From drawing little sketches for friends to painting a mural live on stage at the Rialto Theatre, Tucson’s Joe Pagac has carved out a niche for himself in this artistically-growing city.
Pagac, who graduated from Catalina Foothills High School in 1999, is mostly known in Tucson as the guy who paints the murals on the side of the Rialto Theatre in downtown Tucson. But his art also reaches into the bar of Metropolitan Grill and onto a couple of walls within the Studio C Design Center. His work can also be found in dozens of homes in Stone Canyon, Rita Ranch and Splendido to name a few.
But for Pagac, who originally studied film at the University of Arizona, his aspirations to become an artist weren’t always clear.
“I really wanted to get into making movie monsters and so once that kind of went all digital, I looked into doing more directing or something like that, but still being involved in film,” Pagac said. “And when the opportunity to possibly make a living as an artist came up, I decided to give that a try because it was kind of closer to what I wanted to do.”
The origin to that opportunity came in his sophomore year of college when Pagac took an introductory drawing class and his teacher told him, “I was an idiot if I didn’t go into art because I could really have something that would allow me to make it.”
After Pagac graduated with a B.A. degree in visual communication and illustration, he worked as a waiter and did construction work rehabbing houses.
As time past, Pagac saw other people he had gone to school with become artists, but didn’t seem to be making any money at it.
“I decided so many people I graduated with wanted to paint what was in their soul and that was kind of what they stuck with. I just decided to sell out and paint what was in other people’s souls as long as it paid the bills,” Pagac said frankly. “I always looked at it as a chance to keep practicing and form my own art. So when I would go back and actually paint my own pieces, when I had time, I would have had so much more practice.
“It allowed me to keep developing as an artist and probably faster than if I had just painted what I was comfortable with,” he added. “It keeps taking me out of my comfort zone and exposing me to different styles of painting and different medias.”
Pagac’s skills grew by having commissioned paintings of pets, families, business cards, and logos, along with a mural here and there.
Prices for his personalized work varied by size, style and design, but for a large mural depicting an underwater scene, Pagac charged $600, something that he would now charge $4,000 or more.
One day, he was introduced to Cyndi Johnson, an interior decorative artist who is based out of Tucson. She had seen one of his trompe l’oeil pieces of art, which is French for “deceive the eye.” The mural was on the wall, but looked like someone opened a door and she was looking down a cobblestone road in Italy.
“It was extraordinary,” Johnson said. “I just couldn’t get over it. I couldn’t get over the lighting. It was just so incredibly real.”
For the next few years Johnson was able to put Pagac into homes where he would take a blank wall and turn it into what looked like a wine cellar with aging oak barrels and a stairway leading out of the room. He turned blank ceilings into decorative and ornate ones the likes of the cathedrals in Rome.
“He has a passion and he has a gift and those together makes him highly successful,” Johnson said.
Now Pagac works as the muralist for the Rialto Theatre. He is also the artistic director and in-house artist for the Congress Hotel, where he curates the lobby gallery and art shows. Pagac travels to downtown Phoenix once a month for First Fridays where he paints a mural near East Roosevelt and N. 4th streets.
He has also talked with businesses in downtown Tucson to donate their walls to gallery artists to expand the diversity and participation in the art around town. Pagac also got Dunn-Edwards Paints to donate 25 gallons of paint for his project.
“The public tends to not go to galleries,” Pagac said. “All the gallery openings we have down here every first Saturday are just a whole bunch of artists going around complimenting each other on their art and nobody new is really coming in. I’ve noticed having murals up there reminds the public that we have artists in town who aren’t seeking out the art scene.”