Why the beloved mural muse under the Royal Park Bridge disappeared — and when she plans to return
FOR NEARLY EIGHT years, she graced the wall under the west end of the Royal Park Bridge in downtown West Palm Beach, her unexpected elegance turning heads on the pedestrian walkway that winds beneath the spans.
Then, one day last month, to the shock of her many admirers, she was gone.
“Clara,” a mural created in 2015 by the internationally-acclaimed artist Hula, was erased two weeks ago — painted over with a plain coat of beige by state contractors starting a $2.3 million bridge re-painting project.
The project, expected to last 300 days, involves removing and replacing the bridge’s steel coating, and cleaning and painting the concrete portions of the bridge.
That means a second Hula mural, painted in 2016 in the middle of the Intracoastal Waterway at the base of the drawbridge, will also be erased in the coming weeks.
But admirers of the two popular public artworks have reason to rejoice.
Sean Yoro, the Hawaiian-born artist who goes by the name Hula, will return to West Palm Beach to repaint both murals after the bridge repainting project is completed.
Yoro expects to start redoing the murals late next year, assuming the bridge repainting project is completed by the summer of 2024, as the Florida Department of Transportation expects.
“I have to say I am completely impressed and maybe even a little surprised by DOT and the city for making the effort and spending the money to bring in an internationally sought-after artist to re-do the work,’’ said Raphael Clemente, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority.
The DDA played a key role in the two bridge murals, painted during the 2015 and 2016 CANVAS Outdoor Museum art shows that attracted thousands of people who watched dozens of artists in action painting more than 20 murals on downtown buildings.
The Hula murals are hyperrealistic portraits painted in a way that makes the women appear to rise from the water — unexpected visual surprises for passing boaters, joggers and cyclists. They're similar to other Hula murals around the world, including one on an iceberg and another on the rusted side of a partially submerged shipwreck.
They quickly became West Palm Beach destination spots, used in tourism promotions and shared in hundreds, if not thousands, of social media posts. But in recent years, they started showing signs of wear and tear from exposure to the outdoor elements.
Removing and replacing the murals was always part of the scope of work for the Royal Park Bridge repainting project, said Grace Ducanis, communications officer for FDOT’s District 4.
“FDOT has been coordinating closely with the city of West Palm Beach regarding this bridge painting project and the murals,’’ she said in an email.
“The city has arranged for the artist to repaint the mural (and the second mural, which has yet to be painted over) once the project is completed, which is currently anticipated to be in the summer of 2024.’’
While local art lovers are praising the city-state collaboration to bring the murals back, a city spokesperson had a less enthusiastic take.
“Not much of a story here,’’ Diane Papadakos, the city’s director of communications, said in a brief email response to questions about the murals. “This project is considered a restoration of the murals.’’
Papadakos would not disclose how much money the city is spending to have Yoro repaint the two murals, saying only that the funds will come from the city’s “Public Art Account, which is not tax payer based, and independent of the general fund.’’
She did not respond to a follow-up email asking for details of the restoration plans.
Nicole McGraw, the founder and curator of the CANVAS Outdoor Museum shows, said she learned about the erasure of the "Clara" mural when someone posted a photograph of the blank wall on Facebook in early June.
McGraw initially panicked, until she was able to contact Hula.
“He said he had been in touch with the city and they had asked him to come back to re-do the murals next year,’’ she said.
“I am glad that they reached out to Hula and they are planning to put his murals back up because a lot of the really good murals in the city are gone now.’’
At least three murals painted during CANVAS, including one by artist Greg Mike, are gone.
“The murals we did during CANVAS added so much value to the city. People have been photographing them ever since they were created. The city has used them for tourism. They added a sense of vibrancy that wasn't there,'' McGraw said.
"Now that some of these murals are going away, it's just sad. But it's part of life. They are not permanent. They are temporary. It's part of having murals on public buildings.’’
Each Yoro murals took weeks to paint and came with unforeseen challenges.
In 2015, he cut his foot on broken glass from beer bottles that vandals had smashed against the mural the night before. In 2016, while painting in the middle of the waterway, he noticed bull sharks swimming past his paddle board.
“Nothing short of an adventure, from falling scaffolds to bull sharks,’’ he wrote on Instagram.
As he worked on the murals, Yoro interacted every day with passersby who stopped to ask questions as he worked, something not all mural artists will do.
He formed new friendships with Clemente, McGraw and other locals who consider his murals among South Florida’s most unique and special works of public art.
When he returns to West Palm Beach to repaint his murals, McGraw said it would be nice if it happened as part of another art show.
“It seems like it's time for another CANVAS,’’ she said. “I would totally be open to doing it again. It was such a great event for the city and the artists. Hopefully we will be able to do that again at some point.’’
For more information on how the Royal Park Bridge repainting project will affect traffic, read this story in the Palm Beach Daily News.
Meanwhile, Hula fans can still enjoy a third mural he painted in the area, this one beneath the Lake Worth Bridge in downtown Lake Worth Beach. It was painted during the 2017 CANVAS show.
© 2023 ByJoeCapozzi.com All rights reserved.
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About the author
Joe Capozzi (shown in 2015 with artist Sean Yoro, also known as Hula) is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.