MURAL MADNESS: Alfred J. Quiroz took me on an art historical tour of the world the other day.
Squinting against the full force of the morning sun, grasping his paper cup of coffee and talking so fast it was hard to scribble down his words, he showed off the not-quite-finished "Joseph Gross Gallery Mural."
"We're zigzagging across the world, see?" he said. Quiroz gestured up at the painted plywood boards now forming a frieze along the roofline of the boxy white gallery that's plopped down like a forlorn afterthought into the UA arts complex. Snaking along eight of its nine walls, there were serpents from early Central America, Celtic coils from Ireland, an image of King Tut of Egypt, post-Impressionism from Holland.
"There's Africa, there's India on the corner, there's China--two are almost done," he said, breathlessly ticking off the regions. And along the still-barren north wall, abutting Speedway, he added, "There will be Japan, Australia and Oceania."
Quiroz, an indefatigable UA art prof whose own paintings scathingly attack colonialism in all its many forms, went to the UA administration with the idea for the 288-foot-long mural some time ago. The frieze, he decided, would have resonance with art and architectural styles from India to ancient Greece and ancient America, and it would serve as a herald for all the many arts from music to dance to art and architecture going on in the complex.
"I had an idea to do this for a couple years. I thought this would be a really neat place to do it...I applied for a grant to do a theme on the art of the world."
What appealed to just about everybody from the administration on down is that the mural project would enlist the talents of the university's undergrads. A team of eight students signed up for what Quiroz says is the university's first-ever mural class, and worked on the 4-by-8-foot plywood panels in the studio last summer.
There were a couple of restrictions besides the financial ones that came along with the $2,000 grant.
"Right away I was told, 'No nudity, no allusions to religion. It has to be straightforward art,' " Quiroz said.
Quiroz imposed a design grid on the young muralists. He worked out the sequence of nations and regions that would appear on the mural's panels. He decreed that figurative panels and abstract design panels would alternate in a repetitive pattern. He decided the panel backgrounds would follow the chromatic color scale, from blue to green to yellow to orange to red to violet and back to blue. But beyond these aesthetic criteria the students had free reign.
"We could design it any way we wanted it based on our research," said Emily Tellez, an undergrad painting and drawing major (the King Tut and the Celtic coils are hers) and Quiroz's assistant on the project. Each of the students studied art from the culture they were assigned and chose the images they wanted to reproduce. Sometimes the ideas were what you'd expect--the plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl for Central America--and sometimes, as in the case of the Danish troll, they were out there. But in every case the student's choice reigned.
Some of the students got into a little surreptitious subversion. The Russian panel, for instance, based on Soviet-era sculptures of a woman with a sickle and a man with a hammer, turned into an indictment of that nation's raging new capitalism.
"We made a cent sign of the sickle," Quiroz chuckled.
In a reference to the violence of the Middle East and western Asia, a painting based on a traditional Persian miniature has a line-up of robed figures carrying AK-47s and tanks painted into a border based on an Afghan rug. And two students who worked on an Egyptian design delivered this cryptic message in hieroglyphics: "Words of Wisdom: Blah Blah Blah."
A group of independent study students are slowly cranking out the remaining panels for the North wall. ("The girl working on the African design broke her foot," Quiroz lamented. "I'm going to have to finish it.") Yet for all the students' strenuous labors, the plywood mural will probably only last two years. No matter. Quiroz believes the 2-by-4 grid can host a changing series of student murals in the years to come. And in the meantime, plaudits for the project have been well-nigh universal.
"What's so great is that now the arts complex isn't so drab," said interim art department head Andy Polk. "It lights up the place."
And, Tellez added, the fledgling Joseph Gross Gallery now has an identity it can call its own. "People just say, 'Look for the colored mural.' "
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