The Burner effect, part one – Nevada murals

The Nevada Free Range Art Highway, where civic walls are bright with murals and out-door museums are the norm, is about as weird as it gets, but pop your white cube ideas of art aside and enjoy the ride.
Nevada murals. A close-up of a giant hand being painted in a mural by a Caucasian man in a baseball cap.

Spanning 750 kilometres with up to 170 kilometres between stops, the Free Range Art Highway runs from Las Vegas to Reno, but sometimes it’s best to go against the grain and, by starting in Reno, the journey ends in downtown Las Vegas and the incredible murals of the Life is Beautiful movement.

To get the feel for the Nevada art mood, the first thing to understand is the influence the Burning Man Festival has had on its population. It is huge. What started in 1991 as a week-long festival at the self-created Black Rock City in Black Rock Desert about 160 kilometres north-north-east of Reno is very much a part of the state’s art psyche.

With Australia increasingly focused on arts festivals, it’s interesting to see how the Burner effect has translated into the psyche. Murals, for example, are given great respect, with the artists all locally well-known and appreciated. Likewise the sculptures are commissioned or purchased to bring a bit of the Burner vibe to the cityscape. Moreover, the climate is the only real concern, with the festival engendering such respect for the artworks that uninvited graffiti, tagging or vandalism are rare.

Nevada murals. Artist on cherry picker is painting a large baby in the foetal position and wearing cowboy boots on a wall.
Erik Burke at work. Image: Supplied.

Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, Reno sits just to the east of the Sierra Nevada and California and has successfully shifted its attraction from gaming to a cool art town with a burgeoning foodie movement. Here, mural art has exploded, with businesses commissioning large-scale works from artists such as Hayley Meadows.

Meadows’ work is boldly colourful, with a modernist style evident in some pieces and pure whimsy in others. It is, however, the local mural scene that pushes her to explore her subject and methods at scale.

‘I would say anything and everything really does inspire me, and other artists that are in the community,’ says Meadows, who has been part of the Mural Festival movement sweeping Nevada.

‘We’ve done a couple [of festivals] over the last few years where we go into the towns and all the artists work at the same time,’ she says, before rattling off a list of mural artists with work in Reno including Hannah Eddy, Joe C Rock, Anthony Ortega and Bryce Chisholm.

Then there’s Erik Burke, whose work is arguably the most prized within the Nevada mural community. He was also among the first permissioned artists in Reno, with commissioned work dating back to 2004. Since then, more than 100 murals have been added to the city and it is rare for any commercial building to have a spare wall.

Nevada murals. Image is a spire on modern church that is painted in vibrant colours
Carson City mural. Photo: ArtsHub.

Mural art first appeared at a serious level in Carson City about 10 years ago, but all of the work still looks fresh.

‘There is a culture of respect between the artists that has always been here,’ says artist Eric Brooks, who shares that ‘tagging is not a problem’.

The preference is not to use anti-graffiti coating as it can yellow the image, and cleaning the coated surface requires the same chemicals as cleaning the painted surface. Brooks explains that, while each work has different conservation requirements, ‘the general rule is that a work doesn’t need much for five years’.

‘We look at it then and might give it a touch-up. After about seven years it may be faded, but we don’t presume, we work with each work separately.’

A pair of eyes on Ann Street, for example, have remained unscathed for more than a decade, while the Eagle on N Carson Street has been in place for seven years replacing an earlier freestyle work that would have become a caricature of itself if replicated.

Nevada murals. Artist on cherry picker is painting a large baby in the foetal position and wearing cowboy boots on a wall.
Erik Burke at work. Image: Supplied.

In September 2023 the inaugural Mural Festival of Carson City was co-produced by The Brewery Arts Centre and Visit Carson City. Arts Centre Executive Director Spike McGuire, as the driving force behind this festival and a Loud as Folk singer and writer, brings an extraordinary breadth of performance and community engagement to the role. McGuire reiterates Brook’s statement about respect being key to the murals remaining untouched.

The festival invited 22 artists to create work, with most completed during its duration. Some came earlier and some came later depending on their own schedule/life commitments, but in all cases Carson City was the beneficiary of some very fine murals, including the work of international artists Mari Pavanelli (Brazil), Leire Urbeltz (Spain) and Prism (Mexico).

Downtown Las Vegas is another festival beneficiary with the Life is Beautiful music and art festival bringing mural artists of note to the area since 2013, when it was founded by Tony Hsieh. In accord with Hsieh’s original mission statement of making ‘a cultural hub out of the decaying stretch of downtown Las Vegas’, the festival now attracts 170,000 visitors each year with some of the best line-ups for the non-strip crowds. Last year was headlined by The Killers, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Kendrick Lamar and Odesza.

Nevada murals. From the corner of a building we can see a long wall mural that goes down either side of the building. It's an image of mountains with giants hands cradling them.
Artwork on Plumas Bank building in Reno by Erik Burke. Image: Supplied.

Mural art covers a vast spectrum of subjects and quality and, as such, there is something unifying in its ability to speak to everyone. Festivals are facilitating both a platform for this type of art and a means to educate and engage. The effect festivals have on both visitors and the community is extraordinary and its influence throughout Nevada is profound, and incredibly quirky.

While in Nevada the author was the guest of Travel Nevada. To experience the murals of Nevada, start planning your Nevada trip at Travel Nevada.

Gillian Serisier is an editor and writer working across art, architecture, design and travel. Constantly mapping the influence of design, she brings a particular way of looking at how both function and aesthetics positively contribute to the lived experience.