Public Arts Commission approves giving new life to mural that’s the ‘heart of a community’

A fading mural painted on the west-facing wall of the James O. Jessie Desert Highland Unity Center will be fully recreated with glazed tile that will better stand up to time and weather. 
Artist Richard Wyatt Jr. talks about the mural he created at James O. Jessie Desert Highland Unity Center as Cynthia Session listens.

A mural that’s more than art will finally receive an upgrade designed to assure it’s a permanent part of the community for decades to come.

Driving the news: The Palm Springs Public Arts Commission voted unanimously Wednesday evening to fund the cost of replacing the fading mural painted on the west-facing wall of the James O. Jessie Desert Highland Unity Center. It will be fully recreated with glazed tile that will better stand up to time and weather at a cost of $286,000. 

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  • Artist Richard Wyatt Jr. created the mural in the summer of 1997 with the help of students from the neighborhood. Many of those students are now adults who take pride in the fact their names, although nearly unrecognizable, are visible on the mural.

  • At the invitation of Arts Commissioner Shawnda Faveau, Wyatt returned to the community a year ago, speaking about the mural and committing to recreating it with durable tile. The work will be similar to the 2012 recreation of his “Hollywood Jazz: 1945-1972” mural at the Capital Records building he first painted in 1991.

Why it matters: The mural is a source of pride not only for those who helped Wyatt paint it but for the entire Black community of Palm Springs. Community members have tried for decades to get the city to commit funds for its restoration but had little success.

  • “They’ve fought this fight so many times that they’re just exhausted,” Faveau said last year as she kicked off the latest effort to bring attention to its plight.

What they’re saying: “This isn’t just a mural. This is the heart of a community. And it’s been impossible to do previously because funds were never close to being there. Please, please be an ally to preserve the cultural legacy and history of this community. This is an extraordinary artwork.” — Mara Gladstone, deputy director of Desert X and former arts commissioner, during the Zoom meeting Wednesday

Going forward: The city will now move to secure a contract with Wyatt, who estimates recreating the mural on tiles, getting them glazed, and hanging them on the building will take roughly 18 months. The city had previously done an engineering study to ensure the wall could support the weight of the tiles.

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