Gig Depio’s new mural in the Las Vegas Municipal Court might seem, at first glance, like it’s keyed to push your nostalgia buttons. Rat-Pack-era faces are easy to spot. Frank Sinatra’s pearly grin and Lena Horne’s fitted gown shine like you remember. But, as in many of Depio’s paintings, the luscious swig of American glamor is just the tip of the iceberg.
“Look up the story about Lena Horne and the sheets,” Depio said when I visited his home studio in December.
The story is that in the 1940s, Horne became the first African American performer to tour with an all-white band. Her granddaughter, Jenny Lumet, told the Today show that “after Horne left hotels, staff would sometimes burn the sheets.” Horne did not let the indignity stop her. She spent much of her long career using her fame to protest segregation.
Depio’s mural is packed with people who have similar stories. It’s titled “Level the Playing Field,” and it is, in large part, a history of civil rights in the Las Vegas Valley.
In large paintings like this one, which is 13 feet wide, Depio brings the full force of his style—which is photojournalistic realism rendered in assertively textured lines of oil paint that don’t let your eye rest for a second, layered with muted, shifted colors that signify the boundary between fiction and reporting. (A note about color as it pertains to fact and fiction: I once learned in a college photography class that people in the Boomer generation and older tend to find black-and-white photography convincingly real, while people in younger generations trust only color to convey the truth. Depio, a Gen Xer, is probably situated with the ability to see it both ways. Also, while most of the colors in this mural aren’t “real” —the American flag’s blue field has shifted to a vintage-jean hue, and the LGBTQ+ pride flag is a wash of pastels rather than its usual bold rainbow—the many skin tones in this picture are somewhere between accurate and slightly extra-saturated.)
The story Depio is telling here starts in the present. One female collegiate athlete tosses a pitch. Another swings a bat. (The painting’s debut, which takes place this afternoon, is timed just right. This month marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the 1972 law that started the ball rolling toward equality for women athletes.)
Behind the softball players, the crowd’s accessories tell us we’re still in the present—a pale blue face mask, a lightweight down jacket, a reporter in SWAT-level protective gear. As your gaze recedes toward the edges of the painting, the story stays in Las Vegas but travels back in time—to 1971, when hotel maid Ruby Duncan led the charge to overturn a round of sudden, drastic welfare cuts. To the 1960s, when Nevada’s first Black dentist James B. McMillan fought for desegregation and led the NAACP. To the 1930s, when Black construction workers were among those building the Hoover Dam, and to the 1860s, when Chinese laborers built the railroad.
Elsewhere in the painting, Martin Luther King passes a baton to a young Barack Obama. Malcolm X is in there, too. And so are Olympic gymnast (now attorney) Tasha Schwikert, former Gov. Grant Sawyer, and dozens of others, both recognizable and fictional. In the background are local icons including the red neon script of the Moulin Rouge, which in 1955 became the first desegregated casino.
“You negotiate with culture,” Depio told me years ago, in a 2017 interview. “You negotiate your knowledge with history. It changes. … You don’t inherit exactly what they put down there. You question it.”
Depio said he thinks of his imagery as less of a statement and more as a mirror, or an act of poetry. “The beauty of paintings actually is irreducible,” he said in a recent phone interview. “But as humans, because we want to access things, we have to encapsulate them somehow, and poetry encapsulates certain irreducible things. And, that’s my job—to be able to encapsulate it for everybody that looks at it. … It’s the object that reflects stuff back to you.”
“It just helps you figure out, be more aware, be more sensitive about the way you are situated in the world,” he added.
Earlier this week, Depio was thinking about what he might say when he takes the podium this afternoon at the unveiling. “It’s about gratitude,” he said. “The way we don’t take the things we have in Las Vegas for granted is we dig down and we look at the history. To be deeply grateful for the people who came before—in politics, either side, it doesn’t matter. Everybody worked their contribution to this city, this state. We have worked to build this thing that everybody has inherited.”
Gig Depio’s new mural, “Level the Playing Field,” is on view indefinitely in the lobby of the Las Vegas Municipal Court, 100 E. Clark Ave, Las Vegas.
An unveiling takes place today, June 30, from 3-4 p.m. with remarks by Mayor Carolyn Goodman, Councilwoman Olivia Diaz, Director of Parks and Recreation Steve Ford, and Gig Depio. Event info here.
You can see more of Depio’s work on his website, on Double Scoop, at the Moapa Valley Community Center in Overton, and in the exhibition TRANSFORMERS: Reshaping Form and Meaning at Henderson City Hall through Aug. 22. Event info here.