Beautifying the Highlands: Residents come together for a desert-inspired mural

It took 10 resident artists three months to paint but two years to plan this desert mural at The Highlands. The artists worked in sometimes difficult conditions, including high winds, rain and cold weather.

By Karen Schaffner

It can be a long road from the drawing board to the completed project. Take for example, the mural on the wall enclosing a recreational area at The Highlands Inc., a 55-plus community in Oro Valley. After two years of planning, drawing and painting, it’s done.
Resident Ron Weihl suggested the mural. He says it would go hand in hand with the adjacent recreation area’s renovation.

“They had redone the putt-putt golf,” painter Sharon Dennis says. “It was nice to have this all refurbished and looking pretty, and then here was this ugly blank wall.”
Enter the members of the art committee, who agreed to the project.
“We said, ‘Oh, the wall’s so big. Maybe if we could start in the middle and do a few things and let it fade out. We’ll see how far we get.’ That lasted three days,” painter Patti Triplett adds.

The mural is the first thing guests and residents see when they drive into the The Highlands community. Representing the Sonoran Desert, it features saguaro cactuses, a soaring hawk and a hidden mouse. There’s plenty to see on the 88 linear feet of cinder block wall. It took 10 resident artists 450 volunteer hours to complete.
“I thought, that’s nothing,” painter Terry Wojdyla says of when she saw the plans. “We can do that in a week, maybe.”

Once the Highlands Outdoor Recreational Activities Committee (HORAC) and the Highlands board of directors approved the design and found the funds, work began. First things first, though. The HORAC patched and cleaned the wall, then added wide swaths of three colors to represent sand, background and sky. After that, the artists began chalking in flora and fauna.

From left, Sharon Dennis, Patti Triplett and Kay DeLong are three of the residents who designed and painted the desert mural on what was once a bare wall. (Noelle Gomez-Haro/Contributor)

Not all days were productive. Sometimes it rained. Sometimes it was windy, which was a problem because it dried the paint on the palettes even before it could get to the wall. Then some of the artists, who are winter visitors, headed home. Still, those who remained persisted. They painted from January to March, when the last brushstroke was applied.
“We kind of thought that it was going to be easier than it was,” Dennis says.

“Ron, every once in a while, he’d come by and say, ‘Well, do you have any idea how long it might take?’” Dennis recalls. “No! Go away,” Triplett replies.

As with many projects, the finished job isn’t quite like the original design. First of all, it covers more wall than the painters had anticipated.

“As we were progressing with this, it was like, ‘Oh, we have to have this and we have to have that,’ so it kind of designed itself, because then we thought we need to have some prickly pear,” Triplett says. “We can’t just have saguaros.”

“Then people would come by and say, ‘Well, you need a bicycle, because we have all the bike trails,’” Dennis says.

“And where’s your hawk? And your desert tortoise,” painter Kay DeLong says.
Each of the 10 painters had their own specialty.

“Terry (Wojdyla) started painting everything that can kill you,” Dennis says.
Then DeLong had the idea to make games out of the painting, like Where’s Waldo? There’s also a list of bugs and animals for which people can search.

Now that the work is done, the group seems quite pleased with it.
“I think we should just be patting ourselves on the back and saying, ‘Good job,’” Dennis says. “We worked hard.”

They suffered for their art.

“Backs hurt, knees hurt because a lot of the stuff is down low,” Triplett says.
“And it’s hard for little old ladies to get down and get back up again,” DeLong adds.