Retaining Wall Mural
Location: Carstairs Memorial Complex, Carstairs Alberta
Written by: Rob Jabs
I received a phone call. “Hey Rob, have you ever done any public art?” I had painted a motorcycle for a client. Now he was asking if I wanted to paint a mural outside the Carstairs Memorial Arena. What followed was some frantic research on murals. Over the years I had developed an understanding and comfort with painting motorcycles but I knew nothing about murals. I researched pricing, contract proposals, and products. I called Createx , Liquitex, and Nova Colours. Local Artist Dave Thomas generously offered guidance and advice. I spoke to Donna from Maple Airbrush who, as an artist with mural experience, was encouraging and helped facilitate the largest Createx order I had ever placed.
Art has been a part of my life since I was a kid. I graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Fine Arts degree in the early 90’s, and it was during this time that I tried airbrushing for the first time. I remember seeing Chuck Close’s iconic 1967 self portrait at the Art Institute of Chicagoand thinking “I want to do that”. Unfortunately none of my professors knew anything about airbrushing, and I was left alone to figure it out. Additionally hyper realism and commercial art were vilified as lesser forms of art. We were indoctrinated with the dogmatic ideology that only artist’s can appreciate true art, that art needs to push boundaries, and only abstract art has value. I began to question my desire to be an artist. After graduation I was disillusioned and decided to seek a different career.
Over the years I was continually pulled back to art. There were sporadic periods where I would manically engross myself in drawing and painting and then do nothing for extended periods. Over time the frequency of projects started to escalate and eventually I set up a studio.
The idea of doing a mural was not something I had ever pursued. I had turned down previous work, based on the fact that I could not accommodate it within the studio. The proposed mural would have been the largest single project I had undertaken. The site was less than ideal. A retaining wall 4 feet by 80 feet located within a parking lot. The challenge was that the images needed to read from the roadway, 200 feet away, but could also be viewed from less than a foot away. After meeting with the client, and doing some research I proposed a design that I thought would complement the space and maintain consistency with the arena’s name. My proposed design was intended to pay homage to Canadian WW2 recruiting art.
The first day of airbrushing was an unmitigated disaster. I drove home with a sick feeling that I was in way over my head.The wind would gust and paint would end up 2-8 inches from the intended location. I would make adjustments, only to have the wind abate, resulting in a blast of paint causing colour over-saturation. Things were going so poorly on day one that I wanted to quit. The overspray was uncontrollable, the wind would rip masking off the walls, and my compressor was tripping the buildings breaker every time it kicked on. Apparently a compressor and Pop machine will trip a 15 amp breaker.
As the days wore on I adapted my approach. I started buffering the Wicked Colours so they were opaque, thus reducing concerns about overshooting the intended colour value. I under-painted large sections of the project with a brush to speed things up and reduce the need for masking. I reserved the airbrush for final details after everything was blocked in. Transparent colours choices were determined by how dramatically the inevitable overspray would impact the surrounding colours. The first half of the mural was definitely the hardest, the second half was smoother, and by the end I was accurately anticipating and making adjustments for problems before they arose.
As a new Muralist I learned the following during the Carstairs Mural Project:
- Doing a Mural in June will have you checking the weather network more often than a meteorologist. I had to drive 65km to the site which meant that satellite and Doppler weather information became the determining factor, if and when I painted.
- Rogue weather will still catch you off guard and I learned to set up so that I could quickly pack down. I had to halt airbrushing due to a freak hail storm, and numerous thunderstorms.
- I had to accept that I did not have the same control as I did in the studio. The wind seemed to pick up any time I would try and use a shield or load the airbrush with transparent paint.
- Due to distance and time constraints I did not have infinite time to rework areas until I was happy.
- I had to temper my desire to add unnecessary details
- During the initial stages it was extremely easy to lose sight of what I was painting. I learned the value of stepping back from the artwork, often 20 feet.
- Not being able to maintain continuity and safe guard the publicly accessible site meant that I arrived each day hoping that my previous day's work had not been vandalized.
- People young and old will approach you to chat when you are doing public art. Being bald, having a handlebar moustache and sporting tattoos will not deter people from talking. There were days when nothing was going well and someone would want to talk, I learned to be gracious. If you are an introvert, as I am, you will need to get used to cars pulling up and just watching.
- Kids give you uncensored feedback. One seven year old informed me that It looked like I had really struggled on a section, because she had come by every day and one section took a long time. When she asked how many murals I had done, and I replied that this was the first one. She informed me "I guess it looks okay, the next mural will look better because you will no longer be a beginner".
In the end the project represented a vast and steep learning curve. It took me outside my comfort level and left me extremely grateful to be part of an art community that is so willing to offer advice and encouragement. While I have never been happier to abandon (art is never finished) a project, I look forward to the opportunity to do another mural