A few weeks ago, on the side of the Flax Art and Design store in Downtown Oakland, I attempted my biggest art composition to date - my first public mural.
For this milestone in my career as an artist I wanted to pay homage to tradition, but also crack the mold. Therefore, I decided to challenge the conventional and paint a new breed of mural; one that would start conversations and raise questions about spacial relationships and architecture.
Traditionally, murals are bright and bold and magically realistic, like modern Brazilian murals, or Diego Rivera’s Mexican motif murals. They’re known for their solid colors and rigid positions on large walls or tunnels. I stepped away from these orthodox characteristics by bringing in the depth that solid colors lack and extending the mural farther than simply the side of a building.
I was also keen to incorporate the building's architectural surroundings into the piece, from the flaws in the brick wall to the cracks and chinks of the sidewalk. The rough textures and high walls in cities often have negative connotations - they can make us feel unwelcome, or like we are being contained or perhaps even kept out. I wondered if architecture was just something we have to accept within a city, or if there were ways we can challenge it. How can we open up our city walls?
With ideas and questions, but no concrete plan, I started on day one with spray paints, acrylics, a scissor lift, a seven-day deadline, and assistance from Athen B. Gallery.
I began by sketching directional arrows in a notebook to help me envision movement and bring orientation to the piece. Once I had a general outline in my head, I made the first mark on the wall - the most uncomfortable part of the process. Beginning any piece is hard, and I usually end up trying to fix the original mark. Luckily, color accelerates progress and makes the marks that follow more intuitive. For this mural I chose to balance bold colors with subdued, keeping the community's personality in mind. I brought the depth that traditional murals lack through transparency, allowing the composition to transcend its two-dimensional space by giving it the same profundity as a canvas painting.
With an eye on the natural flow of the one-way street, I followed the motions I saw with organic strokes of paint. But balancing the grid-like structure of the wall with free-flowing lines and marks proved to be the artistic version of Tetris. I kept asking myself, “Where does this mark fit?” and “Where does this lead?”
To answer these questions I thought about the nature of simple lines. When we draw as children we use lines to represent things, even emotions. They are one-dimensional reactions to our environment. Later, when we’re older, we see lines everywhere. Cracks in a sidewalk could arguably be lines, (but they’re simply negative space between two bodies of concrete.) Snakes or hairs could be drawn as lines, (but they’re actually objects with volume and substance.) Once an artist can stop seeing at surface value, once they can say “lines are not lines,” they can start using them intelligently - something that challenges me every day as an abstract artist.
Eventually, I mentally worked through orchestrating the composition of the mural. However, at the same time, I was also grappling with it physically, which nearly wiped me out. The lift needed to be moved frequently and securely positioned with wooden planks; I painted with rollers and brushes from heights; and I stopped work often to cross the street and view the wall from a distance to fully see the relationships between marks and colors. The constant pushing and pulling and painting and moving sent me to bed exhausted every night. But this effort created some beautiful broad and bold marks that also complemented the surrounding negative space. I liked looking towards the top of the building and appreciating how the marks seem to continue into the blue sky. Not even the harsh line of the roof disrupted the flow.
As I continued painting, shadows from stop signs and buildings became sources of interest for me, and I began to think about better ways to integrate the surrounding architectural elements into the mural. At one point, I noticed large splatters of paint had trickled down the wall and dropped on the pavement underneath. Those accidental marks gave me the courage to paint a small pole connecting the building and the sidewalk and extend the lines onto the pavement - although I didn’t have permission. Frankly, I thought it better to just do it and ask for forgiveness later. I just couldn’t risk getting a “no” and then never knowing how far the mural could have gone. I remember thinking, “Why should murals only be on walls? Why is it forbidden to paint on a sidewalk and down onto the curb? That’s so limiting.” Extending the painting outward activated the space and made it interactive. People passing by on the sidewalk began stepping over the marks, even though they’d dried.
Some folks even stopped to give me feedback. One man helped me adjust my spray can angle, which allowed for better spray pressure. Still another watched me walk back and forth across the street to view the progress and then suggested a live feed camera for faster work. And on my last day, one woman told me she would miss passing each morning and seeing me paint. Talking to the community during the painting process included them in its creation, which, to me, is the whole idea of a mural. Their highest value lies in the conversations we begin, the connections we create, and the legacy of relationships we foster along the way. I can only hope they like the wall I opened.
Many thanks go to Flax Art and Design, Athen B. Gallery, and the community of Oakland. Your support and faith in me meant so much.
Written by Heather Day. Edited and polished by Kate Holthouser. Photos by Athen B. Gallery.