Last week, as I was wrapping up a mural project, my client said to me, “Honestly I wasn’t sold on the design. But I am thrilled with how the mural turned out.” I was finishing up my third mural project at three different assisted living centers, all in southern California. What my client said at the end of the project was not a surprise to me. It’s true: my designs are a far cry from the impact of the completed mural. I articulate to my clients that the ideas may shift, sometimes dramatically, once I am onsite and elbows deep in the creative process. It’s part of the dynamic nature of site-specific art. I invite you behind the scene of my creative process including “before” photos, the designs I started the project with, and of course final photos so you can judge for yourself whether the leap was worth it.
Ridgeview Assisted Living
Scripps Ranch, San Diego, CA
When the center director sent me a photo of the wall in their courtyard I set to work imagining – from my studio desk – how I might incorporate the existing fountain floating against the wall. Once onsite, I noticed other details, like a vertical seam in the stucco almost in the middle of the wall- an unforseen and unavoidable dark line down the middle of my canvas. I noticed the mission-style window detailing in the surrounding architecture and pondered. I spent a couple of days kicking up my heels in Southern California before I started on the project, I had the obvious epiphany: people live in San Diego to be near the ocean. I realized the patio and view peek through the “hidden garden” gate was hiding the jewel of the landscape. Finally, when I showed up I realized I realized that at a modest 7 feet tall, the wall was not comfortably tall enough to create a graceful heritage tree in the corner. As I started my painting day my mind went to work on how to bring together the obstacles and opportunities into a cohesive composition. The center director’s final exhortation to me before he left me to my work was, “Please remember we really want to see a lot of color in the mural.” That was the nudge I needed to swap out the tree I put in the original design for bold bougainvillea framing a bright blue ocean view.
The Orchards Assisted Living
Rancho Mission Viejo, CA
The Orchard’s director sent me a photo of a beautiful courtyard that looked onto a plain stucco wall. I knew that the residents were not able to leave the facilities regularly and that the artwork would provide an important link to the out-of-doors, not only for residents but for the nursing staff as well. The mural would anchor the space as a peaceful, inspiring place for families to spend time with their loved ones. I pitched a design of an expansive landscape, based on the geography local to the area.
Once I was onsite, I realized that the trees planted in front of the wall had grown quite a bit, and symmetrically divided up the wall into three parts – a challenge for a single landscape but an oportunity for adding structure. I decided to preserve the wall area behind the trees with wide columns. I added trompe l’oeil details, including arches and tile accents, and softened the arches with purple bougainvillea that was already part of the surrounding plantings. Once I gathered together my thoughts on what I thought might work, as with the Ridgeview project, I met with the facility director before plowing full steam ahead. Using my finger to point, chalk to mark on the wall heights and distances, I shared my ideas and explained as best I could why what I was proposing was the right solution for the space. I also listened carefully to the inspiration and concerns that came from their perspective. This is the most important aspect of making a work site-specific. What has your community communicated to you about what they hope for the artwork? How is the space used? I love this part of the job: sharing ideas, building trust, getting ready to leap.
I painted this mural in October. The facility director had lamented to me how parched the ground was, and how everyone was worried these days about the drought. We decided to paint the landscape in spring, as both a wish for water and as an indulgence since lawns and thirsty flowers are longer good options for southern California landscaping. I went spring green for the landscape. On my most recent trip this January, the hills have been the same “fantasy green” I used in the mural. The ambitions of the mural turned out to be an excellent harbinger of this year’s spring.
When I was in San Diego, I spent time with one of my favorite mural artists, Johanna Daly (interviewed on my podcast here) She has been painting murals for over 20 years and is both prolific and successful. She shocked me when she told me, with few exceptions, she does not create up-front designs for her clients. Her approach is this: if you need a design first, I am not the right artist for you. Wow: strong. Her creative process includes an onsite conversation with the clients the day she starts work. I learn a lot from my conversations with Hanna: she tells it like it is, and we learn tremendously from each other. She shared with me the disappointment of a recent project where she spent a lot of time on designs, to reassure a nervous client, and the client ended up using her designs… with a different artist. Ouch.
I think of Hanna sometimes as I squirm at my desk trying to imagine what I might want to create, even as I am certain my best ideas will emerge onsite. I continue to create designs for my client as a framework, so there is a baseline of expectations as to the content. We create a list of what the mural will include. I also articulate that results may vary: once I get down to the execution phase, there is a mutual leap to see what emerges from my brush.
Glenbrook Assisted Living
Glenbrook is three miles as the crow flies from the Pacific Ocean. I wanted to bring an ocean view prominently into this design, but a beach scene felt too too exposed, too bright and windswept for the peaceful and protected feeling I wanted the artwork to bring to the courtyard. I suggested to the art committee in charge of the project that we pull the lens back, bringing the San Elijo lagoon into focus, with the ocean behind it. It was hard to tell the angle of the walls of the courtyard in the initial photos sent to me, and I misinterpreted a slight curvature in the wall as corners. Once on-site, when I saw the wide, unobstructed view of the wall from the windows of the facility, my artistic hunch was that one expansive scene would best improve the view from both inside and outside in the courtyard.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time painting at these three assisted living facilities. Residents, staff, and family visitors come out to chat with me throughout the day. In my life, it seems like everyone and everything keeps moving faster. The assisted living communities are the opposite. They are enjoying slowing down. There is time to sit for a spell in the sunshine, drink cocoa and watch the painting unfold. Also, the ecosystem of staff, family visitors, and residents were are all super appreciative of the artwork I was brining into their communial home. Together, there was lots of time for mutual appreciation of the joy of making and receiving lovely artwork. It is an honor to do this work, to bring a fresh perspective to a boring stucco wall. The upgraded context sets a framework for more ease and enjoyment for everyone.
The art curator for the facilities had placed paintings of mine in the lobbies at both The Orchards and Ridgeview. Paintings are so different than murals, I am never quite sure where they will end up in the world. It was a happy surprise (thrilling, actually) to stumble upon them in their new homes.
If you have read this far along, you should get your money’s worth!
I love the quote by Oscar Wilde: When bankers get together, they discuss art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss money. Good financial management has always been a quiet hobby of mine, next to a lifelong quest for mindfulness and getting to the heart of experience. About three years ago, someone I met at a water cooler (literally) at a dance party called me up and invited me on his podcast, The Mindful FIRE Podcast. (FIRE is an acronym for Financial Independence, Retire Early). I shared my angle on how money and mindfuless come together in my life in a conversation that turned out to be insightful for both of us. I am a regular listener to Adams podcast- it’s consistenly inspiring. Last week he sent out a list of his top 5 favorite podcasts. He is a far more prolific podcaster than I am, with over 80 interviews plus 25 meditations. I was shocked to see our interview together, Episode 6: Don’t Wait to Live Your Life, at the top of his list! I am deeply honored. It also made me so happy that another “Top 5 All-Time Favorites” was an interview with Sarah McCrum: An Entirely New Way to Experience Money. I introduced Adam and Sarah after I took a life changing course based on her book, Love Money, last spring. Sarah invites us to consider what a rich life would look like four ourselves, one that is deeply fulfilling and nourishing as distinct from the traditional mindest of getting oneself rich. This is a challenging time for markets and finances, and I share this content with you because it offers an important shift of context from a lens of lack and limitation, a “winners and losers” mindset towards a spirit of generosity and bringing forward an inclusive prosperity.
Enjoy the fresh beginnings of January. I hope by sharing my design process you will be inspired to follow the roadmaps you set out for yourself a little more… loosely. On-site inspiration leads to the best outcomes!