Home in the Woods
As they say about a cake in the oven: “It’s done!” That’s how I felt, finishing a 10 month in the making project: an 8 X 16 foot carved and painted relief. It was designed for a curved wall at the main entrance of Clark’s Crossing, the former Lincoln High School remodeled into affordable housing for the elderly on 6th Street here in Vincennes. And it’s done!
It took six months of sifting through ideas, discussing many possibilities and designing. I worked with Vicki Miller and her husband Duane of Flaherty and Collins, Indianapolis, to develop ideas and choose a design for the site. We decided on a composition based on Forest Floor, a small eight-inch square painted relief of a wooded scene I did in 2009. I ordered materials and tools, worked out the math to construct a curved support for the relief, did some testing, and finally by June began to carve the piece.
I chose polyethylene foam (Dow insulation board) as a material, because it was more practical than wood and easier to carve. It is often used in architectural detailing, both interior and exterior, so it was appropriate for an inside space. I laminated three two-inch thick 4 X 8 foot sheets to create each of nine panels, initially supporting each with wood frames. I permanently attached some of these units together to create five larger panels and tapered their edges to exact angles to form part of a polygon that matched the curved wall the piece would stand against at Clark’s Crossing.
Once the panels were bolted together and standing securely as an arc, I sketched the design onto the Styrofoam face. I began with a chalk line grid that corresponded to a grid on a printout of the original design. This allowed me to use the sketch as a map with coordinates, which I enabled me to enlarge the drawing to fit the mural.
The carving took about a week. I used a heat gun fitted with a band of metal shaped in a similar way to wire clay tools, so the carving seemed quite natural and easy to do. To make the soft Styrofoam surface more resistant to damage, I hardened it with a cement-based polymer stucco using trowels and spatulas. This process was again very similar to some sculpture processes, such as building forms with plaster.
By July I finally began painting. The first task was to prepare the surface. I used a traditional primer for artists called gesso. This sealed the cement and created a uniform surface to which the paint would stick. It also created a consistent white field, which could have been considered complete at that stage, given the beautiful pattern of light and shadow created by the relief. But I knew my clients wanted color. Oddly, it took several weeks for me to paint, more time than it took to carve. I used Liquitex acrylic paints, for their stability and for the fact that they emit fewer unhealthy fumes. They are also more fire resistant, an important consideration in a residential setting.
Though I had a sketch, this larger scale version of the subject had its own demands, partly because of the deeper carving in the six-inch thick Styrofoam, and partly because the paint used in the original painting was oil and the mural was acrylic. Changing scale from eight inches to 16 feet meant that details were more numerous, texture and brushwork more obvious and color more expansive and powerful. This greatly contrasted with the “precious” little painting on which the composition was based.
The carved forms became my guideline for painting, but I clarified the objects in the scene by creating a blue under-painting where the shadowy areas would be. This immediately created a deep feeling of space that took the eye far into the woods. I maintained this strong sense of depth throughout the course of developing the composition. I loosely followed an order of adding color, from distance to close up and from dark to light, though that classical order of development was not a firm rule for me.
I rediscovered that transparency in acrylic is not the same as it is with oil, a medium with which I have far more experience. Sometimes the transparent acrylic color over another deadened, rather than enriched, the two colors. Another problem with acrylic is that a color would dramatically darken as it dried. Choosing colors and mixing them to react to colors already in the painting, then, was tricky and difficult and demanded a calculated prediction of what a color might look like once dried, over or next to a previously painted color. In fact, it become so much of a fight, I began comparing the development of this painting with fighting a ten pound catfish with an ultra-light rod and a two pound test line—that is to say difficult and delicate with many failed attempts!
However, the more carefully I planned and systemized my approach to the work the more it finally began to pull together. The surface, as a result of this process, to my delight, turned into a rich and beautiful field. Many little paintings could be found throughout the composition, so many that I was losing control of the painting. I was forced to literally paint over some of these beautiful spots to save the whole concept from becoming too confusing and flat. Finally, one day it seemed to “pop”. It just felt right and I could not find anything else I needed to do to it. Now, it is a treat to see the complexity of the painting up close, while observing how it comes together beautifully from a distance.
I cut the paint at the seams to ensure I had a clean break between the panels, disassembled the panels and with the help of friends loaded them onto trucks and took them to Clark’s Crossing. As we installed the piece, residents and friends expressed surprise and delight as they saw it take form. Some talked about it together with each other, others simply stared at it, but always a good comment was offered. Several people took pictures of the work. The new mural has made Clark’s Crossing even more a home for them—a home in the woods.