenix—was established to engage local youth in self-expression through poetry and muralism.
“There’s a real ethos and mentoring happening in Phoenix that I don’t know other cities are experiencing,” adds Foushée. “The goal is to give muralists a voice for their storytelling and help them get work and fair wages for their talents.”
Sally J. Clasen