The Walls Have Eyes. (But not ears)

 I guess it’s a case of be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. I’ve always wanted to paint a mural or a Murial as one should call it to garner maximum annoyance. So when I was asked to do some public art in The Observer Building in Hastings I didn’t take much persuading. Well there was a little bit but I’ll go into that later. I was going through a bit of a rough patch before Christmas. I had made one of my incredibly rare trips into Hastings and was just heading home when I bumped into the wonderful Ed Powell as mentioned in my last blog post. Ed and Rosie used to run the Love Cafe and now have a little concession, in a converted horse box of all things, in the Observer Building. I must admit, I had avoided the place as there are a number of people who frequent it that I find hard to tolerate. Plus there is a piece of sulky sad potato face graffiti by the worst artist in Hastings on one of the columns which manages to appear in nearly every single photo of the place. But Ed asked me to come and have a look and as I have a lot of respect for him I reluctantly agreed. The building used to be a newspaper offices and the main ground floor space used to be where the printing presses and other machinery were housed. As such there was an awful lot of concrete and open space, similar to a multi story car park really. There was some interesting artworks though and the cinema at the back amused me with its deck chair seating. Ed and Rosie had a nice little set up within the building and he had some interesting plans to go with the Mexican Theme of his mini restaurant. It was then that I started on my first piece of public artwork.  frida It started with a giant cactus , it needed painting up from a plain green to look real. Ridges, spines and a few Peyote cacti at the base as a little in joke. It took a couple of days and it made me chuckle that I had something in the building that competed directly in the sight lines of the “sad potato”. Pleased with the results, and blessed with a space large enough to work on it, they asked if I would make them a face through. One of those things where you stick your head through and have your photo taken. We had discussed doing one for the Love Cafe but the logistics of getting it painted in my flat meant it never got done. It had been a running joke for the last few years but now it would finally get done. There was a snag though, the designs I had created were no longer relevant as they were sight specific to st leonards (well, one of them was anyway)  and we now needed two Mexican themed designs.

 Ed was very keen on the idea of doing Mexican bandits but I felt it needed balancing out with something more feminine, in my mind it just had to be Frida Khalo. I was a little bit worried about painting Mexican bandits as from a certain perspective it could be seen as being slightly derogatory. I figured the best way to tackle this in a way I felt comfortable about was to fill it with every single cliche regarding Mexico New Mexico and the wild west I could think of. The actual bandits were based on Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef so they weren’t even Mexican which sat better with me, then I snuck in spaceships to reference the Roswell crash, devil’s mountain to reference Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Road Runner and Wile E Coyote, Speedy Gonzales, the band U2 around a Joshua tree and to my great amusement the meth lab mobile home from Breaking Bad. The Frida side was much more straight forward, being shot from Mexican Vogue but adapted for two people. This is where the steep learning curve started, the amount of challenges involved in painting in a public space is rather long. First and foremost being the physical environment, the cold and the damp in the air made made paint take forever to dry , you could speed up the process slightly by painting near the windows as the sunlight would have a bit of warmth to it through the glass. Then I discovered that the halogen spotlights kicked out a fair bit of heat, so I could drag the board over to them to speed up drying. The physical size of the board was a major problem it was a six foot by four foot lump of one inch plywood so, between dragging that about and my toolbox full of paint and glass palettes to the site, I was constantly exhausted. The cold didn’t help me either, as I often had to sit on the concrete floor for hours at a time or if it rained on my way down I would not dry out properly all day. Actually marking up the designs involved the use of an overhead projector but it actually took more time to tuck and wedge and tape down the board, the ohp, and the table it sat upon than it did to actually draw it out. It’s the random elements you have to watch out for. In a public space there is always something you haven’t and couldn’t account for. There is one simple rule I do follow though and that is “if someone were watching Casualty and was viewing this scene, would they be shouting “you bloody idiot!” at the television?” So block off all corners so kids can’t crack their heads on them, make sure when I’m standing on anything I can’t be knocked into and no one can get to or knock over the paint. That’s the easy stuff though. It’s when someone washes their dog right next to your painting and it gets sprayed with water, it’s the water being turned off half way through a long coat of paint so it dries uneven, it’s a mad alcoholic stumbling in and trying to engage me in conversation and leaning palms down on the wet surface. Whilst finishing the face through the management of the venue asked if I would add some signage for the toilets. This soon turned into a full scale mural. Because the time the disabled toilet was out of action needed to be kept to a bare minimum, I pre cut stencils for the signage and the design elements.

 I figured that taking the phrase ‘water closet’ at a starting point, I could turn it into an underwater scene. On day one I got the base water tones  and the larger fish and diver down, on day two the basic fish shapes and colours. By day three it was black lines, highlights and done. It nearly wiped me out though, particularly as on the last day it was freezing cold and I spent a lot of time lying on the floor painting the sea bed. I’ve since been diagnosed as having heart trouble and I do wonder if all of this has contributed, although I do suspect my fondness of chocolate and chips had something to do with it as well. I would say that I appreciate my normal working environment more since doing this, but I couldn’t bloody love sitting in my flat painting any more than I already do. Plus I do find people a strain.

 There is something interesting about spending time quietly painting in the corner of a large busy building. After a while you start to become invisible, you see the politics of a place. It’s weird for me, working in places where people are entertained being someone who is always capable of entertaining myself and just getting on with my own stuff, seeing the effort and planning that goes into people having things spoon fed to them. Personally I’d sooner read a book. My most recent bit of mural painting was rather lovely though. I had the job of updating the existing mural in the old Hastings bistro due to open next week. I felt guilty painting over someone else’s work but it no longer fitted in with the look of the place. I did keep the bulk of it though, the general composition, I just Dweeblingised it a bit. That only  took two days to complete plus all the prep drawings that went with it. I must admit, the trickiest part of this one was not exposing my bottom crack to the world whilst up the top of a ladder. I have since invested in some serious workman’s bib and braces overalls with lots of pockets and knee pads because rather than builders bum I’ve got mural painter’s arse.


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