Suzanne Whitaker surveyed her newest mural creation on the walls of the newly-opened Coconut’s Fish Cafe in Chandler, smiled and nodded her head.
“I really like this,” said Whitaker, a long-time Ahwatukee resident.
So do a lot of other people, said owner Kim Kuhljuergen, who has used Whitaker’s company, Passion for Murals, to create artwork at his two other Scottsdale restaurants of the same name.
“We were kicking around some initial ideas about sea life and Maui, and Suzanne came up with the idea,” said Kuhljuergen, who began with the restaurant franchise after visiting the original in Maui.
“Suzanne has the ability to deliver exactly what I’m looking for conceptually, and the most common feedback from our customers after seeing them is ‘wow!’ She’s obviously very skilled, and her work is fantastic.”
Whitaker, who is also a book illustrator, has operated her mural business for 23 years, since graduating from the University of Cincinnati School of Art.
Armed with a bachelor’s degree of fine arts in painting, she brought her business to Ahwatukee following a family transfer.
Since then she’s been active throughout the Valley, working with designers on both residential and commercial projects.
She’s also created artworks for non-profits like Mesa’s Child Crisis Center, and many Kyrene District schools.
One 12-foot-by-35-foot wall of cavorting butterflies at Kyrene de la Mariposa Elementary School’s Media Center she did in 2015 still gets raves.
“I like being able to create murals for kids to enjoy,” said Whitaker, who has authored a book, “Creative Kids’ Murals You Can Paint.”
Another project in the design stage will grace the walls at the Gilbert Hospice of the Valley.
As philanthropic as she is, Whitaker, a mother of two, is also a businesswoman: working with companies like Coconut’s Fish Cafe keeps the balance sheet in the black.
Her newest project is a YouTube interview show, “If These Walls Could Talk,” that has Whitaker interviewing area artists, craftsmen and interior designers.
“One thing I recognize that really makes me happy and gets me excited is when I connect people,” she said. “I love introducing people who do a really good job to others who will appreciate what fine work they do. This interview-format will be a venue to help me do that.”
On her website Passion4Murals.com, Whitaker blogs about how she got started doing murals as a young teen when challenged by blank walls in her bedroom.
A family of lions, a koala in a tree and a toucan were her choices, and she searched the family’s World Book Encyclopedia to get the images.
“I never gave thought that these animals would never be realistically seen in the same environment… I simply chose the animals I liked,” she wrote.
That was the first step of what would become her career.
The 30-foot-wide, 12-foot-high mural at the Chandler Coconut’s Fish Cafe is one of her more ambitious: she incorporated a 3-D effect with the aid of craftsmen.
“This is really different than the other ones I’ve done at the other Coconut’s locations. When I saw an image of a sea turtle, I knew I had to do it, but I wanted to do it in 3-D,” she said.
Working with Thad and Jordan Trubakoff of TruCollective (cq) of Tempe, Whitaker had the brothers cut wooden shapes for the coral pieces surrounding the sea turtle. She then used a plaster mix on top of the composite wood for a more organic look, and to camouflage hard edges.
Using her detailed sketch as her guide, she put paintbrush to wall.
“I painted a solid yellow base on the wall and then began to paint in some of the aqua tones over the coral,” explained Whitaker. “I continued to do some detail until the turtle finally emerged.”
The oversize, green-tinted turtle’s right eye stares directly at the viewer as sun rays spill through the blue ocean waters from above.
“This is really different than the ones I did at the other two Coconut Fish Cafe locations, though all have the Hawaiian theme,” she said. “It was challenging, and fun to do.”