A Mural of Their Own

The gay community dedicates a mural Downtown. What, you didn’t hear about it?

Pj Perez

Say what you will about Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman—Lord knows we have—but one thing that cannot be denied is his equal-opportunity boosterism. If you invest time, money or resources into anything related to Downtown Vegas, he'll get behind you all the way.

Sure enough, there he was on the afternoon of October 7, standing outside of a brightly painted wall Downtown, officially dedicating a new mural. Elected officials, community members and the artists themselves joined him for the dedication, held just a few hours before the monthly First Friday arts festival.

No, it wasn't the Cirque du Soleil mural on the east side of the S2 Art Center.

This mural, a 47-foot-by-14-foot painting adorning the side of the newly christened Rainbow Plaza at Third Street and Imperial Avenue, received no mainstream press attention. It was simply No. 2 on a list of five mural dedications held that day, tucked in between the S2 dedication at 3 p.m. and a Culinary Union dedication at 5:30 p.m.

The Rainbow Plaza mural might not mean much when lumped in with the now-180-plus murals that have been commissioned for the Las Vegas Centennial mural project, but for the local LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, it is a landmark—its vibrant rainbow colors representing its "we're queer, we're here" presence in Sin City.

"It shows the power of the gay community in Las Vegas," says Brian "Paco" Alvarez, curator of the City of Las Vegas' Centennial Exhibition at the POST Modern and committee chair for the Rainbow Plaza mural.

Alvarez says that Richard Hooker, senior specialist with the city's Cultural and Community Affairs Division, first suggested the idea for an LGBT-themed mural about six months ago. But it wasn't until two months ago that forces came together to make the idea a reality.

"We sat down and came up with some criteria," Alvarez says, "something that represented the gay community, but at the same time Las Vegas and our centennial."

With the help of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada (more commonly referred to as "The Center"), a call for artists went out into the community, and after sifting through submissions, the committee chose a design by local artists Grace Ann Morgan and Lois Dohra.

Morgan, 62, and Dohra, 66, are retirees who met in Las Vegas in 2000. Morgan hails from New York City, and aside from her interests in creating art and song, is a Reiki master instructor. Dohra, originally from Chicago, is also a photographer and cartoonist.

In their relatively short time in Southern Nevada—the two women arrived individually in 1999—Morgan and Dohra have been active members of the community, working with the Women of Diversity centennial art program and a senior group called Wise Women, as well as The Center itself.

"The Center mural committee was seeking artists who could design and complete a mural in a relatively short time," Morgan says. "We submitted two drafts, keeping in mind simplicity, color being the priority."

The mural took only six weeks from conception to execution. Members and supporters of the LGBT community came out in strong numbers to help turn Morgan and Dohra's design into a wall-covering mural.

"We had 25 volunteers over one weekend to paint it," says Alvarez. "Everyone had such a fun time, the weather was great."

The vibrant result serves as a multifaceted symbol for the local gay and lesbian community. Aside from the images featured in the mural itself—pink and blue figures against a rainbow flag proudly declaring a sense of unity and permanence—its location is also of relevance. The building was recently dubbed Rainbow Plaza after being purchased by Dominick Vitale, whose bar in the plaza, Snick's Place, has been a meeting place for gay clientele since 1976.

Vitale compares the mural to those he has seen in Philadelphia's Center City, where similar mural projects are going up as part of that city's redevelopment efforts.

"As far as the artwork," Vitale says of the mural adorning the north side of his building, "it's kind of amateur. There's no comparison."

Still, he says he is generally satisfied with the results.

"It's nice," says Vitale. "It's bright and colorful."

A number of high-profile members of the community attended the dedication, including representatives of the Center, Lambda (a gay business and professional association), Las Vegas City Council, Nevada Gay Rodeo Association and drag troupe Sin City Sisters. Goodman gave a speech before ducking into Snick's to share a few drinks with bar patrons, and Morgan read a poem she wrote for the dedication entitled "Together We Helped Build Las Vegas." She and Dohra could not have been more gratified.

"Lois was very emotional," Alvarez says. "She really showed how proud she was with her design."

Rainbow Plaza is in a rundown neighborhood on the periphery of the "Naked City," yet mere blocks from Arts District destinations such as the Funkhouse. Alvarez says that for him, the mural serves another purpose:

"What's cool about the mural, ultimately, is that it beautifies the neighborhood."

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