Coachella Valley artist John Cuevas poses with Monarch Sky mural in Palm Desert

Public Art Takes Flight in Palm Desert

New murals on San Pablo Avenue and at UCR Palm Desert aim to unify, inspire, and engage the community.

Janice Kleinschmidt Arts & Entertainment, Sponsored

Coachella Valley artist John Cuevas poses with Monarch Sky mural in Palm Desert

Local artist John Cuevas sits with his new mural, “Monarch Sky,” which decorates an outdoor stairway at the Palm Desert campus of University of California, Riverside.

Monarch butterflies greet students, faculty, and visitors traversing the Palm Desert campus of University of California, Riverside. The appearance of the orange and black beauties is not strictly seasonal, as they grace the risers of concrete steps in a mural by Palm Desert artist John Cuevas.

“What distinguishes a mural from a painting [on canvas] is that it lives where it’s at. It’s a part of the city; it’s a part of the fabric of the community,” says Cuevas, who has previously painted on public steps in Los Angeles and New York City. He particularly enjoys creating murals because, he points out, it opens him to the perspectives of passersby who see him at work. “I am not isolated in my studio.”

“Monarch Sky” buttresses Palm Desert’s commitment to the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge, in conjunction with the National Wildlife Federation and The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. That campaign is designed to raise awareness about the endangered pollinators and promote planting the native milkweed upon which their survival depends.

Coachella Valley artist John Cuevas poses with Monarch Sky mural in Palm Desert
Cuevas stands in front of his mural in Palm Desert.

The iconic butterflies also appear in Kathleen Goff’s “Desert Wonderland” mural on a wall of The Private Club Barbershop on San Pablo Avenue at San Gorgonio Way. The city and the building owner, John DeVita, commissioned a mural to include elements of the local landscape. Pete Salcido and Daniel Sullivan of Flat Black Art Supply approached DeVita and then approached the city about a collaboration that fits nicely into the San Pablo Public Art Development Plan, drafted by the Cultural Arts Committee and adopted by the Palm Desert City Council on April 28, 2022.

"Desert Wonderland" mural in Palm Desert
“Desert Wonderland” by Kathleen Goff brings color to San Pablo Avenue.

“A high priority is to develop a city center that broadens the success of El Paseo,” the plan states, referring to the well-established dining/shopping boulevard that’s lined with art through the El Paseo Sculpture Exhibition. City leaders envision unifying San Pablo Avenue, running north/south between Highway 111 and Magnesia Falls Drive, through public art. Goals for the San Pablo Corridor include partnerships between the city and community members.

“It is very important to have relationships with business and property owners, and for them to buy into this plan,” says Erica Powell, who oversees the city’s public art collection and programs. “Murals are an eye-catching type of public art. They are more of an identifier [than sculptures].”

"Monarch Sky" by John Cuevas
These new murals in Palm Desert aim to cultivate community through public art.

“Something I love about working on murals is that I am able to promote other things besides myself,” says Cuevas, who, incidentally, grows milkweed in his yard for migratory monarchs. He notes “a nice synergy” in the concept of metamorphosis (the butterfly’s Latin name means “sleepy transformation”) and the emergence of life after the pandemic shutdown. When COVID-19 stomped hard on the prime economic driver of tourism, the city commissioned Cuevas to paint murals that the Unite Palm Desert Framing Document stated would “marshal the efforts of our community organizations, to provide support to Palm Desert residents and businesses in a time of great need.”

The 2020–’21 Unite Palm Desert murals (on walls at KUD Properties along Highway 111, The Gardens on El Paseo, and Palm Desert Aquatic Center) paved the way for these two murals by Cuevas and Goff — a sign that a colorful expansion of public art is taking flight in Palm Desert.