On Public Art and Ephemera: Should Rose Johnson's Prayer of St. Francis Be Restored?

Categories: Visual Art
photo by Claire Lawton (2012)
Mural by Rose Johnson

​If you take a drive down 16th Street in Phoenix, you might notice a few coats of fresh paint on sections of the Mercer Mortuary building at 1541 E. Thomas Road. 

The mural was originally painted by local artist Rose Johnson and a group of students in 1998. It's in her signature style; large, stylized figures of all colors and races overlap. Their hands carry a waving rainbow flag, form peace signs, and release white doves across eight panels that wrap around the building. 

The mural was (and is) a symbol of peace and unity that was painted long before the area became known as Calle 16, where bright murals by local artists pop up on a regular basis.

Almost 14 years after Johnson finished the mural on Mercer Mortuary, the paint is chipping, and tags occasionally cover the faces and blocks of pastels.

It was on one of her daily commutes to work that a Phoenix resident named Rebecca DeWitt noticed the mural's deteriorating state and decided to make a few phone calls. 

photo by Claire Lawton (2012)
Johnson's Mural stands across the street from a mural painted by Gennaro Garcia and DOSE in 2010.
DeWitt's frank about her position in the arts community; she's not a professional artist, but she says she's always appreciated the mural and was sad to see it fading.

photo by Claire Lawton (2012)
Mural by Rose Johnson
​​She talked to the Hansen family of Phoenix-based Hansen Mortuaries (who own the Mercer building) and was given permission to clean up the tags and work on restoration. 

DeWitt says that's when enlisted the help of local volunteer organization Hands Across Arizona to cover the cost of paint and to provide a few extra hands that get together once a month to bring back Johnson's vision.
But it hasn't been an easy paint job.

DeWitt says that since she started painting a couple months ago, she's been approached by a few of Johnson's friends who are concerned about the authenticity of the restoration and the legacy of one of Johnson's only remaining public works in Phoenix.

And they all have a reason to be defensive.

Phoenix has a long history of buffing out, covering up, and knocking down walls that have been painted by local and international artists including Ted DeGrazia, El Mac, and Keith Haring. As murals and public artwork gain local support, artist groups have emphasized the importance of public artwork and documenting ephemera (it's why we started our own Mural City) while it's still around.

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