The La Flor Del Pueblo mural project in Phoenix will transform an Arizona Public Service utility substation into a canvas for telling diverse stories of the Grant Park neighborhood.
PHOENIX—A massive mural project is underway in Phoenix, where one of Arizona’s major utility companies is building an electric substation that will serve as the canvas for artwork illustrating local history, arts, and culture.
The project is titled La Flor Del Pueblo and named after a community garden that serves as a gathering place for Grant Park, a neighborhood with a strong Latino heritage. The La Flor Del Pueblo mural project, which is causing some community concern related to artwashing, will adorn the new Arizona Public Service facility that will be located in one of central Phoenix’s oldest areas.
“It’s really a storytelling project,” says Ashley Harder, an arts and historic preservation advocate who is part of the project team. Harder heads an eponymous development firm based in Phoenix, and she has worked with La Flor Del Pueblo curator Jim Covarrubias for several years on other creative activities including exhibiting artworks at the Arizona State Capitol.
The substation will span several blocks bounded by Third Avenue, Lincoln Street, and Grant Street, and in a part of downtown Phoenix where an emerging arts scene was displaced by a new sports arena in the early 1990s. Fifty percent of the substation walls, or approximately 800 linear feet, will be muraled, according to materials posted on the project website, which also notes that artwork will celebrate the area’s legacy families, local icons, and culture.
“We’re talking about real people from a real neighborhood,” says Covarrubias, who has been a staple of the Arizona arts scene for decades. In 1978, Covarrubias co-founded the Movimiento Artistico del Rio Salado, or MARS, a collective for Chicano and Native American artists. Additionally, his Tempe-based Ariztlan Studios documents and creates work reflecting veteran experiences and the cultural landscape of local communities.
For La Flor Del Pueblo, Covarrubias has interviewed a diverse array of residents and stakeholders as part of a larger engagement effort initiated in 2018 by APS, urban planning company Espiritu Loci, and Arizona Strategies, a company that fosters land use strategies. Espiritu Loci, a Scottsdale-based firm specializing in planning and development assistance, has also worked with APS on other substation designs.
Covarrubias devised dozens of mural themes based on community input, including architecture, churches, entertainment, food/markets, military history, political activism, and sports. Some themes address specific periods such as the Great Depression, and others examine key figures such as labor and civil rights leaders César Chávez.
For Matthew Aguilar, lead organizer with the nonprofit advocacy group Mass Liberation Arizona, the project raises significant questions related to environmental justice, especially amid histories of displacement in the area, record-breaking heat, the impacts of power blackouts on marginalized communities, and calls by community members for a more sustainable city. “Murals don’t provide shade or reduce the heat island effect,” he says.
Aguilar says he’s also concerned about artwashing, including the ways “corporations, developers, and utility companies with ulterior motives have utilized artists to get community involvement” for various projects around Arizona. “I’m sure the murals will be beautiful, and it is important to preserve history,” Aguilar says of La Flor Del Pueblo. “But it does raise the question of who gets to decide what that history is.”
Martin Moreno, who painted one of the first murals in Grant Park, has a different take. “The community has been very involved and I haven’t heard any concerns about the project,” says Moreno. “Anything that incorporates public art will enhance the area and I think these murals will really be a highlight of the neighborhood.”
Artists will be selected through a request for qualifications planned for fall 2023. The call will be open to Arizona-based artists ages eighteen and up.
“We’ve had a number of open houses to introduce artists to the project, and we’re encouraging artists to register with us so we can let them know once that call goes out,” says Harder.
Covarrubias says they’re still putting together the jury that will evaluate artist submissions. The murals will vary in size, and Covarrubias notes that artists will be paid using a set per-square-foot amount.
The project timeline calls for painting to commence in fall 2024. “If all goes well, the murals should be completed by early 2025,” according to Covarrubias.
This isn’t the utility company’s first foray into mural art. In 2012, Phoenix-based artist Laura Spalding Best, whose studio Southwest Contemporary visited in 2022, painted her Centennial mural featuring utility poles, wires, and transformers on the south wall of a new APS power substation at Garfield Street and Second Avenue, where another substation project is currently in the early stages.
Last year, APS completed a substation at the corner of Seventh and Roosevelt streets in the Evans Churchill neighborhood that’s home to the Roosevelt Row arts district.
“Every substation has a different feel,” according to Trevor Barger, founder and CEO of Espiritu Loci and principal with Arizona Strategies. In Roosevelt Row, for example, murals and other artworks are meant to convey the area’s “artsy, vibrant” character. For the new Garfield station, artists want to use virtual reality components so people can interact with their work.
As the Grant Park neighborhood project moves forward, organizers are continuing to gather stories and input, even as they work to alert more artists to the upcoming call for art.
“We’re looking for artists from diverse backgrounds and artists with a diverse range of talent,” explains Harder. “We’re going to need a lot of people coming together to tell these stories.”