website update out-take: the story of painting a mural in the company of a bird

The last post here was in September. So much for the resolution I made at the beginning of the school year to make a post a week. (Many moons out of school but September still seems like the beginning of the year to me.) At least I'm current (mostly) on instagram.

The other thing I'm very behind on is my website update. It hasn't been done since 2009. I'm almost finished with the tedious task of culling, organizing, and captioning all the images of work I've been making between then and now. The new site will up in a week or so, and will basically be the same, but updated with new sections, including one for murals. I've been writing some extended captions for these, small tid-bits meant to be maybe a paragraph or two. I got carried away when recalling the process for this mural, as you can read below these progress shots:

What Are Bubbles Made Of?  2012-2013
Private Interior Commission
Acrylic, Ink, Gouache, Mixed Acrylic Glazing Mediums. 
Dimensions Variable; Appx 40’x60’

Most of the murals I’ve painted have required some kind of scissor lift, my definite least favorite part of mural making. It’s really easy (and my preference) to get lost in the work of painting, to lose time, and to not be totally aware of what is going on outside of my head; i.e., not a great way to conduct yourself if you are a somewhat klutzy person standing atop a swaying platform 30 feet in the air. 

It was another situation altogether with this project: a mural to span the consecutive staircases of an open plan, 3 level loft space. Because neither scissor lift nor scaffolding would be feasible, a couple of articulating ladders placed on the stairs became the elevators of circumstance. Ironically, this plan left me missing the dreaded scissor lift, or at least its level surface and railing.

The project was exciting though. So, onward. Upward!

Since the completed mural would be viewed from 3 different vantage points, yet be mostly centered at the middle/mezzanine level, I wanted it to visually function as 3 separate but cohesive parts. From a drippy, washy bottom level, the background for the mid-level focal point of a figure blowing golden bubbles would emerge. There would be a super saturated color palette across the middle level, made up of layers and layers of more washy areas. As gold leafed bubbles floated up the staircase, they’d drift past more layered washes that became more delicate and more subtle in color as they rose. 

This composition and idea dictated that there would be gold leaf at the top height of the mural. Gold leaf application requires the use of both hands, so there’d be a few no-hands on the ladder moments. For the very highest no-hands bubble, the ladder would be set on the third floor landing edge and, as such, there were three unappealing (unlikely? potential? this is earthquake country!) scenarios I couldn’t mentally escape: 1) falling off the ladder and landing on the landing — though, just regular risk there, akin to a normal fall from a ladder extended over 20 feet;  2) falling from the ladder and bumping straight down the consecutive stairways;  3) slipping from the ladder and heading right over the side of the third floor landing balcony ledge and drop straight to the next floor of the space, some 40ish feet below. 

Before any actual work had begun, I had completely come to terms with the no-hands on the ladder/ladder on the stairs situations. I’m careful. It would be fine. But near the end of the project, I changed my mind. I did not want to paint the last bubble — the one that was smallest, but significantly higher than the rest. 

Because there was a bird. A “somewhat aggressive” bird, I had been told. 

As the work began to wrap up, the physical distraction of the bird  — a rainbow parrot who had free reign of the loft space, and full use of his wings — started to become problematic. At first he seemed mostly to prefer perching on the chandelier over my supply table, were he could both easily poop into my coffee cup, and hover over my brushes and jars. Though not productive, we eventually came to an understanding — when not sipping, I kept a napkin covering my coffee. And when I required access to my supplies, I would simply stand at a distance, wave my arms frantically, and shout until he moved. 

The coffee cup poops I didn’t take personally, but my perception changed when he started buzzing the tower*. I'd be on the ladder, on the stairs, paint brush in hand, and out of nowhere a rainbow-ed blur would head towards me, a terrifying squawk preceding and accompanying his flight. As the fly-bys became more frequent and incrementally closer to my personal bubble of ladder working space, I held on tighter with my one free hand, and my inner debate about the necessity of the last, highest bubble became more heated.

I was counting on the idea that after so many layers, so many drips, and so many bubbles were finished, so too would be the piece. I kept at the work and continued to negotiate with myself about the potential last bubble. Did it really need this last bubble? Yes, probably. There was a sliver of a window carved out of a recess at the top of the ceiling, above the top staircase landing, and, it just made sense — the highest bubble should suggest that it might keep on floating. 

I cleaned up almost everything over the course of two days — removing all the tape and protective paper from the stairs (which took hours), touching up here and finishing touches there, packing up almost all of the paint, jars, brushes, rollers, extenders and trays. I did this while studying and looking to really make 100% sure that this last bubble absolutely needed doing, and trying to convince myself that it didn’t. 

The piece was working. The color was good. The composition was right. The thousands of layers and drips made from straight up opaque paint and paint mixed with a variety of translucent thinning and glazing agents were all doing their jobs - I was told it looked lit from within. I agreed. It looked good. But it also needed that last fucking bubble. And the stupid bird would not leave me alone.

In retrospect, there are at least a dozen, more well thought out strategies that I should have/could have employed. Instead, at the time, resigned, I only waited for a moment when I thought the bird seemed calm and distracted on the first level of the loft. When he seemed so, I quietly, feverishly went to work on the ladder with a bare minimum of gold leafing supplies in my hands. 

You know where this is going, right?  

While standing on the top bit of the ladder (that had been extended to over 20 feet), and which also (remember?) was set on the 3rd floor landing edge at the top of the consecutive staircases, and while I had no-hands holding on, the sound of thunderous flapping wings and a deathly screeching squawking flew at me. I heard him before I ever saw him. More horrifically, I felt him before I saw him. Actually, I guess I never saw him. Luck can apparently accompany klutz though, as I managed a cartoon stunt-worthy grab on/slide down/jump off from half way/land on my feet type of move. The heart was racing, supplies were strewn, but I was in one piece and on the landing — things were basically fine — except. THE BIRD WAS STILL ON ME. Pecking at my neck, shoulders, and hair, yelling at me, and clinging to the back of my shirt. Which, obviously, I tore off and threw onto the floor.

I stared at my shirt on the floor. The lump within the shirt was not moving. I totally killed the bird. I began to freak. (Hello, I’m finished with the mural! Do you love it? Fantastic! Oh! And I’m so sorry, but I killed your bird.) Maybe I could I buy a replacement bird and they’d never know? Poor little pretty bird. 

In my prickly, sweaty panic, I noticed a little flicker. And then something like my shirt sort of hopping. Maybe I just broke it’s wing? Or something else repairable? At that point, the terror changed a little — if the bird was fine, he was going to be crazier than ever. Also he was still in my shirt. And if something was broken, that was still very far from ideal.  And the bubble still wasn’t finished. 

I gently dragged the shirt/bird into the closest room with a door. The bathroom. The door was the pocket kind and I closed it almost the whole way. With the longest paintbrush I had, I stuck my arm though the cracked door, and flipped the shirt off of the bird. Who was, of course really, really mad and totally fine. Totally fine!!! He immediately flew up to the top of the shower wall and screamed at me for the rest of our time together. I finished the last bubble from the safety that only a bathroom’s pocket door can provide. The work was finished, I packed up and cleaned up the final bits, opened the bathroom door, and ran.  

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