The historic mural in Sky Harbor Airport's Terminal 2 is moving. Here's why and what's next
The typed letter on city letterhead came less than a year after artist Paul Coze signed a contract to create a three-panel mural in Sky Harbor Airport's newest terminal.
Dated March 28, 1962, the letter closed by stating:
"You are not only to be congratulated for the outstanding work that you have done, but for the fine contribution you have made to the cultural life of our community."
It's signed by then-Phoenix Mayor Samuel Mardian Jr.
Mardian couldn't have known how true his words would ring 57 years later as the airport works to painstakingly preserve Coze's artwork, "The Phoenix," and create a new experience around it so visitors can interact with the magic of the historic work.
"The average lifespan for public art is supposed to be 20 years, so we're well beyond that now, and the fact it is going to be saved is pretty amazing," said Gary Martelli, manager/curator for the Phoenix Airport Museum.
When Terminal 2 closes for good — sometime in February 2020 — a team will carefully move the mural to the Rental Car Center. Then the terminal site will be converted to bus gates.
The airport hopes mural's new location and the exhibit planned around it will give viewers a better appreciation of a beloved piece of public art.
"It's so iconic and so memorable. There's a lot of love for it. So we're thrilled that we are able to preserve it and save it and have it live on," Martelli said.
The rise of 'The Phoenix'
Notable for its beauty, the mixed-media mural is historic for another reason. According to city records, it is the first known instance in which Phoenix used a public process to commission a major work of public art.
In 1960, the city council put out a call to artists to design a mural for the lobby of the "New Air Terminal Building."
The invitation asked for "a painted mural depicting our Southwestern location, the Old West, the Air Age and the Space Age — to be applied to the upper area of the West Wall of the Main Lobby Floor."
The city would pay $10,000 to have it completed by Dec. 1, 1961.
Five artists' drawings were placed on display at the Phoenix Public Library and people were asked to vote.
French-American artist Paul Coze's design won and on April 6, 1961, he received a contract with a completion deadline of not quite eight months away.
The challenge of moving 'The Phoenix'
From afar, it's difficult to grasp the complexity of Coze's design and how much work was completed in those months.
According to Sky Harbor's Art Collection website, 52 different materials were affixed to a canvas backing attached to the wall. The work includes traditional media such as oil paint and mosaic tiles as well as aluminum sheeting and sand gathered from around Arizona.
Its deep symbolism and intricate construction often go unnoticed by people passing by to catch their flights.
Even Martelli said he didn't fully appreciate it until he examined it up close a few years ago.
"I was just kind of amazed at all the material that is adhered to those canvases and how much more dimensionality of that with the shells and gemstones and mosaic," he said.
But those very qualities make it a formidable challenge to move the mural.
It measures 25 by 16 by 75 feet, so its sheer size is a factor. Thanks to its age, brittleness is another issue. Finally, the mixed-media elements and construction of the work present additional obstacles of fragility.
City records are incomplete about how the mural was fully constructed, but they offer some glimpses into the artist's process. The 52 materials Coze used are more than just generic art supplies. He used aluminum sheeting to add shine. Styrofoam built up the texture and dimension of the work.
Some of the elements are deeply symbolic of Arizona.
An oral history the airport museum recorded with Coze's wife, Kay, reflects that he gathered sand across the state from the Grand Canyon to Tucson. He visited Native American reservations and included soil and objects from Hopi and other indigenous people. Feathers, gemstones and obsidian rocks are incorporated into the design.
Coze then applied those materials to 15 canvas strips and, with the help of his art students, attached the canvas strips like wallpaper to three panels, affixing them with glue.
A lot of glue.
Invoices show that Coze ordered more than 10 gallons of glue to hold the mural solidly in place on the plastered wall of Terminal 2.
Could the mural even be moved?
In 2016, after receiving a lot of feedback from the community, the airport started investigating whether the mural could be moved.
It wouldn't be as easy: The canvas itself had become part of the wall. While some documentation showed how the mural was constructed, it wasn't complete. What if something unexpected occurred during the move?
And where could they even put a mural that large?
The airport hired International Chimney Corporation, which has expertise in moving historic pieces, to see if "The Phoenix" could be moved safely. They pulled back a small, inconspicuous part and used a borescope to see how it was attached to the wall.
They determined the mural could be saved.
"Because there is so much material adhered to each of those canvases, you know, it is quite a complex process," Martelli said.
The plan initially calls for workers to access the mural from the back, by cutting out the plaster holding the strips of canvas and creating a frame to cradle and support each one.
"It needs uniform support and protection. So we'll design everything around all the obstacles and constraints," said Tyler J. Finkle, division manager, historic preservation at International Chimney.
Crews will be able to tell a lot more once they peel back the outside of the building to reveal the back of the mural and see how it is attached.
The mural's new home
While International Chimney figured out how to move the mural, the airport needed to find a place to put it.
Staff came up with a plan to move it to the Rental Car Center near the central escalator well that leads to the parking garage.
Currently, there are glass walls where you can peer into the garage. Those walls will be removed, a solid wall will be constructed and the mural will be attached.
The escalator well has a landing where a new exhibit will help people fully appreciate the mural. Like most museum exhibits, it will have historical drawings, photographs and objects. But it will also include 3D-printed replicas of parts of the mural so people can feel the texture. Spotting scopes will offer a closer look at the mural's details.
"This will be the first time for visitors to actually touch and interact with a piece of the mural and that's really exciting for people who are visually impaired. They can actually experience the mural first hand," said Stephen Reichardt, Aviation History Collections & Archives, Phoenix Airport Museum.
Cost and timeline of preservation
The timeline to move "The Phoenix" depends on the demolition plans for Terminal 2 as well as any obstacles crews encounter when trying to move the mural.
The goal is to have it installed in the Rental Car Center by the end of 2021.
"All of that is contingent on how complex it is. There's just a lot of moving parts," Martelli said.
By 2022, the PHX Sky Train will reach the Rental Car Center and the airport envisions an "art train" opportunity for people ride among terminals to view all the art on display.
The airport will pay for the preservation out of its own funds. The initial quote in 2016 was $388,000 but that will not be the final figure.
But Martelli thinks it is worth the investment to preserve "The Phoenix."
"To make that mural today would be well over a million dollars," Martelli said.
Who is Paul Coze?
Coze was born in Beirut, Lebanon, according to an airport biography of him. He immigrated to the United States in 1938 after spending much of his childhood in France.
He moved to Phoenix in 1951, according to The Arizona Republic. Along with creating art for Phoenix and the National Park Service, Coze taught classes from his studio, spurring the careers of other artists. He also served at the French Consul in Phoenix.
He also was a writer and an illustrator, the airport noting that his work appeared in publications like Arizona Highways and National Geographic.
Coze died in 1974.
You can find his work in the Phoenix Art Museum as well as in the Royal Albert Museum in Edmonton, Alberta.
You can connect with Arizona Republic Consumer Travel Reporter Melissa Yeager at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
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