Our Murals, Ourselves
By Sam Martin, Fri., Sept. 4, 1998
Just off Guadalupe Street, at 402 W. 22nd, a colorful, semi-abstract mural frames a doorway of the University Baptist Church. A first of its kind in Austin, the fresco-style painting was erected in 1950 by then-University of Texas professor Seymour Fogel, whose credits included an apprenticeship with the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and a mural commissioned by the city of New York for the 1939 World's Fair. The mural he left to Austin is a swirling display of melding orbs and concentric circles that represents a marriage of the earth, the ocean, and the heavens. Just above the door to the church, Fogel painted two hands clasped in prayer under a white dove of peace. It is called, appropriately, Genesis.
In 1950, the sight of an abstract fresco painted on the side of the Baptist church caused a minor uproar in the up-and-coming state capital, leading The Austin American to report that Fogel's murals "startled" viewers and "introduced them to the exciting geometrics of non-objective art." However, the longer Fogel's mural stayed up around that doorway, the more it started to bring to life the university's bland masonry, even lending Austin the fashionable aura of a futuristic, Jetsons-like America. More importantly, folks began to recognize the fact that there was an artist who, instead of stashing canvases inside the highbrow world of museums and galleries, wanted to dedicate his art to the neighborhood. For the first time, the people of Austin began to embrace a true sense of community through art.
In the yearssince, Austin's communal and creative spirit has exploded, not coincidentally pushing mural art into the fore. In fact, not only has public art in Austin become a local tradition as advertising for bars, restaurants, and other small businesses, but the amount and quality of the city's wall art has come to rival the great mural centers like Los Angeles and Chicago. Taking a drive down East Cesar Chavez Street reveals several diverse works. The part of Guadalupe Street known as the Drag is covered with wall art, as is South Congress Avenue, East Seventh Street, Sixth Street, and the surrounding downtown streets off Congress Avenue close to the warehouse district. Basically, if there's a blank or abandoned wall in town, you can bet someone has plans to paint it.
Moreover, Austinites eagerly embrace this form of public art, an activity that is directly linked to the great sense of community in town. Community focus has, after all, been a defining characteristic of Austin that the city has nurtured for decades. For whatever reason ñ whether it's their relationship to the University or the Mexican-American community or, in the last decade, their reaction to the growth rate that's taken this once-mellow hippie hangout on a fast-paced roller coaster ride to boomtown ñ Austinites have remained loyal to their cohesive nature and their city has retained its "small town feel." Austin's murals stand as testaments to this sense of community and as stories representing its diverse history.
"A wall mural does many things," explains Oliver Franklin, former director of the Republic of Texas museum and a mural scholar. "When a mural goes up, a wall is transformed into something else. It becomes a mirror for the community, reflecting the richness of the people in a community and depicting the community celebrating the community. That's what murals do. They celebrate. Each mural is a means to a very real pastiche of local expression."
Not for another 24 years did a mural capture the attention of Austinites the way Fogel's had in 1950, and never before had a work of public art managed to celebrate the public expression like this one. Painted by then-University of Texas students Kerry Awn, Rick Turner, and Tommy Bee, the Austintatious mural presides over the Renaissance Market next door to the University Co-op on the Drag. Noted for its psychedelic appearance, the mural is a celebration of the street life up and down the Drag in the early Seventies, displaying local shops and colorful characters as well as historic personalities such as Stephen F. Austin, the town's venerable namesake, shown with a violet colored crown atop his head to represent the violet sunsets that prompted the writer O. Henry to christen Austin the "city of the Violet Crown."
"They had just moved the Drag vendors off the street to 'the reservation,' is what we called it back then," explains Awn, who was also one of Austin's most prolific poster artists in the Seventies and has since made his mark as a stand-up comic and a member of the Uranium Savages and Esther's Follies. "And there was that ugly wall where the mural is now with green peeling paint. At first the Co-op didn't even like the idea of a mural on its wall, but after we went to a few board meetings and got the support of the people that worked there, they finally agreed to let us do it, and it was a big hit. All the artists that did the mural lived in a big house on 23rd Street right in the neighborhood. It [the mural] was kind of a neighborhood deal for us. It was our neighborhood. That's where we lived. We wanted to fix it up a bit, and we thought we were doing a good job for everybody."
With the help of 10 or so other artists, it took Awn, Turner, and Bee a month to paint the wall. Depicted in their mural are local hangouts like Dirty's Hamburgers and the University Co-op. Hare Krishnas and hippies dot the street next to Drag worms and bag ladies. There are personalities from the Armadillo World Headquarters, as well as a yellow submarine from the hit Beatles song. In 1982, the mural got a touch-up, with the artists refreshing the painting with contemporary paraphernalia such as a Pac-Man from the video game and the popular Izod Alligator, along with the then-new Mo-Pac expressway added to the Austin skyline.
"Everything on there, in that whole mural, every little person and thing represents something," Awn says. "We didn't just go in and throw stuff on there. We always thought of it as a living thing we could update every few years. Kind of like a living mural. That's still what we think, and the mural needs a touch-up as it is. We could touch up the colors, brighten it up, add a few things like a cell phone. Put a sport utility vehicle in the hills. There's probably not even a salamander in there. To me, though, the Drag is still the same as it was back then. You can still go down and find some weirdos."
The 1970s were a prolific time for Austin murals, with artists such as Jim Franklin, Rene Aguiano, and Greg Jones adding their brushstrokes to streets from Barton Springs Road to Red River. For whatever reasons ñ perhaps because the community viewed the works as passing fancies or because the murals happened to be in areas of town with fewer neighborhoods and more businesses ñ most of these murals haven't survived the way the Austintatious mural has. One exception has been Doug Jaques' mural for Esther's Follies; the huge underwater scene, teeming with sea creatures swimming lazily around brightly colored coral and the wreckage of a jet fighter, was painted in 1977 and subsequently destroyed by the fire that laid waste to the Follies' original home in 1983, but Jaques re-created it for the Follies' new building in 1990. However, it wasn't until the late Seventies and early Eighties that Austinites really began to claim the murals around town as their own.
In 1977, a few years after the Austintatious mural went up next to the University, another mural was capturing the hearts of the Hispanic community on East First Street, now Cesar Chavez Street. Called Los Elementos, this 80'x20' mural by Raul Valdez filled the side of a building on what was then the campus of Juarez-Lincoln University. Depicting a woman lunging toward the viewer with a ray of sun in her hand next to two young men dancing and singing, along with a serpent, the classic symbol of Mexican origins, over a pool of water, this was the first major Hispanic-oriented mural to gain city-wide attention.
In the same tone as his mentor, David Siquieros, Valdez sought to create a mural about and for his people. In doing so, he managed to involve hundreds of people in the project, asking for opinions, criticisms, and general involvement. "I painted to put it out in the public, to see how far away I could go from a gallery," Valdez says. "That was the attitude back then. After that, I found a big tradition to follow as well, you know. Besides, it's working with people, getting out there on the street, living on the street, going door to door and talking to people and getting their opinion, getting them involved. That kind of stuff. It's just something else. It's another dimension or it's another totally different thing than painting a painting or painting a mural. It's the whole happening."
Tragically, in 1981 Juarez-Lincoln University could no longer afford to keep its programs running, and the owners sold the site to a Canadian-based company that immediately proposed renovating the building and tearing down Valdez's mural. The announcement came as a shock to area citizens and prompted loud objection from the neighborhood. Protesters demanded that "their" mural be left alone. Still others submitted alternative renovation designs that would allow for the preservation of Los Elementos. In the end, however, neither side could reach an agreement and after heated public debates and a two-year struggle to save the work of art that eventually saw the entire cityrally around Valdez and his mural, Los Elementos was demolished amid the cries and protests of the onlookers.
"That was a pretty special moment, actually," Valdez remembers, "because people actually came out and said, 'Hey wait a minute, [that mural] is ours.' Some lady I didn't even know was standing in front of the bulldozer. People were stopping their cars right off the freeway. They got out of their cars and got in front of the bulldozer. And that was just impromptu. People would say, 'What do you think about them tearing down your mural?' and I would say, 'No way man; look over there, that's not mine.'" It was everyone's.
After Los Elementos was destroyed, Austin as a whole began to recognize the importance of public art, to see that in some way these murals were not just paint on walls but were the community's flags, telling everyone, "We exist, and here is our story." A threat to mural art had become a threat to the community itself.
Which is why when Carlos Lowry's mural at 24th and Guadalupe was threatened, the city rallied for its preservation. In 1980, Lowry organized a reported 300 people to give suggestions, help out with the painting, and generally guide the mural into existence on the side of the Varsity Theatre, then a popular revival house for classic and art films, and a beloved Austin landmark on its own. Like Valdez, Lowry thought of wall art as a way to involve the community and bring its people together through the common symbolism and the iconic figures of art, as well as through hands-on experience. Significantly, Lowry was also Mexican-American and represented a rare overlap in the mural communities of the Eastside and the West Campus. It is a testament to the cohesive nature of murals.
In 1990, when the Tower Records chain moved into the former moviehouse, it made plans to paint a new mural over Lowry's. The decision sparked a city-wide outcry. Petitions were organized on behalf of the Varsity mural and a pamphlet circulated decrying the chain's plans and calling for a boycott of Tower Records' goods. The city rallied with such vigor and determination that after only one month Tower Records representatives decided to cancel their plans for a new mural and keep the original. After 10 years as an Austin resident, Lowry's Varsity Theatre mural had become ñ and remains ñ an important and well-loved member of the community.
In the wake of Valdez's and Lowry's popularity came a heyday for muralists. The artists producing wall art were taken more seriously. Businesses began acknowledging the power of murals, adding full-scale wall paintings to the sides of their establishments to attract clientele. Muralists such as Valdez, David Santos, and Fidencio Duran found their work more in demand, in East Austin and ouside it ñ in 1986, the city hired Santos to paint the "Happy 150th Birthday Austin" mural on Neches Street between Sixth and Seventh. Moreover, graffiti art gained a hitherto nonexistent voice. In 1980, a Hispanic muralist named Robert Herrera created a groundbreaking mural on East Seventh Street, Merry Christmas. Although it was painted in secrecy and without the consent of the wall's owners, the city paid for its restoration in the mid-Eighties, indicating that graffiti art, although not always welcomed, had become an intrinsic part of the community. (Merry Christmas has since been replaced by another mural, Justin Cortez's 1995 work Change the World Day.)
By the time the Varsity mural came under attack in 1990, the city had established an Art in Public Places commission (AIPP) to solicit public art for facilities such as libraries, schools, and city parks being built with city funds. (The type of art solicited included murals but wasn't exclusively geared toward them.) In 1991, the AIPP, along with another group called Graffiti Austin, sponsored Duran, Herrera, Carlos Renteria, and Armando Martinez, as well as some area junior high students, to paint seven murals at the Holly Street Power Plant in East Austin. It was the largest mural project the city had ever seen, planning over a two-year period 10 murals in all, including a continuously changing graffiti mural done by neighborhood kids. For his part, Duran depicted local personalities at a dance and picnic in the traditional Latin American celebration of a young woman's rite of passage into adulthood. In a further nod to the neighborhood's historical roots, Carlos Renteria's triptych pays a muralist's homage to Diego Rivera and his wife, painter Frida Kahlo. In essence, the Holly Street Power Plant murals not only succeeded in beautifying the loud, steel-laden electric plant, but they brought the heretofore intrusive monstrosity into the folds of the surrounding homes by turning it into an ongoing community project celebrating local heritage.
The commission would go on to support numerous murals throughout the decade, including Duran's exceptional work at the Parque Zaragoza Recreation Center ñ two 25-foot-tall murals painted over the rear and front entryways, telling the story of the three men who organized the Diez y Seis de Septiembre celebrations at Zaragoza Park in 1929 ñ and Duran's most recent piece, appropriately called The Visit, for the new Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, a work consisting of nine nine-foot-tall panels over the main ticket lobby depicting a family reunion in a rural setting.
Meanwhile, the private sector continued to thrive. A host of new muralists, such as Nathan Jensen, Rory Skagen, and Billy Brakhage of the recently dissolved Skagen-Brakhage team, and the group of graffiti artists known as NBK, were further enhancing Austin's walls on businesses from the Austin Music Hall to Blondie's skateboard shop to the Carousel Lounge. At the same time, Doug Jaques, now an elder statesman of Austin mural art, was creating new surrealistic and mesmerizing murals with the help of students from classes he taught at Austin Community College: wall art on the sides of Hickory Street Bar and Grill and Vreeland Graphics, and inside Liberty Lunch. Jaques' newest piece ñ being erected at the corner of 24th and Guadalupe right across the street from Lowry's Varsity Theatre mural ñ is called Le Bonheur de Vivre(The Joy of Life). In harmony with the other murals created in the city over the decades, Jaques' latest work is, in the words of the artist, "a slice of life in Austin."
Today, when a mural is going up, people may not stop and gawk at it as they must have when Fogel was at work in 1950, but there is still a buzz around town regarding "the new mural," as if someone in the community was getting married and we were about to welcome a new addition to the family. We get excited by murals. Their larger-than-life format makes us feel grandiose and important. When we see paint going up on the walls of the city, we feel like those walls are ours and in turn that the city is ours.
"Austin has a real appreciation for its creative spirit and therefore for its murals," says Oliver Franklin. "It's also a city that has a great appreciation for community, and the people here are very aware that Austin is made up of some small, close-knit communities. Some murals communicate messages to the community like 'practice safe sex' or 'don't smoke,' while others are put up to be silly and have fun as a sort of comic relief. All of them are mirrors of the community and an awareness of murals brings an awareness of community."
At the same time, many of our murals are taken for granted. Despite nearly three decades of murals making lasting impressions on our idea of Austin and the community, we often don't think about how fragile they are until one of them disappears or is threatened, as the Varsity Theatre mural was in 1990. Then, we are suddenly struck by the fragile existence of all murals. If neglected, they can vanish without a trace.
Ironically, Seymour Fogel, the man who may have launched the tradition of public art in Austin, was also the first to fall under the axe of neglect. In March of 1955, five years after he painted Genesis, Fogel was commissioned by the architects of the American National Bank building going up at West Sixth and Colorado streets to paint a 28'x10' abstract mural over the bank's lobby. Upon its completion, a reporter at The Austin American touted the work of art as "the most advanced piece of wall decor and most abstract on-the-job project in the country." That month's issue of Fortune magazine called it "a vivid abstract mural that enlivens and enriches" the new bank building, and Fogel was reported to have achieved "international recognition" as "one of the most talented muralists in the world." The building opened with considerable fanfare and managed, if only for a brief time, to shed a national light on Austin's art scene.
Today, nothing remains of Fogel's groundbreaking mural except the wall on which it was painted. The bank has long since closed, and when the current tenants, the State Tax and Comptroller's offices, moved in, they remodeled the interior with nondescript white paint and cold, closed-off partitions, obliterating Fogel's creation. How could the city let such a valuable piece of art disappear?
The question is not such an easy one to answer, but it serves to underscore the fact that all of Austin's murals are under constant threat by all manner of damaging agents, from nature's elements to vandalism to individuals who simply don't recognize the importance of this type of art and want to cover it up. Over the years, such landmark works as the Austintatious mural, the Varsity mural, and the Esther's murals have all been assaulted by deterioration and vandals, and Jaques' work has had to contend with fire. Many murals, like Fogel's bank creation and Valdez's Los Elementos, have been lost forever. In a sense, the preservation of public murals becomes as important as the murals themselves.
"More and more, it has come to our attention that preservation of outdoor art is becoming important," says AIPP coordinator Martha Peters. "Two years ago, we started to take photographs of public sculpture to learn about sculpture preservation, and now the same attention needs to go to murals, many of which are in more need of immediate attention.
"In order to preserve murals, we must consider the surface a mural was painted on, the type of paint used, and whether or not there was any surface preparation. Many times artists will use house paints for murals and not prepare the wall properly. It's a big problem in Austin. Also, there is a big problem in Austin with moisture getting into the wall, causing the paint to peel."
This is not to say that local muralists have never been aware of the damaging effects of outdoor art. In 1950, Seymour Fogel painted Genesis using ethyl silicate, which literally stained the cement an eighth of an inch into the wall, protecting it from the elements. These days, some artists ñ though not nearly enough ñ use more advanced preparatory methods; some sandblast the wall and coat it with muratic acid to relieve the wall of any damaging salts. Then, they add an acrylic medium ñ Le Bonheur de Vivre has nine coats of acrylic under it ñ and, finally, a coat of gesso before putting any actual paint on the wall.
Still, these measures can't protect the mural from vandalism and tagging. So, in order to lessen the severity of vandalism ñ there is no fail-safe prevention ñ muralists are starting to use polyurethane or wax coatings on top of the finished piece so that when vandals put paint on a mural, it can be cleaned off easily. Even so, more times than not this means having to touch up the mural, a costly and time-consuming process even if the original artist can be found. Subsequently, the next best method to deter vandalism is awareness.
"There are some ways to prevent tagging or other defacement like paint bombing," Peters explains. "But the other side to this type of prevention is the need to educate people so that if a mural is tagged they shouldn't just paint over the graffiti and the mural. It's gotten to the point now where mural artists have to protect their own murals by keeping in touch with the building owners, so that those people can contact the artist if any defacement happens."
Certainly, building owners keep an eye out for vandals who may be destroying their property, but these same people may not readily watch out for the building down the block or the public library around the corner. And who watches out for the abandoned buildings, like the old Pepsi bottling plant on Cesar Chavez and the unfinished concrete walls behind Whole Earth on Lamar, which hold some very rich murals? In a perfect example of what happens to this type of art when there is a lack of education about it, a mural painted by Raul Valdez at the Pepsi bottling plant 15 years ago was mistaken for the work of a vandal and subsequently whitewashed. You can still see the remnants of the piece sticking out above the line of gray paint. Just like that, a valued piece of art was destroyed. Who will care for these pieces? For that matter, who can readily recognize natural decay when it starts to creep into wall art and who has the professional skills to conserve our murals when this happens?
Since January of this year, a group of photographers, artists, and muralists have, with the help of the Art in Public Places commission, created an Austin Mural Conservancy (AMC). It will not only support more artists and murals in town, but will also help to preserve our present wall art through increased community awareness as well as technical initiatives.
"My vision for the Austin Mural Conservancy is an open-air museum without walls," says Oliver Franklin. "After all, murals reflect the richness of the people in the community and often murals act as a way for the community to take control of its neighborhood. As far as I know, the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles is the only other program in the country like this one. The community itself will become the museum."
The idea for a mural conservancy in Austin came about when local photographer B.J. Goins decided to photograph the murals around town. When Goins received funding from AIPP for an exhibition of her photos last January, Martha Peters decided to put on a mural symposium in conjunction with the exhibit. Peters' goal with the symposium was to educate local muralists and patrons about the role of murals in the community and introduce them to innovative preservation techniques. It was a success in part because she invited Nathan Zakhiem of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles to speak.
"The symposium was headed by Fidencio Duran, John Yancy, and Ann Graham," Peters explains. "It was very well-attended, and we were able to show slides and give lectures by some of the artists in town as well as some out-of-town artists. Nathan [Zakhiem] was able to talk about the technical considerations of murals, which is a valuable education for our muralists. Right now, though there is no real mechanism for the preservation of public art."
For now, the city commission works as an umbrella company for the young AMC, but the hope is that the conservancy will eventually break away and become a nonprofit organization on its own, relieving the AIPP of its overburdened workload. Until that time, both groups will be funded by the 1% of the city's construction budget that is allocated to Art in Public Places to commission works of art on public property. AIPP has also begun lobbying the city to allocate $10,000 per year for preservation maintenance of murals.
Such attention to Austin's murals couldn't come at a better time; new works of wall art are going up at an unprecedented rate. In addition to Jaques' new mural on 26th Street and Duran's The Visit, at least three other major mural projects are underway in the city. John Fischer is busy with a restoration project of a mural he painted at the Carver Library in East Austin. Nathan Jensen is painting an indoor mural at The Cue Lounge, a new pool hall below the Alamo Drafthouse on Colorado. And "Robbie," a member of the NBK group, is busy at work decorating the walls of the Atomic Tattoo building on Guadalupe, near the University.
With so many murals sprouting up around town, there is an even greater need for artists and the public to understand what goes into such large-scale works of art, in terms of both the actual painting and their planning. The Mural Conservancy also wants to get involved in this latter stage, acting as a mediator between artist and patron, perhaps even negotiating agreements with the city to allow artists to work on some of the abandoned walls around town that have such an attraction for muralists. After all, murals can serve to beautify the neighborhoods in which they're painted, dressing up buildings left to rot with overgrown weeds and ugly walls.
At the center of the city's Mural Conservancy, however, is a basic desire to get more people interested in murals, with the hope that as people get to know the murals in their community, the more they'll get to know the community itself. As long as people know what to look for when they suspect deterioration or vandalism, they can call the Conservancy in urgent situations. The AMC has conducted walking tours of mural sites and has plans for another this fall, as well as for a Web site to inventory Austin murals, driving maps through different neighborhoods, and lectures for the public. Since 1955, when Fogel debuted his National Bank mural to Austin, huge strides have been made towards public art appreciation; perhaps if there had been enough interest in community art back then as when the Varsity Theatre mural was threatened, we might still have Fogel's abstracts the way we still have a gunslinging Jimmy Cliff on the side of Tower Records.
So the next time you're on the streets, keep an eye out for painted walls. There are more murals tucked away inside the city than you think, decorating everything from the sides of buildings to supermarkets to drainage ditches. Some may be presenting important messages, others simply offering a piece of beauty, a touch of inspiration, or a big laugh. The one thing we can be sure of is that murals are about communication: communication from the artist to the people, the people to their walls, and the community to itself.
"The great need," said Fogel in a 1955 interview, "is for communication between the artist and the person who views his work. Other important factors are the freedom and the daring of the people. For some of the same reasons, my murals could not have been done anywhere but Texas."
Tour the Photo Gallery featuring 15 more Austin murals!