“Town and gown” is an expression often used to characterize the divide between a community and its university. Both are uniquely reliant on the other, and like any long-term partnership, at times the relationship can seem strained.
An ad hoc consortium of stakeholders is working to improve Northern Arizona University and Flagstaff’s relationship through art. Stroll past downtown’s 18 N. Leroux and you might catch a glimpse of what is taking shape – a 700-square-foot mural depicting the intersection between some of Flagstaff and NAU traditions.
The project’s initiators see the mural as a way to increase pride and enthusiasm for the city and University alike.
“The campus and city are one,” said Brian White, one of the project’s key investors, “but there isn’t really a physical expression of that. We need something here.”
White, an NAU alumnus and board member of the Lumberjack Athletic Association, said brainstorming the project began seven months ago. With the kernel idea to depict a “strong outward expression” of the NAU/Flagstaff symbiosis, White began growing support for his idea.
Other project investors include representatives of the Northern Arizona University Foundation, the True Blue NAU committee – charged with growing school spirit – students, and members of the NAU marketing and athletics groups. Collaborators from the city include Dave and Mary Velasco, owners of the wall, the Historical Preservation Commission, and the artist hired to do the work, Joe Cornelius.
The mural, titled True Blue NAU, is projected to be complete in August. It will depict 15 NAU and Flagstaff traditions, including knowledge and learning, diversity, athleticism, a lumberjack – representing the town’s economic roots as well as NAU’s mascot – and young girl who grows up in Flagstaff and later attends the University. At least one newer NAU tradition also made the cut: the “Running of the Freshman,” an annual event when members of the university’s freshman class run across the football field and into their seats at the start of the first home game.
Cornelius, nicknamed “Mural Joe,” can often be found painting in the early morning or late afternoon hours, and is keeping a video blog of the mural’s progression on his YouTube site, “muraljoe,” and his website, www.muraljoe.com.
“It’s fun to paint something that directly represents an idea,” Cornelius said. “I like purpose. I like that direct meaning – it gives me motivation, when there’s a standard to meet.”
A Flagstaff resident for 17 years, Cornelius makes his living as an artist, painting signage for businesses, public art and interior murals in private homes. He describes his aesthetic as a mastery of “depth and color.”
“I always work really hard to represent who I’m working for,” Cornelius said.
“Mural Joe’s doing a great job,” said Mason Gerety, president of the NAU Foundation, which is helping to pay for the project. “I’m excited that NAU is going to have a physical presence in the downtown.”
Gerety is quick to add that the vision for the mural originated with White: “this is all Brian’s leadership. He’s been doing the legwork.”
A public event and unveiling will be held once the mural is complete. More information will be available on the True Blue NAU Facebook page.
Said White: “I want this to encourage businesses and the Flagstaff community to embrace NAU, and vice versa.” FBN