Art Trends | On the Walls

Colorful Colorado Montage by Thomas Brunet at the Colorado History Museum, Denver, mural, southwest art.
Colorful Colorado Montage by Thomas Brunet at the Colorado History Museum, Denver

By Norman Kolpas

They catch your eye in a way that no sleek new building or civic plaza can. Murals are suddenly appearing everywhere, in big cities and small towns alike, delighting and intriguing the public with scenes from regional history or icons of local pride.

Consider a few of the many examples: Artist Thomas Brunet’s Colorful Colorado Montage, unveiled last October on the exterior of Denver’s Colorado History Museum, greets northbound morning commuters. A towering tribute to Houston’s growth by Suzanne Sellers, commissioned by Chase Bank of Texas, graces the side of the downtown Houston Club Building. In Southern California communities like Lompoc and Twentynine Palms, new murals appear every few months, reviving once-downtrodden commercial areas with their graphic imagery.

The Father of Twentynine Palms by Don Gray in Twentynine Palms, CA, mural, southwest art.
The Father of Twentynine Palms by Don Gray in Twentynine Palms, CA

In his studio in Santa Fe, NM, Native American artist Poteet Victory is working on a 15-by-60-foot mural. The subject is the Trails of Tears—the 19th-century removal and forced march of Native Americans from their tribal homes to the Indian Territory in what is now Okla-homa. When completed in the summer of 2001, the mural will be installed at the new Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman.

Though murals may be giving fine art an increasingly bold public presence, they are, of course, anything but new as an art form. The world’s oldest surviving murals, in Lascaux, France, and Altamira, Spain,  date back to as early as 14,000 B.C. Italian Renaissance masters including Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca, and Leonardo da Vinci created religious frescoes of astonishing power.

In the 1920s and ’30s, Mexican muralists epitomized by Diego Rivera championed revolution through public artworks. The Depression saw the U.S. government sponsor some 4,000 murals by hundreds of artists, including masters like Thomas Hart Benton, Stuart Davis, and Ben Shahn.

Professional painters, meanwhile, are now being given canvases as big as major buildings. Take Brunet’s new façade for the Colorado History Museum. Measuring 17 feet high and an amazing 145 feet in length, the mural covers the building’s entire second story with a pageant of imagery from the museum’s collection, including a buffalo, men panning for gold, and a train passing through the Royal Gorge of the Rockies. “Our building’s stark 1976 architecture made it a plain Jane within Den-ver’s civic center area,” says director of facilities services Joseph Bell. “The mural has really enhanced our presence and given us a sense of identity.”

Mural projects have done even more than that in other places—in some cases they have brought new life to communities facing extinction. Mural expert Robin J. Dunitz points to the small Canadian logging town of Chemainus, British Columbia, as the leader in this trend. With its sawmill closed and the town in decline, civic leader Karl Schutz championed the idea of revitalizing Chemainus with murals. Since 1982 some 33 have been painted, drawing visitors by the busload. “They made their town into an outdoor gallery,” says Dunitz.

Other towns have enthusiastically followed suit. Consider Twentynine Palms, CA, 60 miles east of Palm Springs. Seeing some 1.2 million tourists pass through en route to nearby Joshua Tree National Park, local leaders have been trying to lure some to linger. Since 1994, 14 high-quality murals have been sponsored throughout the downtown area. These include artist Don Gray’s The Father of Twentynine Palms, a tribute to Dr. James B. Luckie, a Pasadena, CA, physician who contributed greatly to the town’s growth by sending World War I veterans there to recover in the clear desert air. “We get a lot of visitors now who want to tour the murals and take photographs,” says Sid Rim-mington, executive director of the local chamber of commerce.

So successful has the Twentynine Palms effort been that this October the town will host Global Mural Conference 2000. With more than 300 participants expected, the gathering aims to share ideas on how to spread such public projects to even more communities. The mural trend, thriving though it is, may still be only in its infancy.

Featured in “Art Trends” July 2000