Talented female artists bring Tucson’s buildings to life
Women and men of all ages and diverse backgrounds take to the streets of Tucson to transform blank walls into visually stunning works of art for residents and visitors to enjoy as they dine, shop, work, and live here. The city’s mural collection rivals those of much larger locales thanks in part to the City of Tucson’s history of promoting mural projects. Tucsonans also embrace and celebrate this form of artistic expression by commissioning their own works of art for homes and businesses alike.
Here we showcase four of Tucson’s female muralists. Each has a deep love of art and is extremely talented, yet each creates for their own reasons and from their own perspectives.
Black Lives Matter, Hotel Congress
Like many people across the country, Camila Ibarra saw the Black Lives Matter movement unfold before her and wanted to do something to show her support. Working as a server, her schedule didn’t allow her time to attend protests. Frustration led to an “a-ha” moment—she can paint.
“I wanted to get involved in the movement and was getting frustrated that I wasn’t doing anything. I called Hotel Congress to ask if I could donate a mural. Within two days, it was complete,” says Ibarra.
Mere hours before she put brush to wall, Ibarra found inspiration for this piece through the trials and tribulations of the moment. Through the night, she searched online for the most fierce and strong Black woman she could find to create the subject for her piece. Then she added a face mask to demonstrate the fight for rights during the COVID-19 pandemic. She had what would become her mural painted on canvas by 3 a.m. on the day of installation.
Ibarra’s love of painting began as a young girl in Tucson. It wasn’t until she took a high school art class that she realized just how much art called to her. Since then, she has worked on art projects daily, even as she attends Arizona State University pursuing a civil engineering degree.
“My passion is art. I do art every single day of my life. I got a scholarship to learn something new, so I took advantage of the opportunity,” she says.
The Black Lives Matter mural is only the third mural for Ibarra. As a sophomore in high school, she painted her first mural on a school cafeteria wall, followed by one at a local aquatic center. Of her newest painting, she says, “I’m in love with it. I can’t believe I came up with it.”
Black Lives Matter When They Are Alive, MSA Annex
When this fiber artist heard Tucson muralist Joe Pagac was looking for black artists for a Black Lives Matter mural project, Adia Jamille seized the opportunity to paint her first mural at the MSA Annex at South Avenida del Convento and West Cushing Street. Art has always been a driving factor in Jamille’s life, leading her to study interior design before switching to fiber arts, ultimately earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in fiber arts from Arizona State University.
Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Jamille moved to Tucson with her husband and young son. At home with a new addition to her growing family, she couldn’t join the Black Lives Matter protests, but realized her voice could still be heard through her art.
“I didn’t know what the other artists would be painting, and I wanted to do something different,” explains Jamille. “The discussion started about all these people being killed. I wanted to back up and look at what we should really address: black people and the quality of life we get to experience or not get to experience.”
Jamille is known for creating vibrant, colorful embroidery on black canvases. Her mural mimics the style to resemble her fiber art. She chose an array of symbols to represent black lives and living using her signature bright colors. “We have all of this color in the world; we need to embrace it and enjoy it,” she says.
Imagination Navigation, Antigone Books and The Path Unpaved, Stone Avenue/Alameda Street
Jessica Gonzales was born to be an artist. With an artistic family, art surrounded her growing up. When she was 12 years old, her family relocated to Tucson. She studied art leading to a bachelor of fine arts degree in 2D art with a focus on painting earned from The University of Arizona in 2012. Fast-forward to today, and Gonzales is a well-known professional artist about town, beautifying businesses and residences with her signature blend of bright colors, with nods to the desert landscape she calls home.
“I tend to choose uplifting themes, which also applies to how I choose the color palette. I like things to be bright and joyful,” says Gonzales. “Representing cultural diversity is important to me. I also love to apply elements of the desert because I love it here, and it’s important to represent Tucson, especially the plant life.”
The Path Unpaved, which she painted at Stone Avenue and Alameda Street, is one of her favorites and is themed around self-exploration, breaking outside of comfort zones, and trying new things to absorb all that life has to offer. Another favorite mural, on the side of Antigone Books on Fourth Avenue, is called Imagination Navigation and holds a special place in her heart.
“I was swimming with my sister in a public pool, and we were looking at a blank wall. We shared a long conversation that day about what I could paint. We talked about transforming desert animals into hybrid sea creatures. When the opportunity arose to paint the bookstore, I thought of pop-up books and merged that concept with those creatures we dreamed up that day in the pool. It was really fun and very special to me,” she says.
Sue Kay Johnson
All Souls Mural, Dunbar/Spring Neighborhood
Making art has been a way of life for Sue Kay Johnson since she was a child in Illinois. She pursued her passion, earned various degrees in art and education from The Art Institute of Chicago, and studied and taught art abroad in Italy.
This talented sculptor and painter moved out West in 1986 to teach figure sculpture at The University of Arizona. Today you can find her teaching art at the Pima Community College–West Campus (she once taught other mural artist Jessica Gonzales) and at the Tucson Museum of Art.
Not only did she paint the block-long mural at 9th Avenue and University Boulevard that is filled with mythical figures, colorful animals, and people in and out of decorative masks on parade, she brought the actual parade it’s inspired from to Tucson—the beloved annual All Souls Procession.
“This mural is where all the old cemeteries were located in Tucson. The first part of the mural is about the community garden and the older buildings in the area. The next part is about the processional parade, and the last part is about transformation after death or rebirth,” she explains.
Johnson began Tucson’s All Souls Processional Parade in 1990, after her father, a veteran of World War II and a survivor of Pearl Harbor, died. She drew her inspiration from parades she’d seen while traveling through Europe and Mexico and cities in the United States such as New Orleans, San Francisco, and Chicago. This was her way to honor and celebrate his life and process his death while inviting all in the community to honor their own lost loved ones. She combined her art therapy degree and the Mexican Día de los Muertos tradition to begin what has become one of Tucson’s most attended events.
The annual parade celebrated its 30th year in 2019. Well over 150,000 people join in the two-mile-long human-powered procession through downtown Tucson each year. It ends in the ceremonial burning of a large urn filled with the hopes, offerings, and wishes of those in attendance for their loved ones who have passed.
Together these women are making their mark on Tucson, its residents, and its visitors through art. Ibarra will create art while she pursues her academic endeavors in engineering. Jamille will grow her fiber art and other businesses while hoping to paint another mural. Gonzales continues to paint outdoors as a way to connect to her community while also giving back. And Johnson keeps teaching and inspiring more artists who might someday add to Tucson’s growing collection of murals.