The Sonoran Desert’s yearly monsoons lost the race into Tucson by a different kind of monsoon: those on the Joe Pagac’s largest mural yet. Pagac, a local muralist known for his massive artworks all throughout downtown Tucson, is nearing completion on a new mural at the corner of Grant and Campbell, where a Bookmans once stood.
The new mural, which shows a pod of whales flying over the Sonoran Desert with a monsoon front in the background, reaches over 5,000 square feet. Before this artwork, Pagac’s largest mural was the 4,000-square-foot bicycle mural on the side of Epic Rides at Stone and 6th Street.
Pagac started the mural on June 8, working for multiple weeks before embarking on a pre-planned trip abroad. He plans to return this Friday to add the final details in the beginning of July. The mural is part of a series of public artworks commissioned by Banner Health in collaboration with ICU Art.
“They kind of let us run free with it,” Pagac said. “The only stipulation was that it had to be relaxed and feel-good, because it was part of beautification.”
Pagac already had the design idea before Banner approached him. The whales are a reference to muralist Robert Wyland’s series of 100 “Whaling Walls,” but the storms and saguaros make it perfectly Tucsonan. The monsoon clouds are also posed to look as though they’re spewing out of the whales.
While he usually paints his murals with brushes, the rough stucco of the former movie theater wall forced Pagac to use a sprayer for this project.
The symbolism of whales flying through the desert is a nod to the idea of thriving even in a harsh environment. This concept was also reflected in Pagac’s painting sessions; working on a massive outdoor painting in the middle of the Arizona summer comes with a special set of difficulties. To deal with the heat, Pagac often got up around 3:30 or 4 a.m. and worked until 11 a.m. Every day, he also brought six gallons of water to pour on himself throughout his work.
“I’m my own little evaporative cooler out there,” Pagac said. “Once I run out of water, I finish.”
For additional help, passersby also occasionally brought Pagac drinks as he worked.
“It made sense, because this is a community art project,” Pagac said. “But it was also kind of a community project to keep me alive.”