Moonshine Ink, March 2011
This story originally published in Moonshine Ink, an independent monthly newspaper based in Truckee, California. Read the story on MoonshineInk.com.
John Pugh's workday starts when everyone else goes to sleep. The internationally recognized mural artist prefers to paint at night when, as he says, the creative juices run freely. "You start getting into the flow more," Pugh said. "And when I get into the flow, I want to take advantage of that." Perched on scaffolding in his Glenshire studio, a soundtrack of ambient or classical music filling the room, Pugh often paints the night away, stopping only when the first blush of pink dawn hits the morning sky.
Splitting his time between his two studios in Glenshire and the Santa Cruz Mountains, Pugh has painted murals for communities around the globe. His masterpieces can be found on walls, street corners, and water towers across California and beyond, from Honolulu to Alaska to New Zealand. Lately, however, Pugh has been working on his first project for the community of Truckee: A mural depicting the Virgin Mary rising to heaven that will stand behind the altar of the new Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church on Alder Drive.
"[This mural] will make our church stand out as a beautiful, sacred place," said Father Matt Blank, who heads the Assumption church. "When you walk into the church your eyes will be drawn towards this huge painting. [The Assumption of the Virgin Mary] is our namesake, the event of our namesake."
Measuring 15 feet high and 23 feet wide, Pugh's "Assumption of the Virgin Mary" is reminiscent of the religious works painted in Italian churches. Unfinished at this point, a red-cloaked Virgin Mary sits in the clouds, surrounded by chubby-cheeked cherubs, a sublime gaze on her face as she looks up to the heavens.
"The look on her face will be one of confidence and joy," Pugh said, "looking forward to being reunited with her son."
Where Pugh's piece will differ from the works of the Renaissance masters, however, lies in the message. For every mural he paints, Pugh weaves in cultural and historical elements to tell a story about that community. Expect to see Latino cherubs in the clouds next to the Virgin Mary, a detail to symbolize the diverse population in the Assumption church.
On why the Assumption church commissioned Pugh rather than a company that specializes in sacred art: "Maybe it's a little more of a risk," Father Blank said. "But it's worth it, because we may end up with something even more fantastic."
Trick of the eye
Pugh's work often dabbles in themes of spirituality and religion. But his "Assumption of the Virgin Mary" stands apart from most of his other work. While still bold in color and lifelike in detail, the Assumption is not considered a trompe l’oeil, French for "trick of the eye," a style of painting intended to fool the viewer. Pugh is known for his trompe l’oeil murals, which make up most, if not all, of his portfolio. A building at Chico State rips itself apart from the inside out, revealing a series of Greco-Roman columns; a wall inside a Victorville, Calif., library depicting a traditional Western scene peels away to reveal ancient petroglyphs of the Mojave and Chemeheuvi tribes; a massive tsunami curls out from a building in Hawaii. His murals make viewers stop in their tracks and take a second look.
"Trompe l’oeil is a language for public art," Pugh said. "It's something that has a universal appeal. Everyone likes being tricked."
In the book, "The Murals of John Pugh: Beyond Trompe L’Oeil," author Kevin Bruce argues that Pugh takes illusion a step further. "[Pugh's murals] are not merely ornamental or curiously clever," Bruce writes. "They are thought-provoking, substantial, and sometimes even philosophical or spiritual." It's true. Pugh's murals are not just illusions; they hold layers of meaning and powerful concepts that speak to the viewer and create a sense of place for that community. This aspect of storytelling is, by far, Pugh's favorite aspect of mural art.
"It's really getting into the backdoor of a culture and explaining it to people," he said. "What is the root? What is the seed that makes that place what it is?"
Pugh's murals not only speak to a place, they have also ignited discussion and debate. One of Pugh's most controversial murals is located in Bishop. The mural depicts a rusty pipe with the letters LADWP, for the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, sucking the paint out of a lush, Shangri-La scene. The piece of public art reignited discussions about the water wars between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley and received attention from media outlets across the nation including the New York Times and Los Angeles Times.
Art for the people
Mural art can be traced back to ancient times, before Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, before the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, all the way to the symbols painted on cave walls. Today, murals are one of the most public forms of art. Rather than displayed on gallery walls for an exclusive audience, murals sit on the street and become a part of daily life.
"Working life size like that, out in the community, can make a difference," Pugh said. "Everyone from the homeless person to the mayor can enjoy it."
Back in his studio on the quiet Glenshire backroads, Pugh acknowledged the weight of being such a public artist. "It makes me feel very responsible," he said. "There is power behind that."
Pugh then turned back towards the uncompleted "Assumption of the Virgin Mary" and continued to push his brush in sharp, consistent motions, creating an ethereal effect on a group of soft clouds. Anne Le Mottais, a student from the Sorbonne and apprentice, painted quietly next to Pugh, as did his fiancé, Annie Canfield. Pugh relies on the support of apprentices and other artists to see his murals come to reality, and he's currently looking for more local artists to help him with his work.
The Assumption is one of several murals in Pugh's studio. Adjacent sits a piece featuring a quiet stream flowing next to a gigantic tree of life that was commissioned by a funeral home. Another in-progress mural for a Sacramento water tower — gnarled trees jutting out of a jagged hole — sits across the studio. The murals are painted in the studio and then taken to location, where Pugh attaches them to their final home. Pugh said he has painted some 250 murals throughout his career, and he's constantly commissioned for more projects. In between interviews for this article, Pugh landed another gig to paint a mural for Universal Studios in Japan.
After spending hours, days, weeks, and months on these life-size pieces of art, it's easy to see how Pugh develops a relationship with each of his paintings. Once a mural is completed and left for the world to enjoy, Pugh said he has to move on, almost like breaking up with the piece of art. He can’t look at it for a while. He needs space. But then he’ll delve into the next project, and that's where Pugh thrives.
"It's the process that's important to me," he said. From thinking of the initial concept and design, often in the shower, to walking away from the final project on the street, and everything in between: "When it's active — that's my favorite part."