Their names may be fading from the weather-beaten stucco, but memories of what they did one summer two decades ago are as clear as ever.
“We were taking big sheets of paper and we would trace out stencils,” recalled Laymond Gray, as he spoke earlier this month near the mural that adorns the entire south side of the James O. Jesse Desert Highland Unity Center. “And then, using powder, we would create blue lines, and then transfer lines to the wall. We did some painting, but it was mostly the stenciling. It kind of kept us out of trouble.”
What Gray and a dozen other teenagers from the community did during the summer of 1997 was not just help artist Richard Wyatt, Jr. put artwork on a wall. They also created a source of pride for the community.
“We didn’t see the vision of what it was. We weren’t the artist,” said Gray, who still lives in the area and now has two sons who are around the age he was when he helped create the mural. “We still talk about it to this day. It gives us a sense of ownership.
“I have people who come from all over and I show them this. It’s the first thing I point to.”
Gray and others also point to some of the names of the teen assistants who have since passed on.
“I had friends who have passed on whose names are up there,” Gray said. “So it’s a little nostalgic.”
Wyatt, who visited the mural on September 9 and spoke about it with Palm Springs Public Arts Commissioner Shawnda Faveau, also gets nostalgic as he vividly recalls that summer and the local students who helped him. Standing beside his work, he points to the names, recalling details about many of the students and their family members.
A familial feeling was what the artist was trying to portray when he took on the project. The people painted on the wall are not supposed to be anyone in particular, he said, although a few are based on his own family members. Instead, the artwork simply reflects African Americans participating in everyday activities, like those offered at the Unity Center.
Wyatt’s approach isn’t lost on Jarvis Crawford, who manages the community center for the city. Crawford watched the mural slowly take shape in the summer of 1997, while he was home from college.
“I saw people I grew up with in the mural,” he said. “No matter where in the world we go, we can always find somebody like the people we know.”
Whether those who come to Palm Springs will continue to see the mural is at the center of Faveau’s current mission to draw attention to the mural and its current state of disrepair.
Wyatt last touched up the paint seven years ago, helping re-create a lower section damaged by water from adjacent sprinklers. Faveau is hoping to secure funds for a permanent solution, similar to Wyatt’s mural outside of Capital Records in Los Angeles titled, Hollywood Jazz: 1945-1972. That artwork, which depicts jazz legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington, was restored in hand-glazed ceramic tile.
“It’s epic. It’s beautiful,” Faveau said of the Palm Springs mural. “But it needs to be restored.”
“I just don’t want it to get to the point where the city decides to paint over it.” — Shawnda Faveau
Doing the restoration properly will take two things that are often in short supply: Money and time. The Public Arts Commission recently allocated $5,000 to study whether the wall the mural is painted on can support the weight of what could be more than 1,100 five-pound tiles needed to re-create Wyatt’s work. The artist said he hopes he can commit his time, and that the restoration cost would be at least $150,000, but likely more.
“It would take quite a bit of time,” Wyatt said, estimating it would take 18 months to paint and install the tiles. “It can also be pretty costly. There are ways to keep the costs down, but it’s gotta be good.”
The costs and time will be worth it, Faveau insists, given what the mural means to residents of the nearby Desert Highland Gateway Estates neighborhood and how much effort they’ve spent trying to preserve and protect the artwork over the years.
“They’ve fought this fight so many times that they’re just exhausted,” she said of community members who have long sought a permanent fix for the decaying mural. “The community is tired of telling the same story over and over.”
“People come to take pictures of The Wishing Well,” she said, pointing to a nearby Desert X installation by artist Serge Attukwei Clottey. “So right now, all over the world, people have pictures of this mural in the background of that art, and the mural is in various stages of deterioration. I just don’t want it to get to the point where the city decides to paint over it.”