Two muralists win historic preservation award
On March 26, the City of Reno’s Historical Resources Commission issued a press release announcing it had begun seeking nominations for its annual historic preservation awards. In the news that week, the topic of historic preservation was already hot. Three mid-century modern motels—the El Ray Motel, the Keno and the Star of Reno—had been demolished only days before.
In the days following the city’s May 18 announcement of the 2018 Preservation Award recipients, preservation again made local news, this time with stories focused on the University of Nevada, Reno’s Gateway District. Richard Bryan—who’s held posts as U.S. senator and Nevada governor—had just announced that the 19th century neighborhood was on his nonprofit preservation organization’s list of “Nevada’s 11 most endangered places.”
In Reno, history often earns headlines when it is under threat. Such has been the case with the city’s mid-century motels and the Victorian-era Queen Anne homes of UNR’s Gateway District—before those, the Virginia Street Bridge, and, before it, the Mapes Hotel and others.
The city’s 2018 Preservation Awards did not make the news, but, interestingly, two of this year’s award recipients are what one might call “newsmakers,” and the award they received surprising enough to be newsworthy.
Wall of silence
Plenty of locals are likely to have heard of muralists Joe C. Rock and Erik Burke. Each is responsible for dozens of works gracing walls throughout midtown and downtown. And each declined to be interviewed for this article—Burke with a polite but firm refusal, Rock after some hedging on a possible interview time.
In the past, both men have given interviews to local media—including several times with this newspaper—answering questions about things like inspirations and past illegal graffiti work. But neither, so far, has publicly discussed winning a historic preservation award for recent mural work they did together and individually. Of course, it may seem self-explanatory. Burke and Rock have each skillfully rendered the likenesses of historical figures on walls in Reno in the past. And 2016, they collaborated on an impressive Artown project, during which they painted portraits of Nevada icons along the east wall of Junkee Clothing Exchange. Today, passersby are still greeted by the oversized faces of Frederick DeLongchamps, Dot So La Lee, Wovoka, Jeanne Weir, Jack Johnson, Sarah Winnemucca and Mark Twain.
Many of their works definitely speak to local history—but do they actually amount to historic preservation?
“Are these artists worthy of a preservationist award?” wrote Sharon Honig-Bear in her nomination letter to the HRC. “I think so. Not only are they informing the public and encouraging inquiry about Reno—but they are helping preserve and increase the worth of the buildings that they paint. Knowledge and neighborhood enhancement—to me, both qualities worthy of recognition.”
Over the wall
Since 1997, the Historical Resources Commission has issued awards for work done to preserve and restore historical residential and commercial buildings and for local historical projects—usually things like books, documentaries and exhibitions. Honig-Bear, who is chair of the Reno Arts and Culture Commission and secretary for the Historic Reno Preservation Society, said that 2018 was the first time something as unconventional as murals had been nominated in the historical projects category.
“I don’t know that anybody else would have thought of nominating them, other than me,” she said.
And she can see why. There are plenty of people who think altering the historical appearance of a building is inconsistent with preservation. In some ways, Honig-Bear agrees with them. In an ideal world, she said, historical buildings wouldn’t have murals.
“But this isn’t the ideal world, and I think at this point, they also do enhance [the buildings] and tell a story,” she said, adding that there’s also support to suggest that murals can help preserve neighborhoods from graffiti.
“The conventional wisdom is that a building that is artfully painted—that other taggers will respect that building and not do any further damage to it,” she said.
She also appreciates that Burke and Rock’s murals bring both art and history to the streets.
“You don’t have to go up to the university or to an art gallery or someplace less accessible,” she said. “It’s right out there for everyone to question, wonder, appreciate—I like that part of it.”
As a member of the city’s community development team, Associate City Planner Jeff Borchardt does work with the HRC and said he can see both perspectives.
“I personally think that historic structures, historic gardens, things like that, are works of art themselves,” he said. “A lot of them have detailed woodwork and craftsmanship that, you know, you just don’t see these days … and, to me, it’s just as important as a nice painting, a nice sculpture.”
But, he said, a part of historic preservation is keeping the public interested in history, and he can see why people would want to acknowledge Burke and Rock for their roles in this.
“Historic preservation is not just about built structures,” Borchardt said. “It’s also about what happened in the community. And I think that’s one of the things they were talking about. … And that’s one thing that Joe and Erik were doing that they wanted to recognize.”
Go to the wall
Some of the Rock and Burke’s murals feature history, while others have a history of their own. The artists have both been painting locally for many years and have a prodigious amount of work to show for it. Just east of Ceol Irish Pub, one of Burke’s murals features the faces of people who lived in the neighborhood more than a decade ago. And outside of Junkee Clothing Exchange, a mural by Rock features the faces of locals Therese Curatolo and Pete Barnato, who starred in one of the store’s TV commercials.
The artists may not be willing to speak about the award they received, but, out in the street, their respective artworks speak for themselves. Wandering the neighborhood on foot, it was easy to find people who wanted to engage in the conversation.
Outside of Craft Wine and Beer, a travel writer for the San Francisco Chronicle photographed Burke’s work and asked about the reticent artist. On Moran Street, by the Vacation Motor Lodge, a man named Howard stopped to say that he often saw the artist behind the murals out working during late afternoon hours. He liked to watch him work but couldn’t recall his name—just that he always seemed busy.
Just down the block on the same street is one of the murals upon which Honig-Bear based her nomination. “In the Midst of Midtown” is one of Rock’s creations. Honig-Bear described it in letter as “vintage ads and photographs of people, businesses and imagery … collaged in a makeshift timeline leading up to a motel sign from the street, re-lettered to say ‘look to the future.'”
The letter doesn’t mention that next to the motel sign is the figure of a young girl. Dressed in a patriotic, striped dress, she gazes toward midtown—saluting with her left hand. To a local veteran who goes by the name “Self” and often parks his RV in midtown, that left-handed salute speaks worlds about the man who painted it.
“He’s an asshole,” he said. “It’s unpatriotic.”
It might be unpatriotic; it could be satirical, maybe a bit cynical. Without the artist’s perspective, it’s hard to tell. But perhaps—like the idea of murals as a means for historic preservation—it’s somewhat a matter of opinion. For those looking to form one, a self-guided mural tour can be found online at Reno Art Spot’s website: artspotreno.com/midtown-mural-tour. Docent-led tours happen every second Saturday.