Tucson Oddity: South Park mosaics speak to neighborhood struggles

2013-03-18T00:00:00Z Tucson Oddity: South Park mosaics speak to neighborhood strugglesAngela Pittenger Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 18, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Beautiful mosaics in brilliant, cheerful colors add a surprising artistic element to an otherwise distressed area along South Park Avenue between East 20th and East 36th streets.

But at closer glance, the subject matter of the panels at one intersection is more somber than its colors suggest.

The triptych on the northwest corner of Park and East Silverlake Road features panels of art that speak of the hardships and realities of life in troubled neighborhoods.

One panel, which depicts a silhouette with the letters "RIP" on three tombstones across the bottom, is about violence and death among our youth, says To-Ree-Nee Wolf Keiser, lead artist of the project.

"Our heart bleeds for those who have been killed and all we have lost," she said of the middle panel, which features a bleeding heart.

The third panel represents the hope that "we can come together in understanding."

Keiser feels it's important to not only illustrate the challenges, but to also have a vision of a positive future.

"We can't forget the struggle. But if all we focus on is the struggle, we can't move forward," she said.

Across the street is another triptych, with an equally heavy subject matter. The pieces address the pain of broken homes and domestic violence. There's also a panel that shows the need for a united home and healed hearts.

The mosaics were completed in 1998 as part of the South Park Avenue Improvement Project, which was funded by the Federal Transit Administration's Livable Communities Initiative.

The Livable Communities Initiative was created to help neighborhoods that depend primarily on public transportation and need economic redevelopment.

Keiser said between August and October 1996 she conducted a series of interviews, town hall meetings and walkabouts with neighborhood residents to gather information that was later used as inspiration for the project.

The information became what she called "the dictionary of quotes." It was a floor-to-ceiling list of things people in the community said about the area, memories they shared and what they wanted to see happen.

Keiser opened an art center on South Park Avenue and worked with neighborhood residents to create the mosaics based on the quotes she'd collected.

Keiser said she bumps into people every now and then who hug her and tell her how much the art, and being a part of its creation, meant - and still means - to them.

"It's amazing to be a part of that," she said.

Keiser recalled a story of a young man who helped create several of the mosaics at the center. He told her that seeing the pieces he worked on stopped him when he was on his way to "do no good" one night. Seeing them made him decide he was better than what he was about to do. So he went home instead.

"For that moment, his participation in creating beauty and something positive outweighed his desire to do something less than that," Keiser said.

"Those are the moments, as a public artist, that you live for."

Got an oddity?

Have you noticed something while driving through Tucson that has piqued your curiosity? Or is there a piece of Old Pueblo history you've wondered about? Drop us a line, and we'll look into it. Contact the Star newsroom at oddity@azstarnet.com or 807-7776.

Contact reporter Angela Pittenger at 573-4137 or apitteng@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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