Call them drive-by art galleries.

They are the concrete walls and bridges along Tucson's main interstate and have served as canvases for local artists.

The galleries pop up when freeway construction is undertaken - up to 1 percent of construction budgets - federal dollars - are earmarked for enhancements, said Linda Ritter, Arizona Department of Transportation's public information officer.

When ADOT expanded Interstate 10 from Prince Road to 29th Street, design teams of architects, landscape architects and artists were formed to provide aesthetic treatments for the major construction project.

"The scale of this giant (freeway) through a community is rather generic. But it presents such a great opportunity to tell a story, to communicate something about the local area," said Eric Scharf, a landscape architect with Wheat Scharf Associates, which provided designs from Grant to St. Mary's roads during the I-10 widening project.

Enhancement designs from Congress to 29th streets were led by Tucson architect Jim Gresham of Gresham & Beach Architects and local artist Gonzalo Espinosa.

Not yet a covered canvas: The Congress Street underpass. It was minimally enhanced with images of the desert on green walls so groups can work to develop themes to go up on the walls in the future.

Input from 13 neighborhood associations at 16 meetings was used to develop the art themes in the overall I-10 widening project, Ritter said.

"All of the artwork is a reflection of the community itself," Ritter said. "Who we are, our history and who we are now."

Join us as we tour a few of the freeway art galleries.

22nd Street

Gonzalo Espinosa was handed 140 feet of blank space on the walls of the 22nd Street underpass.

He filled them with his "Super Barrio" mural, which depicts everyday life of people living, playing and working. Lasers cut the images into metal.

Espinosa kept things simple by using just two colors, green and rustic gray.

Green makes the the mural pop off the concrete walls.

"It's one of the colors the eye sees more easily," he said. "It registers in our brain."

Espinosa called the project one of the most challenging in his career because he had to create images that could easily be seen by people zooming by in vehicles.

St. Mary's road

Artist Steve Farley (and Arizona state representative, District 28 in Tucson) knows the residents of Barrio Hollywood and Barrio Anita - he has created art for the communities for years. So he was a natural to tap to create the artwork at the St. Mary's Road underpass.

And it is the community that is reflected in his photographic tile murals - they are the images of the people in the neighborhoods.

Some of the photos on the walls were collected by Farley when he was working with residents on other projects.

Other photos were shot by Arizona Daily Star photographer David Sanders.

"In many ways, these communities are the heart and soul of Tucson," Farley said.

The I-10 art project is a way to bring us together, he said.

"If you just put up a blank concrete wall, it divides communities. But if you put art on those walls, it unites and builds communities."

Miracle Mile

Local artist Gary Mackender hand painted all 18,000 tiles used to create the six murals at the Miracle Mile traffic interchange.

Mackender's project was the first of its kind on a Tucson interstate when he began work on it in 1990 after submitting a proposal to ADOT.

His work preceded the recent I-10 widening project.

The tiles with images of a gila monster, downtown Tucson, the Mission San Xavier del Bac and other desert scenes were installed in the mid-1990s, Mackender said.

"I like the fact that we can move design and art out into the public realm and it's not confined to buildings such as museums and galleries," he said.

Grant Road

Harris' hawks and colorful flowers on walls at Grant Road echo the desert that surrounds it.

Designers left some of the walls blank for future plans to involve the Pascua Yaqui community, which is just east of the underpass, in developing additional art for the walls, said Caryl Clement, a landscape architect with a team from Wheat Scharf Associates, which is credited with the design of the wall treatments.


The images of Steward Observatory and the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory on retaining walls represent the role astronomy plays in Tucson.

"Speedway serves as the great gateway," said Clement of Wheat Scharf Associates, which designed these images.

"To the east is the University of Arizona, and if you continue on your way to the west, it takes you to Kitt Peak."

Images of planets and galaxies also are on the underpass walls.

Clark Street Bridge

Fossil imagery and metal patterns on the bridge pay tribute to the importance of the Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase.

Designs at the bridge (which is Cushing Street and becomes Clark) were created by a team lead by Tucson architect Jim Gresham of Gresham & Beach Architects, which was acquired by another firm in 2008.

18th Street

Tile murals on the walls of this pedestrian underpass capture the people and places of the city.

The murals had previously been located on the west side of the old underpass, but were relocated to the walls of the new 18th Street underpass. The underpass is intended to serve as a community gallery and other work will be added in the future.

I-10/I-19 interchange

Even an interchange has a grand opening.

The I-10/I-19 interchange was officially opened on Aug. 7, 2004.

This was a project separate from the I-10 widening. The landscape architect firm Wheat Scharf Associates is credited with the design.

It incorporates desert plants such as ocotillo, palo verde and mesquite planted around the interchange, and images of crops such as squash, beans and corn are on the concrete columns.

The interchange art serves as a roadside celebration of and "gateway" to this part of the country.

What's next

The Prince Road interchange is up next for an art makeover.

Local artist Greg Schoon was selected from a pool of 20 other artists to work on the project, which doesn't have a completion date.

Plans are for four images - mariachi musicians, a folklorico dancer, a Tohono O'odham basket weaver and a Pascua Yaqui deer dancer - to decorate walls at the Prince Road interchange, said Mary Ellen Wooten, a public art program manager with Tucson Pima Arts Council.

"They are going to be wonderful," Wooten said.

'If you just put up a blank concrete wall, it divides communities.

But if you put art on those walls, it unites and builds communities.'

Steve Farley

Artist, state legislator

Contact reporter Andrea Rivera at or 807-8430.