On a late-June Thursday morning, a mercifully wide shadow on a north-facing brick wall keeps the asphalt from being even hotter. Cheerful reggae drifts from a Bluetooth speaker. A couple of high schoolers position ladders. Others dip paint brushes into oversized plastic cups and begin defining bold, black lines over the swaths of color they’d laid down on a previous day. A few await marching orders.
Their teacher, Asa Kennedy, divvies out the remaining jobs. He offers a technical explanation here and there on color blending or some other detail, but tries to let the painters solve their own problems as often as possible.
This is the culmination of a project they’ve all been working on as part of an eight-week class at the E.L. Cord Museum School at the Nevada Museum of Art—a public mural on the side of Midtown Antiques.
Kennedy landed his first professional art stint at 17, as an intern for the city of Albuquerque’s public art department, where he got a taste for what it takes to see a large art project through to fruition. He wrote prospectuses in the office and helped a tile artist teach elementary school students to make clay tiles for a public mosaic.
While living in Portland, Ore., in the mid-2000s, Kennedy joined the Portland Mural Defense, a committee that aimed to encourage more mural art by lowering the cost of permitting. Portland’s outdoor wall space had previously been dominated by advertisers, he recalled. Eventually, they influenced the policy changes they wanted via a lawsuit.
“Now you can’t throw a rock in that town without seeing a mural painted,” he said.
In Portland, Kennedy got several painting commissions. Among the ones he remembers most fondly are an indoor mural for Outside In, a group that supports young people experiencing homelessness, and one for Satyricon, a nightclub that was a stronghold of the Pacific Northwest music scene until it closed in 2010. (It’s where Courtney Love met Kurt Cobain in 1990 and where the Foo Fighters debuted in 1995.)
Kennedy painted his first Reno mural in 2009 and moved here in 2015, wanting to be part of a fast-growing scene. He’s painted several local murals since—including a few in Midtown, some of which came and went quickly as the neighborhood underwent rapid economic growth and frequent cosmetic updates.
One of his most notable local pieces is a Día de Los Muertos-themed mural at the Highway 395 underpass on Wedekind Road. For this one, he invited members of the public, either with or without art experience, to paint images of their lost loved ones on an altar.
For muralists, including Kennedy, one of the main facts of life as an artist whose work exists on city streets is compromise. Unless they work illegally (which is certainly not unheard of), muralists need to negotiate with businesses and governments for placement. When it comes to subject matter, “It has to be something … neutral-enough, where it isn’t going to ruffle anyone’s feathers,” Kennedy said.
How does he manage the negotiation?
“I cry into my pillow at night and say, ‘The world is so unfair,’” he said with a laugh.
He has a more practical answer, too: “That goes back to just knowing the deal and knowing that entering the realm of public art is less about the artist and the artist’s soulful expression, and more about catering to an audience—having things that are publicly digestible and appealing to the location. … To me, it is just such a blast, because that’s creative problem-solving in itself—when you have to go and examine a site and take into account what makes this area unique. Does it have a cultural identity? Does it have a social identity? You know, how has it changed? And, like, do you feel like it’s your responsibility to represent that … space, that neighborhood, that block … the people walking by there? … You can’t just come in here and spread your own agenda. This is part of the responsibility that needs to be assumed and respected by an artist going into the public-art sphere.”
Kennedy has been discussing these concepts with his mural crew, made up of students from Hug High, Sparks High and EnCompass Academy. In class, they worked on drawing foundations—contour, gesture, value scales and the like. As they drew still lifes from an array of objects in the room—a pineapple, headphones, a toy tiger and wooden drawing mannequins—they also talked about how to work together as a creative community and how to consider their audience.
Initially, Kennedy said, students expected they’d be helping their teacher install a mural of his design. They were surprised to learn that they were expected to generate their own design as a group.
One girl proposed a collage of the students’ still lifes. Her classmates agreed it was a good idea. Kennedy made a digital collage of their images, to be blown up to wall size—100 feet long and 10 feet high.
Alba Servellon, a 2023 Sparks High graduate who’s part of the team, has done a lot of drawing, but never with a group or for the public eye. She said that that this type of project—which started with an open-ended still-life drawing assignment and ended with deadline pressure and creative compromises—necessitated a mind shift.
“It was difficult in the beginning,” she said. “Solely because when we first started the class, (Kennedy) kind of just put objects in the center of a table and was like, ‘Draw it.’ And I’m a person who needs to have it broken down before I can actually get the whole thing together. … Just by diving in, it was different, but it definitely did help in the sense of—I’m now able to break the elements down on my own. I just started seeing the shapes, because he told us everything is just shapes. You just have to see them and put them on the paper. This project definitely did advance my artistic abilities.”
The Nevada Museum of Art students’ new mural is located on the north wall of Midtown Antiques, 1052 S. Virginia St. For more information about the Nevada Museum of Art’s classes for teens, children and adults, visit www.nevadaart.org/learn.
This article was produced by Double Scoop, Nevada’s visual arts publication. Read more at www.doublescoop.art.