Mural, mural on the wall |

Mural, mural on the wall

John Pugh is a master of deception and illusion.

He creates larger-than-life murals with realistic, three-dimensional designs that make rivers, animals and people appear as if they are literally jumping off the walls on which they’re painted.

It’s an artistic technique that is at least five centuries old called “trompe l’oeil,” which translates into “trick the eye,” and soon, residents of western Nevada County will become quite familiar with the style.

Pugh has been named the artist to design and paint the mural on the Del Oro Theatre, Grass Valley’s famed historical landmark that has been a barren beige since its last design was painted over during summer 2004 as part of a building rehabilitation.

“It’s been difficult to choose from all these incredible artists out there, but I think we have done a good job in selecting John,” said Teresa Poston, a member of the city’s historical commission.

“You can see just from a technical standpoint, he is a pretty amazing artist,” Poston said. “We are thrilled to have him desiring to do this project.”

Poston, along with four other members of the mural project committee, sifted through more than a dozen applicants before they chose Pugh for the $60,000 project.

Each applicant was required to submit a proposal that included details of anticipated cost, design and time frame, she said. And while Pugh’s proposal might still undergo some revisions to make it most reflective of the Grass Valley area and its citizens, Poston said they are very happy with the concept. The other members of the committee included Planning Commissioner Eleanor Kenitzer, Councilwoman Patti Ingram, Downtown Association Executive Director Howard Levine and theater owners Barbara and Mike Getz.

The design must also receive final approval from the City Council.

Pugh’s sketch is typical of his unique trompe l’oeil style, which he has been perfecting into an internationally recognized trademark since his first attempt in 1980.

“Since then I’ve been one of the fortunate artists to have found a niche,” Pugh said in a recent interview. “I really like using this illusionary (technique) because people like being tricked, and they tend to bond with the piece more than they (otherwise) maybe would.”

He also said he has found that this technique tends to appeal to a wide variety of people, not just artists.

“I have found that this is a great language for public art,” he said. “Even if they don’t get into the concept, they like the illusion.”

He said he has tried to incorporate three main themes into the piece, which he feels are symbolic of Grass Valley – its history; natural beauty; and friendly, charming atmosphere. He has also worked hard to commemorate the previous mural, “The Heart of the Gold Industry” – painted by sign maker Ron Ewerth in 1976 – by incorporating the design into his own. The submitted sketch shows the image rested at the base of the building, but Pugh said he plans to move it higher for the final design.

He said he is fully aware of how emotional the prior image was for many area residents.

“I realize this is kind of their baby; this is part of their quality of life and their identity, and I have no intention of placing a foreign identity image (on the wall),” he said. “I really want to do the best I can to create a sense of place.”

Pugh has worked all over the world on a variety of structures, but he said he particularly enjoys working in a small community “because I like the connection with the people; it is in the small communities that I have realized I am painting something that is very important to them, rather than just another piece on the wall.”

He also plans to employ at least one local artist and use volunteers from the community.

Pugh now lives in San Jose but is soon moving to Truckee, he said. He said this mural is very important to him, as it will be his first in his new home.

No start date for the project has been scheduled, but Poston said a fund-raising effort will be officially launched as soon as the final design model is determined.


To contact staff writer Brittany Retherford, e-mail or call 477-4247.

• To learn more about mural artist John Pugh, his past work, and the style “trompe l’oeil,” visit Pugh’s Web site at

• To donate to the mural project, contact Howard Levine at the Grass Valley Downtown Association at 272-8315 or e-mail

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