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'The Phoenix' mural lands at Sky Harbor Airport Rental Car Center

An iconic mural that outlived the building it was designed for now has a new home. “The Phoenix” has landed at the Rental Car Center at Sky Harbor Airport.

The Unveiling

“I’m going to start crying again,” Lisa Parrone said. “I’m overwhelmed with emotion.”

She was just a baby when her father, Paul Coze, created the 75-foot-long mural. But she’s part of it. On the third panel, on top of the steam pipes, is a white control knob — originally known as the steering wheel from Parrone’s toy car.

“They cleaned my toy, so it’s pristine,” she said with a smile.

Last Friday, Parrone watched as Mayor Kate Gallego and others unveiled “The Phoenix” mural at the Rental Car Center.

“It is a beautiful location, amazing light, befitting a piece that really celebrates both our past and our future,” said Gallego.

The History

“The Phoenix” consists of three separate panels, each 16 feet high. In the center, a mythical phoenix bird perches on a tree with city buildings below. Its 365 feathers spread vibrant reds, greens and blues across the canvas. The multi-dimensional artwork contains 52 materials, including tiles, glass, and gemstones. There’s also sand and soil from Hopi and Navajo reservations, the Grand Canyon, Oak Creek and Tucson.

“I worked on the atoms,” said Cerelle Bolon, who was among several art students who helped Coze. “The little sparkly circles, those are the atoms and I did those in his kitchen. When you made the atoms, you chose those sparkles and put them in the glue and put them in his oven to bake for a while until they got to a certain temperature.”

That was 60 years ago. “The Phoenix” is considered the first piece of public art chosen by residents. In 1960, the City Council invited five artists to submit drawings to appear in a new airport terminal. They were displayed at Phoenix Public Library where people voted Coze’s design as their favorite. He was paid $10,000 to create the mural that debuted in Terminal 2 in 1962.

“It was very important to my mother that this was never compromised and eliminated, that it was something that people looked forward to when they arrived at Sky Harbor," Parrone said.

When her mother heard the city planned to demolish Terminal 2, Parrone said she was devastated, "This was near and dear to her heart because she participated, along with all of the myriad of other people that did as well."

About a dozen years ago, Parrone’s mother circulated petitions in an effort to save “The Phoenix”. Kay Coze died in 2012 not knowing whether her husband’s work would survive Terminal 2’s demolition. The uncertainty gnawed at former student Cerelle Bolon. 

“Paul built it to last,” she said. “But moving it? I never thought the city would do it.”


“I never thought the city would do it.” — Cerelle Bolon, former student who worked on the mural


The new home

In 2016, McCay Lodge Conservation Laboratory and Chimney Corporation determined it could be moved. Experts spent nearly two months delicately removing the mural from Terminal 2. The panels were stored on airport grounds where they were cleaned before being installed at the Rental Car Center.

“I thought they’ll never put the money into what it takes to do that right but by golly you’ve done a wonderful job and I’m so thrilled,” said Bolon.

For a city sometimes criticized for demolishing rather than preserving, spending $2.1 million to share “The Phoenix” with future generations is significant.     

Equally important, said Vice Mayor Carlos Garcia, is the mural’s reflection on history, "It tells the story of the Hohokam, the Tohono O’odham people, that had been here before this airport and reminding us that this was, is and always will be Indigenous land."

Garcia pointed out the Rental Car Center was once known as the Golden Gate Barrio, a neighborhood of mostly Mexican-Americans who had to move after Phoenix used eminent domain to buy land to expand the airport.

“So I think it’s important to also remember the debt that we have to those that sacrificed for us to have these amazing facilities now,” he said.

Every year, 2 million people are expected to pass through the Rental Car Center. Lisa Parrone hopes they'll be drawn to the mural. 

“Every time I see this, I see something new, even now at the age of 61,” she said. “And I feel like I’ve never been this close, you know. And it was so dirty before — I mean, it was up for 60 years, you know. It’s spotless and sparkling and so inviting to look at.”

Viewing machines serve as binoculars, allowing people to make out more details, like the abalone shell and volcanic glass that make up the bird’s eye.

Although “The Phoenix” lives at the airport’s Rental Car Center, anyone can visit. There’s no fee and it’s open 24/7.

How to see the mural

“The Phoenix" is located at the southwest corner of the central escalator lobby in the Rental Car Center at 1805 E. Sky Harbor Circle South. There is no admission fee and parking is free in a visitor lot on the northeast end of the rental car center.  

About the artist

Paul Coze was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and spent his youth in France before moving to the United States. A biography from Sky Harbor said Coze served as the French Consul in Phoenix and taught art classes out of his Phoenix studio for many years. Among other things, he was commissioned to create art for National Park interpretation centers and murals for many buildings in Phoenix. Coze wrote and illustrated for Arizona Highways, National Geographic and other publications. He died in 1974.

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As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.