Fine Art

Nanda Sharif-pour and Ali Fathollahi’s new Neon Museum mural illuminates unsung Vegas heroes

Theodora Boyd
Photo: Wade Vandervort

A tribute to Las Vegas’ cultural and neon-bending scene has been splashed across the walls of the Neon Museum’s North Gallery. The mural, titled “Las Vegas Luminaries,” spotlights 11 individuals whose contributions significantly impacted the city’s boisterous and vibrant artistic history—but in some cases haven’t received the full attention they deserve.

Nanda Sharif-pour and Ali Fathollahi created the mural. The couple’s work has appeared in dozens of local shows and galleries since they arrived in the United States from Iran as refugees in 2012.

“The thing I really like about this project is that it has a lot of human characters,” says Sharif-pour, a fine arts instructor at UNLV. “I’ve done a lot of traditional oil paintings that involve human anatomy and portraiture, and this mural is kind of the same; it puts emphasis on the realistic representation of characters from the past and present.”

Just around the corner from the mural is the North Gallery featuring Brilliant!, an audiovisual collection of unrestored, formerly neon-filled signs illuminated by projections created by artist Craig Winslow. As residents meander toward the entrance to Brilliant!, they will now see the mural, which features figures both well-known—Liberace, Sammy Davis Jr. and “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign designer Betty Willis—and less familiar.

“This mural is really a dedication to a lot of names that people may not know and are very underrepresented, even though they had a huge impact and huge resonance with the city and the creation of the city,” says Aaron Berger, the Neon Museum’s executive director. “I’m excited to be able to put together a mural that highlights names of people and the stories of people who have made significant contributions.”

The mural will also feature a QR code visitors can scan to read about the 11 individuals and Las Vegas’ cultural history. “We want to make education as accessible as possible,” Berger says. “Here’s an opportunity to be educated in the most beautiful and enlightening of ways.”

Read on to learn more about some of the mural’s spotlighted artists and performers.

Theodora Boyd

A Black dancer who performed with legendary jazz singer and bandleader Cab Calloway, Boyd worked as a showgirl at the Moulin Rouge, the first Vegas casino to be desegregated. She sits before the pink Moulin Rouge sign, which rests in the museum’s Neon Boneyard and was designed by Willis.

“Identifying her as one of the first Black showgirls of Vegas was a challenge, which speaks to the anonymity that comes with that role” says Aaron Berger, the Neon Museum’s executive director. “I think adding her into this was really critical.”

Berger says the museum is searching for more information about Boyd and her family, and that residents with information should contact the museum.

Kenny Kerr

Kenny Kerr

A drag queen whose show, This Is Boylesque, was a longtime fixture on the Strip, Kerr championed AIDS research for Las Vegas’ LGBT community and actively supported local LGBT organizations. Kerr was also present at the New York City gay club where the 1969 Stonewall Riots, a spark for the modern-day LGBT rights movement, took place.

Sharif-pour says she studied Kerr’s performances to capture his essence. “The way that power just pours into the viewer, and then when you know his story a little bit more, you can feel that, how powerful the performance was,” she says.

Denise Scott Brown

Denise Scott Brown

One of only two living figures in the mural, Brown, 90, is an educator, architect and urban planner. She co-authored (with architects Steven Izenour and Robert Venturi, the latter her husband at the time) the 1972 book Learning From Las Vegas, which famously analyzed Vegas architecture and signs.

“She, as a woman, as a female architect, was underrepresented, underrecognized for her contribution,” says Steve Siwinski, project manager for the Neon Museum.

Oscar Gonzalez

Oscar Gonzalez

The work of this Mexican neon artist —the second living figure in the mural—has touched Southern Nevada and the Neon Museum itself. A neon bender for Hartlauer Signs, Gonzalez has restored several of the signs in the Neon Boneyard, Siwinski says, including the piece from the Moulin Rouge.

“A lot of the signs in our collection have been … brought back to life by Oscar’s own hands,” Siwinski says. “He has breathed life back to our signs, literally, because when you bend neon, you have to use a rubber hose that keeps air into the glass while you’re bending.”

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