Mural, mural on the wall

Some argue John Pugh’s Academe should be saved as is

Local artist Gregg Payne and Chico State history professor Mike Magliari pore over a book about muralist John Pugh, whose first major work, <i>Academe</i>, is on the wall behind them as well as on the cover of the book.

Local artist Gregg Payne and Chico State history professor Mike Magliari pore over a book about muralist John Pugh, whose first major work, Academe, is on the wall behind them as well as on the cover of the book.

Photo By Meredith J. Graham

Be heard:
The public-comment period on the initial study is open until next Friday, March 18, at 5 p.m. Send all comments to Andrew Boyd, assistant project manager, Chico State Office of Facilities Planning, 400 W. First St., Chico, CA 95929. The document is available at Special Collections in Meriam Library on the Chico State campus, or online at

Thirty years ago, a Chico State art student had a dream. Literally. When he woke up, he wrote it down, and then translated it into a giant mural he painted on the side of Taylor Hall.

An icon was born.

That art student was John Pugh, and that mural, titled Academe, was the piece that launched his career. In many ways, that mural has itself become an icon, both of the university and the Chico community. But with the planned demolition of Taylor Hall, at the corner of First and Broadway streets, its future is uncertain.

According to the draft environmental-impact study done on the project, which includes the demolition of Taylor Hall and the construction of its replacement, Taylor Hall II, nothing of historical significance requires mitigation, including the mural. The study does say there are plans to “save” the mural, but that could mean anything from preserving the wall and moving it elsewhere on campus to having Pugh repaint it.

“I do believe that they’re not going to just take the mural down. They do want to make arrangements,” Pugh said recently from his studio in Santa Cruz. “Even if I have to trace it and repaint it and then put it back on another wall, that’s totally feasible.”

But is it the same? Some argue, no.

“A replica and different location don’t necessarily have the same effect,” said history professor Mike Magliari, also a member of the Chico Heritage Association. “It would lose its context.”

Magliari is concerned about the draft EIR. The report is flawed, he said, because it disregards Pugh’s mural as historically significant.

“The mural is in some ways a local landmark, with great appeal and meaning to CSU, Chico alumni and local citizens,” the report reads. “It is an important piece to the artist, having made his artwork visible to a wide audience, and given his career as a muralist a major kick start.”

Regardless of that, however, the report concludes that “Taylor Hall is not eligible for the California Register of Historical Resources. The presence of the mural dating to 1981 does not affect the evaluation of the building.”

Because of this finding, Quad Knopf, Inc., the Roseville company that compiled the report, concluded the project can move forward as proposed, with no mitigation required for the mural.

Magliari said he’d like to make a case for the mural qualifying as a historical resource, arguing that just because a piece of art is not at least 50 years old—the default age for defining something as historically significant—does not mean it cannot qualify for the California Register of Historical Resources.

He pointed to one criterion in particular—that the resource “embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, region, or method of construction, or represents the work of a master, or possesses high artistic values.”

“I think [the mural] probably can easily qualify … as a significant work of art,” he said. He drafted a response to the report requesting further research be done on the mural and its eligibility for listing on the CRHR.

Magliari isn’t the only one worried about the future of Academe. Local muralist and arts advocate Gregg Payne said he sees the mural as an important cultural resource as well.

“This is the one that first made murals popular in Chico,” he said during a recent interview in front of Taylor Hall.

And it’s still popular, he said. In 2006, when he was on the Arts Commission, the panel did a public-art survey and Academe was “by far the favorite public art project in Chico.”

Since graduating from Chico State in 1983, John Pugh has made a living making art—a feat few accomplish. It was Academe, a project he completed while he was a student, that sent him down the road to fame.

“I can never live that mural down,” Pugh said. “I’ve done some that I like better, but that was the first time that all these things clicked together. It was an important pivotal point in my life.”

The mural, like most of Pugh’s subsequent work, is done in the trompe l’oeil—meaning “fool the eye”—style. His concept, which came from a dream about the walls breaking, is “the ancient Greek academe flaunting itself through the modern educational façade.” What he hopes for with each project, he said, is that it will make the viewer think.

“With a lot of research about the culture and the area, the heritage, I try to weave together a dynamic piece that sinks its roots deeply into the sense of place,” he said. “It’s a great language for public art. People bond with the piece, and whatever concept they come up with, at least they’re thinking about the artwork.”

Since Academe, Pugh has done murals all over California and the United States. He has projects in Australia and Canada, and he’s slated to go to Barbados and Japan in the coming months.

Pugh isn’t concerned about the draft EIR or the California Register of Historical Resources. He said he’s confident university officials will work with him to either preserve the current mural or have him repaint it. If they don’t, he said, he does have rights under the Visual Arts Rights Act, which protects visual pieces of art from being destroyed.

A memo sent out Tuesday (March 8) to patrons of the arts from the university’s College of Humanities and Fine Arts explains its commitment to preserving the mural. “I share both your recognition of the importance of this mural and your appreciation of its place in the developing body of Pugh’s work,” writes Dean Joel Zimbelman. “In concert with the University, its Arts Committee, and the artist, we will work diligently to seek a permanent home for this work.”

Zimbelman goes on to say that about $70,000 has been set aside specifically for the Pugh mural.

As for the options presented—moving the mural or having the artist repaint it—they are still not satisfactory to Magliari. The draft EIR should explore how the existing mural can be saved in its existing location, he said. The architecture of Taylor II could simply incorporate that concrete wall.

“We’re sitting here with the original Pugh, the one that started it all,” Magliari said.