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McCain Tribute Mural In Scottsdale Sparks Debate Over Art And Property Rights

A battle over the proper way to pay an artistic tribute to an Arizona icon is brewing in Old Town Scottsdale.

Last week, a privately-funded public mural honoring John McCain was put on hold by city leaders. The project is being reconsidered after complaints from a local business owner who insists his opposition has more to do with property rights than it does politics.

The so-called “Maverick Mural” is the brainchild of local two architects.

“The idea was borne with this very large blank facade, to be able to do something for the community,” said Tommy Suchart, principal architect in the Old Town firm of Chen & Suchart.

The blank facade is a 120-foot-wide by 30-foot-high wall on the side of the building where he works.

With approval from the building’s out-of-town owner, the idea came from his colleague Aaron Bass. It involves 30,000 colorful cut out pictographs of Arizona’s five Cs — cattle, citrus, climate copper and cotton — that morph into an image of the late senator.

“As they aggregate, they create the face and it’s all based on paint densities and a simple math equation that really becomes this image and this icon for Scottsdale,” Bass said.

He says the prolific production of pictographs was a painstaking process.

“Preparing digital files, to then cut through this piece of equipment and then I’ve had family and friends coming to my house and sitting there to cut little pieces of paper out for days and months, like at my house — my dogs were covered [in it]. It was wild!” he adds.

The $20,000 cost was entirely paid for by a Kickstarter campaign — and the city’s development review board gave its approval last month.

But earlier this month, Scottsdale’s City Council voted to reconsider that decision and told organizers to cease work on the already partially completed mural.

That’s where business owner Dewey Schade comes in. He owns the parking lot directly adjacent to the building.

“I got some calls from people on the avenue who park there and [they] said, ‘Dewey, are you doing a mural for Sen. McCain?' And I said, 'What are you talking about?'”

Schade said he was blindsided by the mural project.

“‘Are you opposed to it?' I said, 'Well, I don’t know if I’m opposed to it, or not, but I know nothing about, it and I’m certainly not going to permit something on [my] property that I know nothing about.’”

That prompted Schade to call Scottsdale’s Planning and Zoning Department to complain about the already-started project infringing on his property.

“You of course are aware of the old maxim, 'better to ask for forgiveness than permission.' And that works in a lot of circumstances if [they think] they can get away with it. This situation that we have going now is that problem gone wild.”

Suchart said they have tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, doing the work in the middle of the night so as not to interfere with business hours — and by using a boom and bucket to avoid physically setting foot on the lot.

“It’s a zero-lot line condition. We should be able to have access to our building. If he had a building, and we had an empty lot, the same conversation would happen,” Suchart said.

And Bass feels Schade has other reasons for his opposition to the project.

“I honestly don’t think he is support of the late senator and our project in general. The project is meant to commemorate the late Sen. McCain and the veterans who are serving right now.”

Schade said nothing could be further from the truth — that’s he known the McCains for four decades and calls the mural "disrespectful."

“To me, this is one of the most unseemly exploitations of a person’s celebrity and service that I think is imaginable. And personally, I don’t want to participate in that.”

Bass said  that type of attitude is a bad look for the city’s public art identity.

“How does it look from an outside standpoint when other artists are gonna come here and try to do something when the city’s development and review board says we’re gonna re-look at this. People are gonna start thinking twice about doing things like this — they’re gonna go to Phoenix.”

Schade fired back, insisting that it’s not about the art.

“I don’t care if those guys think they are Picasso, Van Gogh, Robert Mapplethorpe or Andy Warhol. This doesn’t belong here. Because it’s private property. There is a process in this city to do public art.”

Creators of the “Maverick Mural” say they will continue to fight.

“We’ll go to the mat. For me, I mean we’re gonna finish this. If we have to wait 10 years, we’re gonna finish it and we’re gonna do it in his honor,” said Bass.

But Schade said not if he has anything to do with it.

“If you really want to honor Sen. McCain, then let’s form a committee in Scottsdale. I’ll be on the committee, and I’ll write the first check — a substantial one — and we’ll do it right.”

The Scottsdale City Council will take up the issue again next month.

Requests to interview councilwoman Kathy Littlefield were unsuccessful.

(An earlier version of this story indicated that Kathy Littlefield represented the district. Scottsdale does not have City Council districts.)

Phil Latzman is an award-winning digital journalist and broadcast professional with over 25 years of experience covering news and sports on a multitude of platforms.