You know how when the Ferris Wheel stops at the top and the seat sways? I hate that. It’s not fun; it’s terrifying. So there I was, up on a scissors lift stretching over the side to reach the wall I was painting on Elmwood near Delevan. The damn thing swayed every time I moved and when I looked down through the open grill floor the ground appeared about a mile away. When I raised or lowered the lift it bounced. When I moved sideways it rocked back and forth. I was clearly out of my comfort zone, so why was I up there?
I was asked to paint a mural on the side of a building by its owner, who is an old friend. I was reluctant at first because there’s a learning curve with painting murals. I had always thought it would be fun to work like the billboard painters of the past, but I didn’t feel I had the time to do all the research. Then I met Augustina Droze at a party. She’s a mural artist with years of experience doing this sort of thing all over the country, as well as in India. So I asked her if she was interested in partnering. She was.
The idea for the mural was simple; capture the fun, diversity, and lively atmosphere of the Elmwood Village, where I have lived for 35 years. Basically make a visual love song to the neighborhood. I walked up and down Elmwood taking pictures to use as source material. Augustina contributed images of a smiling boy, hands holding vegtables, and a bicycle rider. We worked out the design in Photoshop based on earlier works I had seen of Augustina’s. I started by thinking of James Rosenquist’s early billboard-inspired imagery patchworks.
Since this would be partly funded by the New York Main Street program, administered by the EVA and awarded by the New York State Office of Community Renewal, we had to submit a formal proposal. To get the aforementioned lifts, we had to have workman’s comp coverage and insurance, and so I became an employee of Augustina because she already had these things, but the added cost ate up a good chunk of our budget. We had to comply with OSHA requirements for safety, which means we wore harnesses, insuring that if the lifts fell over (which I learned they occasionally do) we would go down attached to them. Reassuring.
We discovered that the walls of the building were badly in need of repair so we arranged for the bricks to be re-pointed, and the wall to be power-washed and coated with a concrete parge layer. Then we primed it and gridded the whole thing. All this took months of discussions, negotiations, and labor.
That’s how I came to be up on one of two lifts we rented for the occasion. We started in late September, with a month budgeted for completion. It became a race against the elements as the weather turned colder and rainy. The grueling schedule had me working there every moment that it wasn’t raining and I wasn’t teaching. We often finished after it had already turned dark. My studio practice was put on hold. By the end, leaves from the trees were flittering by as we worked. What I didn’t know in advance is how physically demanding this work is. I often woke up after a day on the job with an achy body. But we got it done. And it was a good experience. Augustina and I became friends, and I learned how big murals are done.
Artistically, the design represents a departure from my regular work. One interesting side note: it was very reaffirming to work at a job where people regularly come by and offer encouraging comments. “Great job; fantastic; looks great; wow; did you do this?” all day long. Once I got my body working each day it was a joy to go to work. This should happen in every job whether you’re a teacher, secretary, welder, short order cook, or whatever. I think people would be much more productive.