Pugh hopes for artistic gold by digging in | TheUnion.com

Pugh hopes for artistic gold by digging in

Tape still covers the backside of the Del Oro Theatre, where artist John Pugh’s “Mine Shift” is a work in progress.

A somewhat disheveled Pugh, up on the scaffolding, shirt-collar askew, squints out the sunshine as he appraises his work.

Pugh has spent years working first on the drawings, then on enormous canvas, and now at the back of the historic movie house in downtown Grass Valley. But his vision hasn’t quite “popped,” as the master of illusion puts it.

On a recent work day, Pugh uses his brush to tie together his research of the area. It’s all there on the wall – his hikes along the South Yuba River on the Independence Trail, his interest in the destructive mining practices of yesteryear and an interest in Nevada County’s native people, the Maidu.

“When I put the glazes on, when you see the shadows coming off the rocks along the Yuba, I think it’ll really pop for people,” Pugh says.

That the vision is still blurry is a problem for some people, and Pugh, a world-renowned muralist, knows it.

Originally set to be finished last summer, Pugh’s schedule and some weather delays have the $70,000-plus project stretching into this spring before he’ll finish it.

“To make it financially, I’ve got to make sure I’ve got a consistent income,” Pugh said.

“That means I’ve got to stack projects, and I can’t always be here. To be real honest, that’s been a big part of the challenge on this job.”

Work on the mural has started and stopped more than a few times since he began last spring, which Pugh owes to the weather and his schedule rather than an inability to find a comfortable flow.

“A lot of artists say that they’ve got to wait for inspiration to strike them,” Pugh said. “That’s bull—-. You’ve got to show up and put the work in.”

The mural is being paid for with $70,000 in private donations coordinated by the Grass Valley Downtown Association. It is the third mural to grace the back wall of the Del Oro: The first two announced Grass Valley as “Heart of the Gold Country” and depicted miners.

Pugh’s approach caused some controversy when he first unveiled his design, especially among residents who fondly remember the previous murals. But Pugh’s supporters are enthusiastic about their little town landing an artist of his stature, pointing to Pugh’s public art projects already in cities including Honolulu, Anchorage, Jacksonville, Fla., and Rotorua, New Zealand, along with smaller towns throughout California.

If over-extension is one of Pugh’s faults, a lack of investment in his work is not. When painting a mural in Honolulu in honor of Queen Lydia Liliuokalani, the bearded Truckee resident paid tribute to the last reigning Hawaiian monarch at her gravesite. Alongside a Hawaiian holy man, Pugh said he interacted with Queen Liliuokalani’s spirit.

“I could feel a mana, an energy coming from her grave,” Pugh said. His commissions for public art – which he said he has a passion for – allows him into a community’s “backdoor.”

“It’s a great opportunity to go much further than a tourist ever gets to go,” he said.

Learning about the queen allowed him to properly honor her with the work.

Now he’s applying his trompe l’oeil technique – French for “trick the eye” – to Grass Valley’s spirit. His murals make walls come alive in three dimensions.

What he’s breathing life into in Grass Valley is a mix of reverence for nature and a history of destroying it.

“Mine Shift” shows both the beautiful river scenes from the Yuba and miners descending into a gash in the ground.

“If I could use one word to describe it, it’d be truth,” Pugh said. “This is a tapestry of Grass Valley. It’s about the beauty and the thought in the 1800s that the earth’s resources were infinitely available to people. The message here is the shift to environmental consciousness from just looking for pieces of yellow rock.”

The piece is his tribute to the area, which is close to his home and heart, he said.

“There’s never been an artist remembered by history that hasn’t been part of a manifest,” Pugh said. “This is bigger than me.”

To contact Staff Writer Kyle Magin, e-mail kmagin@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4239.

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