At the beginning of August, I finished my first public mural. Well, it’s my only public mural, but I live in hope that there will be more! The staff at the venue where I drew the mural are concerned that it will be defaced, but I’m pretty chill about that. It’s public art; the public will add to it or hide it or otherwise react to it however individual people choose (that is, people might “deface” it). But putting something out in public is an invitation to interaction, and anyway, entropy happens. Things decay. What happens to the mural now is still part of the mural, and it’s the part I have no control over, so I may as well sit back and enjoy the process.
This is the first piece of this size I’ve ever done, and the first vertical piece. (Normally, whether I’m painting or drawing, I work flat on a table or my lap.) It is also one of the few drawings I’ve done that took more than one or two sittings. I usually work in a much smaller format when I draw, from sticky note and index card to printer paper sizes. Most of the time, I start a piece and keep going until it is finished. And then, I stop. (Not as self-evident as it may sound; there’s often the temptation to keep going even though the piece is finished. Sometimes it’s because I want to keep drawing but am not in the mood to welcome in a new idea and face a blank sheet. Sometimes it’s because I’m still on hold, or I have more time to kill, or the doctor hasn’t called me into the office yet. Sometimes it’s because I’m not paying enough attention to understand that the piece is finished. And so forth.)
The mural is roughly 130 x 130 cm (just over 4 x 4 feet) and was done with black Sharpies (and a couple of Bics) on a painted metal wall (the divider wall in a bathroom stall). It took six sessions of over an hour each. Altogether, including the initial thorough washing of the wall, I spent just over eight hours on site, and maybe another hour and a half buying supplies and gathering materials.
I was a little nervous about taking on a piece that would take so many sessions. Specifically, I was worried about how I would sustain my vision of the piece over the space of weeks and through various moods. I could only access the space to work as particular times, as of course they didn’t want me in there when the venue was busy, and they also didn’t want to just give me the key and the alarm code. So I went there on Saturdays and Sundays at 1300 hrs when they opened, and worked for about 75 minutes until my hand and fingers got sore. Then I’d take pictures as best as I could in the confined space, pack up my stuff, and head on out.
For the first three or four sessions, I was still unsure and doubtful. It didn’t look great, and I didn’t know how to make it better. But over time, I remembered that I always feel this way for the first half of a drawing; the first half is not representative of the final product, but is rather the structure on which the whole piece will hang. And when I went in for the fifth time to work on it, I was delighted to discover that it looked great! The whole piece was starting to come together as the “bones” got fleshed out.
When I went in for the sixth time, I knew it was almost finished. That day was mostly about fixing all the little imperfections, like places where the line of ink was a little frayed, or where the curves were too choppy. I thickened up some of the thinner lines to make the whole thing look a bit more solid and less spidery. And I took out my phone and filmed my hand as I signed my very first piece of public art.
I haven’t been able to get a really good straight-on picture of it. The piece is in a wheelchair stall, but even a large stall like that doesn’t allow me to back far enough away from the mural to get the whole thing in one shot. I’m sure there’s something I can do with my camera to widen the view, but I am not sure how to make that happen. So I’ll fiddle around to try to figure that out.
Above, I said that what people do to the mural now is the part that is beyond my control. But that’s not really true. When I draw, I very rarely do an outline or make a plan. There are multiple shapes that recur: the leaf / eye / vagina / almond shape, the dots and parallel lines, the circle / sun / moon / bubble shape, and of course the spirals. Which shapes dominate and how they connect is a function of how I want the piece to feel. I don’t know what I am going to draw, and it’s not that I am drawing what I feel at the moment, but rather than having a visual idea of what the finished product will be like, I know how it will feel. And when it feels right, I know I am done.
I don’t think I am explaining this very well. But in any case, I was concerned about being able to hold on to that end-state feeling for the mural over so much time. It worried me that every time I went in, I might have a different feeling-goal, and that this would negatively impact the coherence of the piece. As it turns out, it was indeed the case that I couldn’t hold on to the precise goal over time, but it mattered far less than I had feared. Because I spent time before each session just looking at the mural from all angles, thinking about it, feeling it, trying to understand what needed to happen next, I was kind of “back in sync” with it before I picked up the Sharpie again. So I think the trick for me when doing this again is to continue building in enough time to just sit with the work at the beginning of each session, instead of just rushing in to start the actual drawing.
Lessons learned from this first mural:
- Take a big garbage bag to sit on when you’re working in public space, especially a public bathroom! Yes, the cleaners were in there right before I started every time, but still. A garbage bag covers a lot of space and can just be tossed each time.
- If you’re listening to good music while you work, the place where you suddenly start singing along is going to freak out whoever just quietly walked into the room. Which will, in turn, freak you out, because you had no idea anyone was right there.
- It is not actually possible to dance to your music and draw a smooth curve at the same time.
- People are very enthusiastic and generous with their feedback (at least to my face!).
Also, I wanted to mention how I got to do the mural in the first place. I’ve wanted to do a mural for a while, but didn’t know how to convince anyone to let me “deface” their walls when I had no portfolio to convince them it would be worth it. Then one day I was at this venue (where I go regularly) and I had my little pocket sketchbook with me to do a doodle before really getting into the evening. (Because a doodle a day keeps the crazy away.) And as I finished up, I realised that this was my portfolio. There was no need to mention that I’d never done a big piece before! So I went to the manager and told him I’d like to do a mural, and here were a bunch of examples of the style in which I would do it. And we did a handshake deal.