Allison Miller

Allison Miller says Swan Way Park was her public park to play in as a child. She designed and organized a community paint day in 2012 to produce the mural behind her at the park located at 4800 E. 1st St. She’s organizing another mural project to choose six local artists to design and paint murals along Speedway Boulevard between Park and Campbell Avenues.

A group of Tucson artists have banded together to rejuvenate public spaces along one of Tucson’s main streets, hoping to beautify and show their love for the historic city they call home.

The group, Alley Cat Murals, is organizing a community-driven public art project to paint six new murals across a prominent chunk of the city: the Speedway corridor.

The group plans to commission six local artists to design and paint murals along Speedway between Park and Campbell avenues, a frequented strip near the university that leads toward the heart of the city. They hope to revitalize the walls within this gateway, exhibiting the diversity and uniqueness of Tucson’s community of artists to both visitors and residents alike.

Allison Miller, a native Tucsonan and second-generation muralist, founded Alley Cat Murals more than a decade ago, and has spent much of her time since restoring dilapidated walls and murals in the community.

Public art encourages people to pay attention to the environment they occupy, according to Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit whose primary focus is advancing the arts in the United States. A report from the group’s Public Art Network Council said public art can be essential when a municipality wishes to progress economically and to be viable to current and prospective citizens. Data shows that cities with an active and dynamic cultural scene are more attractive to individuals and business, the report says.

Miller said the Speedway Corridor Mural Project has been 10 years in the making. She wanted an opportunity to feature local artists and create art that would represent Tucson through the eyes of its creatives.

“I want to feature six new artists, and it will be a way of highlighting how special it is that we have muralists,” Miller said. “We’re a strong mural community, and we’ve really developed that over the last decade, maybe two.”

The murals will be on walls along Speedway above the underpasses, allowing drivers to easily view them as they pass by. Miller said a lot of visitors drive through this space, often University of Arizona students and their families, and these murals would showcase the work of Tucson artists.

“There’s six of these walls. They all mirror each other, they’re all the same size, they’re right next to bus stops,” Miller said. “They’re adorning a very annoying section of road that we’re all stopped at every stoplight, so there’s some visual appeal to being able to see a mural when you’re waiting for the red light.”

In addition to the selected artists designing and painting murals, the Speedway Corridor Mural Project will facilitate paint-by-number events for members of the community.

For these events, a wall is sectioned off into a grid. Volunteers can come and paint in a square of the grid, and directly participate in the mural’s creation.

“We all want to be creative, we all want to be artists,” Miller said. “Sometimes people feel a little intimidated by that process. But through our paint-by-numbers, anybody can paint these things, and we’ll help you do it.”

Many of the public artworks seen throughout the city have to be approved before they are created. Miller’s project, like other community-based projects, went through a public art donation process at the Arts Foundation for Tucson and Southern Arizona.

Abby Christensen, a public arts collection associate for the Arts Foundation, said donation-based projects like Miller’s go through an application process that asks practical questions including where it will be located, what materials are needed and how it will support the community. Then the public art and community design committee, made up of members appointed by city government representatives, reviews the application for approval.

“Public art meets the community where the community is at, and making sure to engage the community in the creation of those projects is such an awesome way that the community is getting to determine their own space,” Christensen said. “Tucson has such a vivid history of public art, so it’s exciting to take part in that here.”

Case studies and research have demonstrated that public art can offer critical benefits to residents, including improved public safety and well-being, according to the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank that carries out economic and social policy research. The institute also found that “the communal nature of public art can give marginalized communities who’ve been historically excluded from the public sphere the chance for self-expression and participation in the arts.”

To select the six muralists for the project, Miller is putting together a selection committee of local artists. She said her vision is to highlight six different artistic styles, but community engagement and the decisions of the committee will ultimately determine how the muralists are selected.

One local artist who has applied for the Speedway Corridor Mural Project is Ana Santos Acinas, who has worked with Miller in the past on mural projects at the Roskruge Bilingual Elementary School and the UA Poetry Center. She said over email she would love to be one of the selected artists, but is glad that the project offers an opportunity to all artists in the community who may be underrepresented.

“The special thing about all this is that it is not only an artistic project, but a social one,” Santos Acinas said via email. “It’s incredible to know that art is such a powerful tool, capable of bringing an entire city together.”

Miller said that the biggest challenge is having enough funding to support the project. Alley Cat Murals seeks to raise a total of $18,000 through GoFundMe, organized in increments of $3,000 to pay for each selected muralist’s contribution to the project. With enough funding, Miller hopes the project will be completed by the spring of 2024.

“It’s kind of that civic engagement piece,” Miller said. “Where you can do it, you can change your community. You just have to get involved.”

To learn more about Alley Cat Murals, visit their website. For more information about the Speedway corridor project, visit their GoFundMe.

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Vic Verbalaitis is a University of Arizona journalism student apprenticing with the Arizona Daily Star.