Poetry Center helps bring a splash of color to one of Tucson's busiest streets

A woman in a black, long sleeve shirt and paint covered overalls leans against a mural painted on a wall.

Allison Miller's mural, inspired by her parents' honeymoon in South America and located above the Warren underpass, is one of six new paintings created in partnership with the Poetry Center on walls along Speedway Boulevard near the University of Arizona.

Chris Richards/University Communications

From bicycles to belt buckles, some of the American Southwest's most iconic imagery can now be found in murals with eye-catching color on six walls along both sides of Speedway Boulevard near the University of Arizona.

Beautifying the roadway was a collaborative effort between the UArizona Poetry Center and Alley Cat Murals, a group of artists dedicated to restoring and revitalizing community spaces while facilitating public art opportunities for local muralists.

Installing murals along one of Tucson's busiest streets came from the mind of Allison Miller, founder of Alley Cat Murals and a graduate student in theCollege of Education's Humanizing and Culturally Affirming Teacher Program. Miller said she first recognized the series of walls – on Speedway between North Park Avenue and North Campbell Avenue – as having the potential for artwork in 2003, though it would remain just an idea for years as Miller's creative process developed.

Her artistic journey began as a Tucson High School student under the tutelage of art teachers David Miller and Harold Gabitzsch. Thanks to them, Miller said she discovered the importance of "contributing to a healthy community" through art. After moving to New York City and earning a degree in sociology from Brooklyn College, Miller returned to Tucson in 2008 with a desire to contribute to her hometown.

"I think murals communicate to city residents that they are in a safe space that is cared for, and that they deserve beautiful things," she said. "Public art is free. It's for the people, by the people. It also empowers people to take ownership of their city and give back, civically. I am a happier person when I am being creative and giving back to society."

Miller's dedication to improving her community led to founding Alley Cat Murals in 2010. In addition to the recently completed Speedway corridor murals, the organization has worked with community institutions like Roskruge Bilingual K-8 Magnet School, Marguerite L. Collier Elementary School and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to update or paint new public artwork. 

In 2023, Miller had the opportunity to return to the series of walls that inspired her decades before. As she tried to raise money for the Speedway Boulevard murals, Miller found a common cause with the Poetry Center, part of the UArizona College of Humanities. Miller previously collaborated with the Poetry Center to paint murals for the center's children's reading corner.

The Poetry Center's formal mission is to "advance a diverse and robust literary culture" for writers, readers and new audiences of poetry and other literary arts. While that mission statement provides a fixed goal for the institution, executive director Tyler Meier said the center's day-to-day work is just as adaptive, varied and exciting as poetry itself.

"We feel enormously lucky to continually rethink and reimagine what the Poetry Center can and should be," he said. "Our work isn't fixed in many ways – just like poetry, arts and culture more broadly. We are always adapting, growing, anticipating and responding, and we regularly seek new relationships, collaborations and opportunities to meaningfully advance this work."

To help connect Miller and the other artists with poetic inspiration, Poetry Center staff, including library director Sarah Kortemeier, delved into the center's many shelves for inspiration. 

"We prioritized poems with concrete visual imagery that could spark a lot of images in an artist's mind," Kortemeier said. "It is incredibly interesting to see what the artists did with those suggestions. The result is an incredibly diverse series of source texts as well as visual styles. It's such a delight to see."

In addition to lending creative support, the Poetry Center secured a $19,000 grant from the Southwestern Foundation for Education and Historical Preservation to fund the project. 

A painting on a wall which depicts a group of people on bicycles, only visible from their legs peddling. Next to them are colorful flowers.

Miller's mural depicts a group of cyclists, only visible from the bottom of their bikes.

Chris Richards/University Communications

For her own mural, Miller said she had an image in mind when approaching the wall. Set on the south side of Speedway, above the Warren underpass, her work depicts a group of cyclists, only visible from the bottom of their bikes, riding down a trail in between a colorful array of flowers. The scene is inspired by Miller's parents, who honeymooned on a cycling trip through South America.

Alongside the artwork is a haiku written by Miller's friend and poet Madison June: "On the open road / Revolutionary love / turns wheels into wings."

In addition to Miller, artists Jodie Lewers Chertudi, Jenna Tomasello, Sasha Lewis, Monique Laraway and Alex Fass brought their talents to bear on individual walls. Their inspiration came from hip hop, haikus and other creative work from TC Tolbert, Marcus OX Williams, Leslie Marmon Silko, Brenda Hillman and Logan Phillips.

"The six muralists have done an incredible, diverse and evocative job of imagining textual forms into large-format visual pieces," Meier said. "We're always interested in the generative possibilities of poetry in relationship with other art forms, especially as a tool to engage new audiences."

The Poetry Center will host a launch event for the mural project on June 26 at 5 p.m at the Century Room in Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Participating muralists will discuss their work at the event, which is free and open to the public.