Video: Public art bridges gap between ASU and larger art community

Video by Kaard Bombe | Multimedia Reporter

A 100-foot Gila monster made its home on the side of The Mark Apartments near Lemon Street and Terrace Road.

However, it's not an actual Gila monster, but one painted in a mural by local artist Aztec Smurf as part of the renovations at the property owned by Sundance Bay. The 50-by-55-foot mural is the largest in Tempe, standing at four stories tall and requiring 190 hours of work to complete.

“It’s a great honor for me as an artist to have my art featured here,” Smurf said. He was contacted by the property owners to take a look at the wall.

“Getting invitations for this is exactly what you want as an artist," he said.

The mural is especially meaningful for the artist, who grew up near Curry and Scottsdale roads.

“After 20 years, to be able to come back and give something to the community in the form of visual eye candy is very rewarding," Smurf said.

Kathy Zuniga, community manager at The Mark, said Smurf's local roots played a large part in why they chose him to paint the mural.

“We love Aztec Smurf’s art, his personality and his ties to the community,” Zuniga said in a press release on Jan. 15.

Smurf has been a professional artist since 2005, when he quit making pizzas in order to pursue painting professionally. Other works of his can be found in Brunson-Lee Elementary in Phoenix, residential communities and at the Arizona Latino Art and Cultural Center on 2nd and Adams streets.

Smurf said he felt no added pressure while painting the mural despite the fact he has been working in public, and anyone can stop to watch him paint.

“I actually like people being able to be out in the public and allowing people to watch the piece’s progress or see the mistakes that I’ve made,” Smurf said. “Who knows, maybe someone out there is watching right now who’s having trouble with an art thing, and they’re seeing what I’m doing and learning from it."

Sundance Bay, which acquired the property from Campus Pointe in 2013, is also enthusiastic about the work Smurf is doing.

“We pride ourselves on being able to reposition properties into aesthetically appealing apartment communities that beautify and enhance their neighborhoods. Supporting local arts just makes what we are doing that much more meaningful,” said Ryan Baughman, Sundance Bay’s director of Acquisitions, in the same Jan. 15 press release.

Zuniga said Smurf's inspiration from local themes also drew their interest in his work.

Smurf suggested several different designs before both parties agreed on the Gila monster.

“I wanted to choose something that reflected the desert as well as would represent Tempe well and draw ASU students without being an advertisement," Smurf said. "It’s also a tribute to native wildlife that you don’t see very often in public art.”

In order to celebrate both the mural and their renovations, The Mark will hold an unveiling on Thursday from noon to 3 p.m. Free food will be provided to ASU students as well as parking passes, art supplies from Blick’s Art Materials and three months free rent for a one-bedroom apartment.


Local artist Aztec Smurf paints a Gila monster mural as part of the renovations at The Mark Apartments. The 50-by-55-foot mural is the largest in Tempe, standing at four stories tall. (Photo by Rachel Nemeh) Local artist Aztec Smurf paints a Gila monster mural as part of the renovations at The Mark Apartments. The 50-by-55-foot mural is the largest in Tempe, standing at four stories tall. (Photo by Rachel Nemeh)

Public art in Tempe

Besides Smurf’s new mural, the city of Tempe is home to numerous pieces of public art. According to Maja Aurora, arts commissioner for the city of Tempe, the city is home to more than 70 permanent installations. These pieces range from sculptures found in parks to, perhaps most notably, those found at light rail stations.

Betsy Fahlman, art history professor in the School of Art, said the reason for the pieces found at light rail stations is quite simple.

“I think one of art's most prominent purposes is to give an identity to something,” Fahlman said, “and I think the art pieces found at the light rail stations certainly do that for the city of Tempe.”

In order for a public art piece to be created, Aurora said that there is a lengthy process that must be taken — a process that can take up to a year or more.

“First we have the artist answer a request for credentials, also known as an RFQ,” Aurora said.

After an artist responds to the RFQ, their credentials are reviewed by the Community Artist Selection Panel, which is comprised of stakeholders, business people, professionals, people who live near or work by where the piece will go and anyone else who may be appropriate for the piece in question. Once this is done, a formal proposal is created for the piece of art and production begins.

The city of Tempe currently has two RFQ’s on its website.

The first is looking for four painters to paint utility boxes in the Mill Avenue District. This is the second phase of the project, the first of which saw six artists paint utility boxes between Rio Salado Parkway and Seventh Street, all of which depict the uniqueness of downtown Tempe and the state as a whole. The deadline to apply is 5 p.m. on Feb. 4, with artists being notified in March and commissioned to begin their paintings in April or May.

The second RFQ on the city’s website is part of the Broadway Road Streetscape. According to the proposal, “the goal of the project is to re-characterize the segment of Broadway Road between Mill Avenue and Rural Road.” Art will be added to the half-mile long wall with hopes that it will create a memorable and welcoming presence to those passing by via car, bike or on foot. The deadline for submissions is 5 p.m. on Feb. 11, with the chosen artist commissioned to begin working on their design in the spring, with installation planned for the following year.


The Gila monster mural required 190 hours of work to complete. The mural is located on Lemon Street and Terrace Road in Tempe. (Photo by Rachel Nemeh) The Gila monster mural required 190 hours of work to complete. The mural is located on Lemon Street and Terrace Road in Tempe. (Photo by Rachel Nemeh)


Public Art At ASU

On top of the city of Tempe’s impressive collection of public art, ASU has a collection of more than 17 pieces spread throughout the 720-acre campus.

Two such examples can be found inside Old Main. The building is home to two murals by Joseph Morgan Henninger from 1934 entitled “Industrial Development in Arizona” and “Spanish Influence In Arizona.” Despite originally commissioned to hang in the Matthews Library, both paintings currently reside on the second floor of Old Main.

The latter mural was commissioned by the Public Works of Art Project during the Great Depression and depicts the influence of the Spanish conquistadors and padres of the Catholic Church.

Henninger wrote of the painting in 1934:

"I have divided the canvas so that the bondage of the church is on the left side and the bondage of the Conquistador is on the right. I have placed the figure of an Indian well forward and almost center of the composition crying to the Great Spirit for relief from the oppression of both his physical life and his spiritual life.”

Another example is the Jean Charlot mural “Man's Wisdom Subdues the Aggressive Forces of Nature” which resides in the Interdisciplinary A Building. The mural, from 1951, depicts a traditional Native American snake dance in one portion as well as ASU’s reputation for the research and production of anti-venom serum.

Although Charlot was French, he was a member of the Mexican muralist movement of the 1920s and looked into Arizona as well as ASU and its history for the theme of the mural.

In doing this, Charlot has helped support Fahlman’s view on art.

“I believe that art, especially paintings, is an imprint of time,” Fahlman said.

Student involvement in city art

One of the ways the city of Tempe has bridged the gap between public art and college student's involvement in the field is through the platFORM program. Created by the cities of Tempe, Scottsdale and Chandler to provide opportunities for emerging student artists, platFORM aims to prepare them to qualify for future public art projects. The projects are funded through the Tempe Municipal Arts Fund and administered through the Tempe Municipal Arts Commission.

According to Aurora, two pieces will be installed in Tempe, two in Scottsdale and two in Chandler.

“The program is intended as a way for student artists to put their work out there and gain exposure, while at the same time creating something beautiful for the community,” Aurora said.

One such student who did that is digital culture senior Connor Coffman, whose piece “Industrial Desert,” a steel and powder-coating sculpture, was selected to be created last year.

“It was a great feeling when I found out that my piece had been selected,” Coffman said. “It’s been really eye-opening for me as to the public art scene and community around campus."

Coffman is also studying art with a focus in sculpture. His piece, which is a tribute to the saguaro cactus, can be found on the corner of the Hayden Flour Mill at 119 S. Mill Ave. Coffman’s two-dimensional sketch was brought to life through various forms of rapid prototyping including laser-cutting and water-jet computer numerical controls. The piece displayed on Sept. 14.

Coffman said the selection of his piece not only boosted his confidence, but also helped him decide what he wanted to pursue in the future.

“I definitely know now that I want to have a career in art,” Coffman said. “I’ve already had people ask me if I wanted to do a pieces for their home in Colorado or Wickenburg."

Artist Aztec Smurf looks at his finished work. The Mark will hold an unveiling on Thursday from noon to 3 p.m. to celebrate the mural and the renovations. (Photo by Rachel Nemeh) Artist Aztec Smurf looks at his finished work. The Mark will hold an unveiling on Thursday from noon to 3 p.m. to celebrate the mural and the renovations. (Photo by Rachel Nemeh)

ASU students and the greater arts community

In his fourth year as director of the ASU Art Museum, Gordon Knox said he has seen a change in the way the ASU art community interacts the surrounding area.

“It has certainly gotten larger and more active in my time here,” Knox said. “We’re more cohesive as well.”

One way Knox has helped connect ASU’s art community to the surrounding area was by founding the International Artist Residency Program in February 2011. The program allows visiting artists to pursue their work and develop new projects with organizations all throughout Arizona while using the resources ASU has to provide.

“It’s a really unique program,” Knox said. “It allows us to connect many groups, including immigrants to the School of Art, to space exploration programs, to Global Institute of Sustainability and others. It’s really exciting.”

Upcoming resident artist Marisa Jahn will be bringing her "Nanny Van" project to the area as part of the IARP. The project’s focus is to inform the public of domestic worker and fair labor issues by providing kids with quick crafts that promote “trickle up messages to their parents or caregivers about fair labor practices.”

Knox said another upcoming project will help engage the community by creating an immersive experience that encourages literacy and opens March 21.

“We’re opening a new gallery in the former Borders on Seventh Street and Mill with artist Pablo Helguera,” Knox said.

The former space will be turned into a second-language and second-hand bookstore that will feature over 25,000 books.

Knox said he hopes the museum continues its pursuit of producing public art projects while keeping ASU connected to the world of public art.

“And it’s (the museum's) goal to move ideas through unusual channels that are open to the public, whether it means including regional art or activating new projects," Knox said.

For Knox, art represents humanity's most complex form of comprehension.

"(Art) involves intuition, it involves imagination, it poses challenges and it questions the status quo," he said. "To me, that’s what art is, and I think it’s important that we invite students and our community to consider that."

Reach the reporter at or follow him on Twitter @S_weinstein95

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story had an incorrect opening date for one gallery. It also misspelled an artist's name.

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