ST. GEORGE — The St. George Art Museum had a difficult choice to make last week. To celebrate the museum’s 30th anniversary, they commissioned four graffiti artists from California to paint a mural on the south-facing wall. To prepare, the museum had the wall painted black. Then, due to COVID-19, the event was cancelled, and, presumably, the mural.
Oakland-based graffiti artist Desi Mundo, who founded the Community Rejuvenation Project in Oakland, said that his heart dropped when he heard the news.
“I was sad, man,” Mundo said, watching his fellow artists paint the wall Tuesday. “It was really disappointing, because they asked us to paint with ‘Skill’ and ‘Fear,’ two legendary artists from Los Angeles. I’ve been a fan of their work for a long time. So we were going to lose out on the opportunity to do something cool, to travel, and make a little bit of money. Then I got word that they wanted to follow through on the wall, and it was a go.”
Elated, Mundo, along with his friend Pancho Peskador, a Chilean-born artist who lives in Oakland, arrived in St. George Monday. Since then, it has been a whirlwind of planning and painting and having fun.
Mundo and Paskador were featured in the documentary, “Alice Street,” which portrayed their struggle against a developer who intended to build condos in front of a public mural that Mundo and friends had recently painted. Mundo said they began advocating for more public funding for murals, and, to that end, have secured over $20 million in community benefits.
“Now, we’re out here,” Mundo said with a subtle sense of awe. “This was meant to be. It’s election day, and we’re out here painting a mural about unity and respect. Two things we need more of right now. And it almost didn’t happen.”
“Unity was there from the beginning,” St. George Museum manager and curator Gary Sanders said. “Inspired by Hope Hill, we asked the artists to work with the theme hope through unity. That’s what this is all about. It’s a partnership between the city of St. George, Art Around the Corner, and Docutah, who all offered funding for the project.”
Marianne Hamilton, board chair of Art Around the Corner, and special events manager at Docutah, was the one who had the vision to connect the dots.
“I knew they needed a big canvas to pull this off,” Hamilton said. “I spoke to Michelle Graves, who has wanted to see more murals in St. George for a long time now. I called her and said that we had the opportunity to bring some world-class artists to town to do a mural, and she suggested we try the St. George Museum of Art. We spoke with them and negotiated with the artists and the filmmakers, and it all came together. The city agreed to approve the concept and to fund part of the expenses involved with paying artists stipends, materials and travel.”
While many passersby expressed enthusiasm about the work, such as 8-year-old Lincoln Balagna, who spent more than an hour in the car with his mom watching the artists, some weren’t thrilled by the presence of graffiti in their neighborhood. When asked about the art world’s reluctance to embrace graffiti art, Sanders didn’t skip a beat.
“Its becoming more acceptable in our communities,” Sanders said. “I think that, as people come to see this work, they’ll see the efforts that these artists go into in planning this and executing it. The project bridges the past to the future.”
Janos “Skill” Varady and “Fear” were featured in “Prophets, Teachers, and Kings,” a documentary that chronicled their 35-year journey as members of the UTI (Under The Influence) crew.
“We didn’t even set out to be part of this documentary,” Varady said. “A friend made it for fun, and it did well in a couple of festivals. Then we got invited to do this mural, and interesting connections have been happening ever since.”
The mural project connected Mundo and Varady, for instance. They both live in Oakland but hadn’t yet met one another. They immediately connected through their passion about using their art to create vibrant public spaces and bringing people together.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” said Varady, who stopped painting illegally years ago after he was finally arrested. “You’d think I’d be pissed off, but I was actually relieved in a way. I’d been carrying around that stress of getting caught for a lot of years. I was avoiding my life outside of painting. I almost felt like a drug addict. So, in some way, I needed that.”
Around that time, Varady was becoming more spiritual, and he needed a new beginning. Still, he was surprised when his pastor suggested he begin painting again.
“He said there’s nothing wrong with it if it’s done in the right way,” Varady said. “I painted some walls in the children’s rooms, did some cool characters. It was so much fun.
“Lately, I’ve been going into impoverished areas in Oakland, places where they really need some hope, some inspiration. We use cartoon-style characters and vibrant colors and just talk with the people who live there. We take requests. Put up people’s names. Some of them are here, others are dead.”
As Varady told his story, a St. George police cruiser paused before the wall. The officer watched the artists work for a moment, then stretched his arm out the window, giving them a thumbs-up as he drove away.
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