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Arts & Entertainment

20-year-old Stone & Limberlost mural has new look after restoration

A vibrant mural that winds along North Stone Avenue between Roger and Limberlost roads has new scenes and a fresh coat of paint after a restoration project for the two-decade-old artwork. The effort was led by the same artists and neighbors in the area who collaborated years ago to color the curved stone wall.

The mural, named "The River Returns, Regenerates, Restores," covers the entire 630 square feet of the wall facing Stone Avenue. The wall was built in the 1970s as a sound barrier for homes after the street was widened and extended to connect Downtown to the Tucson Mall.

The nearby Rillito River is the focus of the public art, and it courses up and down the wall to create arches, which hold scenes of life in Tucson along its banks. Most of the mural has shades of blue around its scenes, which start with an egg evolving from a bird to fish on one end and the fish evolving back into an egg on the other. The mural's river teems with fish amid its waters, and runs length of the wall between scenes of the city, wildlife and young and old Tucson residents. Colored tiles make up trees and member of families, and metal sculptures of flowers taller than the wall stand in front of it.

The original mural, painted in 2000 and 2001, was funded by a $45,000 grant from the Tucson Pima Arts Council, which is now the Arts Foundation for Tucson and Southern Arizona. TPAC awarded the grant to to a trio of artist led by Pasqualina Azzarello, an artist from Brooklyn who said she had fallen in love with Tucson. Azzarello lived in the city for three years before returning to New York, and she spent most of that time working on the Stone Avenue mural.

"It was a big deal," Azzarello said. "$45,000 was a lot of money in the '90s and it still is, and we had never done anything like this before."

Azzarello and the two other lead artists, Kim Young, who worked with metal sculptures, and Christine Devine, who created the tiles, ultimately worked with $90,000 when the city added more funding. The artists held six months of community meetings, getting input from neighbors about what should be depicted on the mural. Some had taken issue with the project because they opposed the widening of Stone Avenue, but Azzarello said their attitudes changed after she and the other artists listened to them during those meetings.

"We said 'Well what do you want to see? What are your memories? What do you want to share with all the people walking by?' And then everything shifted," she said. "The neighbors became animated. They told us about the watermelon patches and the cattle farms and all the stories came out. That's when there was an amazing amount of buy-in from the community, and they took a real sense of ownership and identity with the wall."

The current Limberlost Neighborhood Association considers those meetings to have led to the creation of their group, which has since renovated their park and brought in cooperative housing, among other projects. They had been trying form an association before, but their current leadership and Azzerrello both credit the mural meetings as establishing it. 

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The neighborhood group's leaders reached out to both the city of Tucson and the Arts Foundation about three years ago to restore the mural, which had fading colors and was marked with graffiti in several places. City officials assessed the project and donors raised $25,000 for the restoration. The neighborhood group brought back Azzarello, who is now the city arts coordinator for East Hampton, Mass, to work on it again.

The restoration had its own set of challenges from when Azzarello paints a new mural, she said, and it's been a learning experience.

"Restoring a mural is very different from painting a brand-new mural," she said. "There are so many lessons being learned in real time in real space as we're working. This is the first time in my 25-plus years making murals that I've ever fully restored a mural... and this is by far the biggest mural I've ever restored."

She said there was a moment where she stood with a three-inch chip brush against the 630-foot wall and laughed out loud because of the undertaking.

"This wall is larger than the outskirts of my imagination," she said. "I realized I could not hold just how massive this wall really was in my imagination. There was this moment of a little bit of a whiplash coming from this idea of what about to do then the reality of what was about to happen." 

The restoration created new scenes, but Azzarello said she wanted to "honor the original iconography of the wall." She said wanted to give the mural the same kind of power is had in the past to unify a neighborhood with its images and the story that it tells.

"This is an opportunity to visually, energetically and physically strengthen the mural project as a whole," she said. "So there are a lot of choices that we are making that are motivated by what will help to unify this mural."

During the original painting, Azzarello recruited high schoolers from nearby Amphitheater High School and paid them to help her with the painting. One of the Amphi students who Azzarello hired to help paint the mural more than two decades ago was Adam Cooper-Terán, who has since worked with Borderlands Theater and in the All Souls Procession as a performance artist.

Cooper-Terán was 14 when, after being encouraged by his art teacher, he called Azzarello and asked if he could participate in the first mural project. Though Azzarello said in her proposal for the mural that she would only be working with upperclassmen, she was moved by Cooper-Terán’s confidence and eagerness to be involved and hired him on.

“It became this record,” he said. “Every time I drove past this or walked past, I thought, ‘Yeah, this started everything.’”

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Cooper-Terán said that the mural was the beginning of his arts career and his first paid job. Though recently he moved to Philadelphia, he traveled from the East Coast like Azzarello to restore some of the scenes he painted as a teenager.

The renewed mural has kept the scenes that were important to the Limberlost neighborhood, but Cooper-Terán said that his growing up is influencing how he’s seeing some of the scenes, especially those of urban Tucson.

“It became this really profound learning experience,” he said. “To come back and work on the mural, it’s this strange opportunity to remix the work.”

Faye Goodspeed, president of the association, said that the mural “gave life to what we we’re doing” as a neighborhood and has since become central to what the neighborhood stands for.

“It says to people coming and going on Stone Avenue or wherever that we have a neighborhood that is active, it’s viable, it’s interested and it’s extremely creative,” Goodspeed said.

This mural was the third mural that Azzarello ever painted, though she’s worked on many more since.

During the summer when she was painting the original mural, Azzerello said the paint would dry as soon as it touched the wall because the heat was so intense. The heat and the sun have since worn down several sections of the mural and faded its colors. The wall was also graffitied repeatedly in parts until a neighbor taped a sign to the wall saying how special the wall was to the neighborhood, which slowed down the tagging.

Restoring a wall that took two and half years to paint in just two and half weeks was a “tall order,” but the effort will improve the mural, Azzarello said, making it a "more gorgeous" and "much stronger and durable mural than it was when we painted it 20 years ago." 

Talking about how special the mural project has been, Azzarello told a small gathering of Limberlost neighbors that “it’s special to be here, and it was special to be here 20 years ago.”

Azzarello said it’s special that the neighborhood considers this mural key to who they are, that they take care of it, and especially that they’ve made the effort to restore it.

“I’ve painted many murals ever since, and this kind of restoration does not happen,” she said. "It's special what this neighborhood came together to do."

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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