On the south side of Southwest Washington Avenue between 11th and 12th, and set back from the street, two buildings butt up square to each other. Last year, a local art program, Forest for the Trees, arranged for an Australian artist, who goes by the moniker Rone, to paint a large mural of a woman’s head surrounded by flowers on the side of the building that fronts 12th Avenue. I first saw this mural, “Every Rose has It’s Thorns,” back when I covered PICA’s TBA:13. (The hotel I typically stay in is not too far from there.)
That was the day a mural broke my heart.
I had been looking at the empty canvas of that wall for years. It used to be beige in color, and then a few years ago, it was painted brown. The darker color made it even more exciting. You see, every evening as the sun reachs a certain point, the windows on the north side of Washington reflect light back onto that wall. I have a picture of it when the wall was blank, but I cannot find it. I did, however, wait around last Friday afternoon to see the light show again, despite the mural. I took a picture.
You can see the reflections, how many there are when the angle is just so, both on the brown wall and more clearly on the gray wall of the building behind it. The lights trail across those surfaces until there is no more direct sunlight. Yet, where once I was able to experience something truly wonderful, there is a blemish in search of a brand name to attach itself to.
What is Rone’s woman looking at? One might say she is calling our attention to the narrow strip of that part of downtown that lies between 12th and I-405. Parts of it are a little run down and therefore might be considered thorns, but any benefit of the doubt on that account rings hollow. And to make matters worse, thanks to this year’s “Forest for the Trees” initiative, there is another mural of a woman on the wall to the east. The artist, who goes by Faith47, has given us “Capax Infiniti” (Holding the Infinite), a very tall and dismissive damsel with her back turned to us. She is turned away from the winsome woman of the west wall as well, so I’d like to think she is just too embarrassed to be seen with the adjacent travesty. Yet, it was her arrival that prompted me to write this long overdue essay.
Any number of critiques can be leveled at these murals—social, political, economic—and I dare say the same can be said for many of the others brought to us in 2013 by “Forest for the Trees” (the 2014 group contains a little less schtick and is somewhat more inventive). These artists are skilled enough, yet it is the kind of talent ad agencies seek out to make what they’re selling more desirable and consumable. (I worked in that industry for a good number of years, until, as my personal joke goes, I decided I wanted to go to heaven.) These two murals are among a total of three on the west side and within an area of downtown that is seeing an increase in the number of high-end boutiques, eateries and hotels. This fact alone speaks volumes.
Early Saturday morning I sat in my truck across the street from these walls, had a smoke, drank my coffee, and thought about what I would finally write about this marred wall. I watched a number of people pull out their phones or hike up their cameras to take pictures of these murals. No doubt, many people think these things quite lovely. But if only they could have experienced the walls unadorned as I had. Would they then grieve as well?
“This world needs more pretty things, don’t you think?” Perhaps, but please, not at the expense of the sublime.