image title

Home is where the art is

Phoenix Mural Fest 2021 kicks off this weekend along Phoenix's Grand Canalscape.
February 2, 2021

ASU professor works with community partners to beautify Phoenix canal

When ASU Assistant Professor of design Danielle Foushee was being treated for cancer at a hospital in Seattle, it was the art pieces positioned in various foyers and elevator banks – not the typical, uninspired wayfinding placards – that helped her navigate the otherwise austere and disorientating corridors.

“Public art is not just a decoration,” she said. “It really made me feel at home and feel safe when I saw and recognized the different pieces in the hospital. And I think public art does the same type of thing in communities.”

Over the next several weekends, the city of Phoenix will be adding to its already significant roster of public art when Phoenix Mural Fest 2021 brings some of the most talented local artists together to paint dozens of new murals along the Grand Canalscape from 15th Avenue to Seventh Street.

Hosted by the Phoenix Mural Project in partnership with Arizona Forward and other community partners, the theme of the festival is sustainability, and all of the murals will reflect that.

The festival kicks off Wednesday, Feb. 3, with a virtual conversation about the future of water in Arizona, hosted by the Arizona Historical Society. The painting of the murals begins Saturday, Feb. 6, and the public is invited to watch the progress on Facebook and Instagram, or come in person, where all participants and visitors will be required to wear appropriate face coverings and maintain social distancing to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Foushee lived in several cities across the country before finally settling in Phoenix after a chance encounter with local muralist Lalo Cota during a walk around the downtown area while visiting the city for a conference in 2015.

“I'm sure he doesn't remember, but he was painting on the side of an old building that was about to be destroyed, and he told me he wanted to paint one last mural on it,” she said. “On the one side, he was painting a woman with her baby, and on the other side of that same building was this mural of a big, white jackrabbit in the desert eating a prickly pear taco, and it was holding up a sign that said, ‘Welcome to downtown.’ I'd never been to Phoenix, but when I saw that mural, I just felt like this is where I want to be.”

ASU Assistant Professor Danielle Foushee stands in front of a mural in downtown Phoenix

ASU Assistant Professor of design Danielle Foushee leads a mural tour in downtown Phoenix. Photo courtesy of Danielle Foushee

As luck would have it, only about a month later, Foushee saw a job posting for the position she now holds at Arizona State University. As soon as she arrived in the Valley of the Sun, the first thing she did was put her feet to the pavement.

“I have always been a walker, no matter where I've lived. So I started walking as soon as I moved here to see what was around me, and it was murals. Except I couldn't find any information about the murals,” she recalled.

Thus began the Phoenix Mural Project. Since then, Foushee has been documenting and geotagging every mural she comes across in the city. To date, the project website lists more than 700 murals, with photos and artist information when possible.

Though she’s a not a muralist herself (her work tends more toward the sculptural), Foushee believes in the importance of lifting up whatever form of art is embraced in the place you live. She has even incorporated Phoenix’s murals into a special topics elective course she taught on street art.

“I think that people think of Phoenix as just like, a sprawling desert nothingness,” she said. “It’s also sort of isolated, in terms of arts and culture, so I think that’s another reason it’s taken longer for people to notice. But I think it’s that unique cultural mix here that is really interesting. And we don't have these big names like Shepard Fairey here yet, so I wanted to document our street art culture before those guys start showing up and taking over.”

The idea for this year’s mural festival came when one of the Arizona Forward subcommittees was brainstorming ways to beautify the Grand Canalscape and encourage citizens to use it. Arizona Forward is a 50-year-old nonprofit committed to leading the charge for sustainability in the state. Alexia Bednarz was one of the members of that subcommittee, and she happened to know Foushee through her husband, who works at ASU.

“We just thought the canal was a little hard to navigate,” Bednarz said. “People don’t always know where to enter and exit, or what’s nearby. So we were trying to think of ways to create better wayfinding, and we realized public art can do that. It can create a sense of place and tell people where they are.”

With Foushee on board, wrangling as many artists as she could to participate, Bednarz met with the various neighborhood associations along the canal for permission to paint the cinder block walls that separated homeowner’s yards from the canalscape. She was met with “a resounding yes.”

“Aside from beautifying the area, we’re also hoping to remove some of the stigma from the canal,” she said. “They sometimes get a reputation for being scary or unsafe, but that’s just not true. Plenty of cities have canals that are beautifully scaped, that people turn their front doors toward. So we see this as a way to help in placemaking, wayfinding and connecting communities.”

The festival will conclude with a grand finale celebration on Saturday, March 6, where attendees can visit the brand new Savidan Art Gallery to view some of the muralists’ smaller works in an exhibition titled “Painting for the People.”

“When I see public art,” Foushee said, “like, when I go out and I see Lalo’s chihuahua on the side of a building in my neighborhood, it makes me feel like, ‘Yeah. This is home.’”

Top photo: Street artist Ashley Macias, of Phoenix, uses spray paint to create an untitled work on a cinderblock wall, turning it into a sustainability-themed scene on Feb. 6, as part of the 2021 Phoenix Mural Festival. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

image title

Scholar Ayanna Thompson named Regents Professor

Ayanna Thompson of ASU wins top faculty honor for work on Shakespeare and race.
February 2, 2021

Research on Shakespeare, race has earned her ASU's top faculty honor

A dispiriting job on Wall Street led Ayanna Thompson to the realization that she wanted to change the world more than she wanted a big paycheck.

Now, the Arizona State University professor of English is among the top scholars of Shakespeare in the world and was recently named to the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company. She is so excellent in her field that she has been named one of four Regents Professors for 2021 – the highest faculty honor, which is achieved by only 3% of faculty members at ASU.

Thompson studies questions about Shakespeare and race and has written books exploring the roots of blackface and minstrelsy on the English stage in premodern times. She’s applied her expertise in working extensively with theater companies to explore issues of race in casting and the audience experience.

And while that Wall Street job was not for her, she appreciates what she learned in the months she was an analyst in the oil and gas group at Lehman Brothers.

“I grew up working-class poor and my goal in life was to make money and be successful financially,” she said.

“I started out working on Wall Street and I thought I made it. I was able to have take-out food every night. It was a working-class person’s dream.”

She grew a tough skin in the male-dominated atmosphere, but it was not intellectually inspiring.

“I realized that I wanted to be in an environment where I could be with people who were constantly thinking about big ideas and how the world worked and how to make it a better place,” she said.

She thought about her professors from her undergraduate years at Columbia, and gave up her big salary to go to graduate school. Although she didn’t intend to focus on Shakespeare.

“I was thinking about race and power structures in the colonial world, but I realized that for the questions I had about race and race formation, I had to go backwards in time.

“I ended up back in the Renaissance and when you end up in the Renaissance, you have to do Shakespeare.”

In her first job at the University of New Mexico, she had her students watch filmed performances of Shakespeare's plays. She became curious about the casting, where sometimes actors were playing characters who were of a different race than them.

“It was this moment when they were doing integrated casting,” she said. “I said, ‘Who’s writing about this and how did it come to be?’ And no one had written about it.”

So she wrote “Colorblind Shakespeare,” the first book on the topic.

Thompson was going where no one else had gone. 

“I think about it as following the question. Being trained in African American studies and postcolonial studies, I was asking a whole different set of questions than Shakespeare scholars were because I wasn’t trained as a Shakespeare scholar."

She encountered a lot of resistance to her work in Shakespeare and race.

“For years it felt Sisyphean,” she said. “They would say, ‘Your argument is anachronistic,’ so I would lay out an argument that was not anachronistic. I’d have to keep mounting the same arguments.”

Finally, there was a tipping point.

“I felt fueled by the early-career scholars who came behind me and were reading me, and at the same time I was getting validation from the theater companies who were hiring me to work with them.

“They were saying, ‘You are asking the right questions and we need your help to put your theories into practice.’

“That’s what kept me in the field.”

The theater companies wanted Thompson to help them with what they put on the stage, but she also was interested in how audiences were interpreting it. The companies weren’t asking their audiences what they thought about inclusive casting.

She discovered that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival kept an archive of letters dating back to the 1930s.

“The companies were saying, ‘Our audience loves inclusive casting.’ A lot of the letters to the company had to do with racial casting, so I told them, ‘I’m not sure the evidence you have bears out what you’re saying.’"

She worked with the theater companies on how to guide conversations with audiences that could change the way they were experiencing Shakespeare.

“Summer 2020 was the moment every theater company had a reckoning,” she said. “I joked that I’ve never been so popular.”

Thompson also uses performance with her students.

“I do a lot of performance practices in my classroom because we know that kinesthetic learning and embodied knowledge stay with you longer.

“I get them to think about performance as an interpretation and a decision, not an answer,” said Thompson, who wrote the book “Teaching Shakespeare with Purpose” with an education specialist.

At ASU, students are “sponges,” receptive to new ideas and without preconceived notions, she said, which allows her to continuously discover nuances in the plays.

“My favorite play to teach is ‘Titus Andronicus,’ which is a bloody play about rape and mutilation,” she said.

There are two characters who orchestrate the violence, and one time, a student asked how old they were.

“I was like, ‘Right. How old are they?’ If they’re in their 20s, that’s one thing, but if they’re 13 or 14, that’s another thing,” she said, adding that the play does not reveal their ages.

“That was a question I had never asked myself, and it blows the students’ minds that one person can think they’re in their 20s and another thinks they’re 12.”

“Hamlet” has a different meaning when, for example, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Black friends as opposed to white friends, she said.

“They’re killed by Hamlet without a thought, and that is then part of the disposability of the Black body in that performance or in your reading of that play.”

“All of the issues that are present in the 21st century also are present in Shakespeare’s plays, including race, gender and ability.”

Thompson has worked to expand access to Shakespeare, and premodern studies, through the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. She became director of the center in 2018, when she returned to ASU after teaching for five years at George Washington University.

“We are a much larger presence in the world, and we’re at the forefront of premodern race studies and premodern studies in general,” she said.

The pandemic has allowed the center to reach a bigger audience.

“An event that would have had 60 people on campus at ASU now has 300 people with audience members in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa,” she said.

“It turns out there’s an international audience for our programming.”

Thompson has also transformed the center’s press, ACMRS Press, which publishes research on medieval and renaissance studies, by making it open access – free to anyone.

“Like ASU, we want to have maximum impact and maximum access, and pay walls shouldn’t stand between you and the resources you need to research or teach,” she said.

Thompson said that ASU is the perfect environment for her work.

“There is no other place in the world that would support the kind of access and impact and excellence that we’re trying to achieve.”

Top photo of Ayanna Thompson by Jarod Opperman/Arizona State University

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News