In April, The Urban Institute for Contemporary Art (UICA) invited me to paint my largest piece to date, a 95ft mural celebrating Pantone’s Color of the Year — Ultra Violet.

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Ultra Violet isn’t a color I mix often. So, I viewed this project as both a formal challenge and an opportunity to broaden my color vocabulary. I decided to use Ultra Violet as a point of departure, featuring the color itself sparingly and focusing more on its parent primaries — red and blue.

Today, the completed mural spans UICA’s entryway in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But my work started much earlier, a few thousand miles away at my studio in San Francisco.

I began sketching ideas on paper and later bringing them to an iPad, drawing shapes and colors overtop the images UICA provided me. These ideas can be as simple as a set of compositional arrows or as defined as a colored gestural mark.

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I try to allow myself space to play by working on digital renderings where I can easily undo, save and iterate on ideas. Murals themselves don’t afford me the luxury of an “undo” button.

Yet, regardless of the scale of a project, it feels restrictive to over plan for paintings. I keep play as an important part of my process. Thankfully, I had a enough time and mental space to let the direction of the mural gestate organically through play.

In April, I arrived in Grand Rapids.I remember the first time I saw the site of the mural in person. A large, white, intimidating 95-foot wall. Through UICA’s full-wall windows, I could see every passerby walking down Fulton Street, a major road downtown.

There, the reality of my timeline and the scale hit me hard. I had six days to complete the mural. I knew it was time to get to work.

After taking down a few notes on the nuances of the wall and the sloping ground underneath it, I hailed a cab to take me to a nearby hardware store, and a few art supply stores to gather necessary supplies.

My driver was a little suspicious as I loaded gallons upon gallons of paint and plastic sheeting into the back of his taxi.

When I returned to UICA, my two assistants that the institute provided were waiting, ready to help.

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This was a different type of help than I’m used to. Back in San Francisco, I work with a small but mighty team to handle anything from email, to show booking, to scheduling, exhibit planning and documentation of work.

I’m comfortable others helping me move my art forward, but they typically lend a hand after the paint dries. Delegating painting tasks to assistants and including others in the creative process was new to me. It made me realize the level of intimacy I have with the process of my work, and the level of vulnerability required to accept help in that process.

I started by blocking shapes, using a scissor-lift and slew of tools to navigate up and down the ominous walls. The assistants filled in the shapes with colors I made while I pulled paint along the edges, bringing each shape’s personality to life. Experiencing a piece of a mural bloom into reality is a feeling you can’t simulate in your studio — especially the part when there are two other artists helping you out.

As we moved through the week, we developed a working rhythm. We traded the ladders, shared the scissor-lifts, and even used wedges to level out the lifts while I was painting on a downward sloping ramp.

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It was hard to get a full view of the wall’s progress without exiting the front door and walking across the street. So, I brought the whole team outside to talk about where to go next.

I brought out the iPad to use as a rendering tool, drawing over ideas that started in San Francisco, but were now made real on a wall in Grand Rapids. Sketching over images of the mural in progress, I was able to try ideas out in real time, without having to commit. This allowed us to test out ideas and progress much faster, completing the mural in the 6 day window.

UICA Mural by Heather Day

There’s an element of accident and chaos that I value in my creative process. Planning, though important for a project with a timeline, shouldn’t be at odds with the experimentation that my paintings thrive on. Striking a balance between the two by creating a structure in which I can play is vital.

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Mural by Heather Day for UICA
Mural by Heather Day for UICA
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A sincere thanks to The Urban Institute of Contemporary Art for the opportunity to create work that also challenges my own expectations and process. I couldn't have created this work in such a short time span without the diligent support from Brandon Alman, Chase McBride and the entire UICA staff.

Select photos by Katie Zychowski, Matt Gubancsik, Chase McBride and Heather Day.