I recently completed a public art installation commissioned by the City of Renton to create whimsical Mini-Murals behind Street Signs around the Burnett Linear Park in Renton WA. All artwork for this project is based on, or draws upon, Renton History.
Click here to see more photos of this project and (read the history behind the art).
Many thanks to the City of Renton, the Renton Arts Commission, and the South Renton Neighborhood Art Committee for making this project happen.
Many thanks to the City of Burien for installing a Utility Box Mural based on one of my paintings 'Contemplation, in Yellow' featuring a meditative self-reflective coffee-drinking elephant. I mean, why not? :)
This public art is located at the corner of 122nd and Ambaum in Burien WA.
This is the behind-the-scenes story for "Dancing with the Stairs" - a 'staircase mural' I recently completed for The Dance School in Everett WA.
First the finished piece:
Each dancer silhouette on the mural is an actual student of the school, starting from the youngest at the bottom to the most proficient at the top (representing the student journey), while each step features a different dance class/style. The larger figure spanning (and unifying) the steps is an instructor at the school.
What does it take to create a project like this? I'm glad you asked!
It starts with a call issued by the Dance School, requesting art proposals to brighten up the entrance staircase at the school, with a request that the 15-step art be cohesive, yet each step stand individually so the school could raise funds by finding sponsors for each individual step. The art further had to express a strong connection to the school.
After visiting the site and taking photos, I sent in the following proposal, mocked up with clip-art:
Somewhat to my surprise, the proposal beat out all the competition and I was awarded the commission.
Uh-oh. Had I just proposed painting an entire staircase full of little silhouettes of actual people that were going to be about 5 inches high? Was this design even going to work?
When in doubt, create a prototype! I cut up some cardboard, added some color and traced some photos from the web using a sharpie, and tested these 'dummy' panels on my studio stairs. And what do you know, it seemed to work well. 5 inches is plenty high to capture a full figure in detail. Whew, what a relief!
For the project I would need custom art panels cut to fit the stairs. Back to the site for a round of careful measurements, through which process I made the unpleasant discovery that the height, width, and depth of every single step was different.
I found a local source for custom-made artist panels who recommended using 1/2 inch thick panels for each step a anything thinner could potentially warp during the painting process.
However adding a 1/2 inch panel reduces the stair depth by 1/2 inch. Would that create a potential safety hazard? Possibly. Next thing I know I am digging up building codes to understand just how much leeway I had for reducing the tread depth safely. Turns out not a lot, just 1/4 inches. (BTW When I decided to embrace art, I never imagined reading building codes would be part of that equation!)
I decided I had no choice but to accept the risk of using 1/4 inch panels and having them warp!
The blank panels arrived, and then another site visit to make sure each panel fit it's intended location. (The last thing I wanted was to paint a panel and then find it wouldn't fit). Thankfully there were no issues with panel sizes and fits - the panel creator did a great job following my specifications.
Not having painted on these kinds of panels before, I knew I needed to experiment to ensure the panel + paint combination would behave as expected. I therefore made sure to order a few extras that I could 'play' with.
What followed was a few straight weeks of experimentation with many different paints, fluids, gels, finishes and application methods to see what would work best for this project:
In the end I concluded, what would work best was to simply paint as I always do, using heavy body acrylic paints.
To minimize potential warping of the panels, I then took the extra precaution of coating the back of each panel with an acrylic polymer that hardens into a stiff layer. Stiffer panels should be less likely to warp (or so the theory goes).
The painting process was divided into two stages:
Stage 1: Paint a 'rainbow' background on all the steps, along with the central figure.
Stage 2: Paint silhouettes of individual students
Would a rainbow spectrum actually work? Would some of the background colors be too dark? Too light? Could I control the gradations? Would silhouettes be visible against the changing background?
Time to do another test, this time creating a 9"x12" maquette (i.e. scale model):
The color gradations seemed to work. However after doing this maquette I decided the background figure wasn't looking 'dancer-ly' enough, and which led to a detour to find another, more dynamic photo, which took another few weeks to resolve. Lesson: always make a scale-model folks - you'll be surprised what you learn.
(Yes it's the same person in both photos - Sam Picart, one of the school's instructors. Both silhouettes are traced from photos. First image (left) based on a photo from the Everett Herald, photographer unknown. Second image (right) based on a photo taken by Joe Lambert).
Once I had a background photo that worked, it was time to paint in the background colors into the panels. Here's a time-lapse video showing that process:
Next came the dancer sihouettes. I had originally proposed photographing the dance students myself. However turned out the school had just had their Year-End-Performance professionally photographed and were happy to let me sift through the existing photographs. The only problem? There were over 6000 photographs I would need to sift through!
Why would I need to sift through all 6000+ photos? Because not every photo or pose turns into a successful silhouette. The shape of the sihouette has to clearly convey the dancer's motion, intent, and dance-style and most photo angles just dont work. I was also keen to tap into the diversity of the school's students (genders, ethnicities, body-types, etc) and this required going through all the photos with an eagle eye.
A couple of sifting days later, I had a set that would work. The next step was to convert each dancer into a sihouette. Easier said than done!
For the next couple of days, I sat on my workstation, painfully tracing the outline of each dancer and then converting the shape into a silhouette. Let's just say I am not keen to repeat this part of the project - like, ever!
Once I had my silhouettes, I needed to design the actual staircase mural to scale. For this, I recruited Microsoft Publisher, creating a 5'x6' document and inserting and placing all 80(!) silhouettes in it.
(If you're paying close attention, you'll see the diversity, and also the fact that each row in the image above represents a different dance style).
To go from computer silhouette to painted panel, I would need to print the silhouettes at real size, then trace them onto the panels one by one, and then paint each silhouette figure carefully. Very, very carefully!
To print out my design at full scale, I went to a place with large-sized printers: Kinko's. Well, a couple of Kinko's. Each of whom kept messing up the printing. It took many iterations to get my designs printed. Oh Kinko's, that's 4 hours of my life I'm never getting back!
Designs in hand, I could now proceed with painting each panel. This is what it looks like, speeded up:
15 panels later:
Notice some of the panels are slightly raised? That's warping in action for you. Thankfully this can be easily fixed at install time.
Here's a quick closeup of the dancer silhouettes. Quick, can you count them all?
Once the panels are painted, the paint needs to be protected from the environment - and since these are staircase risers, from contact with shoes.
The first step of the process was to seal in the paint with two layers of transparent acrylic paint polymer (it's basically paint without any pigment - so it behaves just like paint and binds to the underlying paint very well), followed by three coats of anti-scuff coating for a total of 5 protective layers between the paint and the errant shoe.
The panels were now in a ready state. For the fund-raising activities related to the project, I proposed creating a signed limited-edition poster of the finished mural to be presented to each donor who sponsored a step as a commemorative token of their sponsorship. This required having the panels professionally photographed, which would be challenging given their size and shape, a challenge met in spades by Bellevue Fine Art, my favorite go-to fine-art scanning company. Once I had the professional scans in hand, I created the following poster:
With poster and panels ready, we did a formal unveiling at the school:
And then finally, it was time to install the mural:
There you have it - from proposal to installed mural - a 6 month journey!
Down by the corner, over by the pool:
And that my friend, is my own creation staring back at me from the corner of Front St. and Grant (near the entrance of the Julius Boehm pool) in Issaquah Washington. It's a Utility Box Wrap, based on my painting "Night of the Mystic Moons", licensed by the City of Issaquah as a temporary public art installation.
Just for reference, here is the original Oil painting;
Art Interruptions is an annual public-art program, run by the City of Seattle's Office of Arts and Culture, for purposes of vitalizing selected Seattle neighborhoods with temporary Art Installations that create discovery and surprise.
I had the good fortune to be one of 7 artists selected in 2016 to activate the Rainier Valley East-West Neighborhood Greenway, which is a pedestrian path that runs through a neighborhood, connecting parks at each end.
My contribution to this project is a series of mini-murals tucked away behind street signs. When approached from one side, these look like ordinary signs, but peek behind them, and here's what you'll find:
Was that fun? Yes it was! :)
How did this project come about?
The City of Seattle maintains (and periodically updates) artist rosters, and when opportunities like these come around, artists can apply to the projects with specific proposals. (In business jargon, it's an 'RFP'). The proposals are reviewed by an panel of jurors comprising of citizens, artists, and city officials, and artists are selected based on the match between the proposal and the site/audience requirements.
My original proposal for this project was to traverse the neighborhood and create surprise/discovery by painting whimsical little vignettes on various surfaces (corners, sidewalks, rocks, poles, utility boxes) etc. The panel loved the idea, and I was selected as a project artist, only to discover that actual painting on public and private surfaces was a no-no (too permanent, invites graffiti, has site permission issues, etc).
After much discussion, we concluded I should create temporary art primarily on Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT)-controlled surfaces - in this case neighborhood street signs. (And only particular kinds of signs that would not distract from pedestrian or traffic safety - e.g. no Stop signs, or School Crosswalk signs).
The process involved:
* Identifying the most appropriate signs
* Finding a way to exactly measure the signs
* Creating designs that, as far as possible, took advantage of sign location, shape, or other attributes
* Finding a way to economically create 20+ designs
* Finding a medium on which to render the designs so they could be temporarily attached and eventually removed
* Overseeing the fabrication
* Painstakingly trimming each design to fit it's intended site (ever notice those rounded corners on street signs?)
* Finally, site installation - every one of these signs is 10 feet high!
Here are some process photos:
For this project, I realized I would have to design everything digitally. (If I painted with real paints, I would have to scan the paintings before they could be printed on adhesive vinyl. By painting digitally, I could skip the scanning step altogether and save lots of time in the process). The above images show two designs in progress, hand-drawn on a computer. (The one on the left is Escher-inspired - Escher makes it look easy, but, trust me, repeating patterns are HARD!). Even with digital designs (hooray for UNDO), I did twenty designs taking about 4-6 hours each (=80-120 hours), meaning I was sitting in front of a computer for almost 3 full 40-hour work weeks. (Don't let anyone tell you artists don't work hard! :) ).
This one gave me the most trouble! Honestly, you haven't lived, till you're perched 10 feet high on a ladder, holding a large sheet of sticky vinyl, while the WIND IS BLOWING HARD. This was the largest piece and it kept sticking to itself and to the sign in odd ways due to the wind. I had to rip it off and put it back on many, many times. Took almost 2 hours. (Notice all those uneven areas? Now you know why)
Overall, this was an intense, but fun project. The art will be up Sept - end Dec 2016 so go see it anytime. More details on the City Website.
Many thanks to the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture and the Seattle Department of Transportation 1% for Art Funds for making this project happen.
Click below to see more details.
If you made it this far, maybe you'd like to get a copy of this special Dragon print based on one of the Mini-Mural designs...?
"Ombrophobia (Fear of Rain)"
Available in 3 different ready-to-frame sizes.