The lead muralist on 85,000-square-foot “How Philly Moves” talks about paint-by-numbers the size of several football fields, among other things
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More than a year after construction started and three years after the project was conceived, tonight’s the dedication ceremony for “How Philly Moves,” the Mural Arts Program’s most ambitious project to date. At more than 50,000 square feet (85,000 square feet if you count open spaces), “How Philly Moves” is the second-largest mural in the world, covering the exterior of the airport’s parking decks; its colorful images of dancers will be Philly ambassadors, as the mural is un-missable and the first thing airline passengers and northbound drivers on 95 will see of the city. Before the dedication and rooftop dance party tonight, we talked to Jon Laidacker, the lead muralist on the project, about working on such a huge scale, why you can’t sweat the small details, and making a paint-by-numbers as large as several football fields.
The A.V. Club: What exactly does a lead muralist do?
Jon Laidacker: In general, the lead muralist is in charge of taking everything that is brought up in community facilitation meetings and incorporating them into a cohesive design. In the case of the airport, it was kind of a two-part project. The key designing artist, JJ Tiziou, had already done [the design and the background work], and I was in charge of making it happen.
AVC: What do you do to make things happen?
JL: The studio needs to be organized in such a way that it can almost operate on its own. So, all of my assistants had to know exactly how to do each job, like prepping parachute sheets, projection, making paint—so, making sure everybody had things to do every day. And then making sure we all weren’t going over budget on materials, making sure we weren’t going over budget on paint, making sure that one palette was recycled into the next to produce as little waste as possible. When the figure was done, laying it all out flat on the floor, making sure it was as touched-up as it could be, and that colors and tones were consistent from one sheet to the next. It was making sure we were ready for paint days, making sure we were ready for tours, making sure we were ready for sponsors to come through. Just all-over foreman-type activity.
AVC: Most Mural Arts projects are based on neighborhood input; this one seems more intended for visitors or tourists. Since there isn’t exactly an airport community, what kind of input was there?
JL: You can look at it in a handful of different ways. “The community,” quote unquote, was the community of Philadelphia dancers. This has been a three-year project for [Tiziou] where he has been photographing people throughout the city who consider themselves to be dancers—there’s no preference given to style of dance or ethnicity of dance or anything like that, it’s just anyone who considers themselves both a Philadelphian and a dancer. As far as the more standard community participation, we’ve had a number of community paint days over at the studio where anyone was welcome to walk in and actually participate in the creation of the project on the wall that we were working on.
AVC: And that was in the Gallery [at Market East], right?
JL: Right, yep. It was a storefront that was not being used at 9th & Market.
AVC: How did you end up in that space?
JL: My project manager and I were looking around for a couple of months in the beginning of 2010 for adequate studio space. Finally, we came upon the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which are the building managers of the Gallery, and we were lucky enough and they were nice enough to donate that space to us for the length of the project.
AVC: So if it was in a storefront, does that mean people could just walk in and watch you work?
JL: It wasn’t just open everyday that people could walk in. We had specified community painting events where my assistants and I would spend the better part of a week getting things prepared—we would take the sheet wall that they were going to work and we’d wipe everything down and do a paint-by-numbers. So, when people came in, they could just go to the appropriate paint station and pick up a specific number paint.
AVC: How exactly do you make a giant paint-by-numbers?
JL: It’s surprisingly easy, actually. For this one, I relied a lot more heavily on technology like Photoshop and digital projection than I normally do. So for this one, there’s 26 figures on the wall and each of them was treated as its own individual mural. Each one then was divided into a certain number of sheets of parachute cloth, and we had a digital file for each sheet. The parachute cloth was then run through Photoshop and posterized to a level 8—that’s pretty much breaking the colors down into a puzzle. From that puzzle, we went through with a fine-toothed comb and picked out different values of colors that we were going to focus on.
AVC: What were some specific challenges of working so big?
JL: Just the size and the scale of it in general, and trying to get the entire thing produced in a certain amount of time, and trying to get all of the community interaction and all the little facets of the project to work cohesively. And that was before we began to install the project on the wall. That opened up a whole new flock of technical issues.
AVC: What were some of those?
JL: First of all, it was not just a flat wall. It was a wall on six of the parking garage structures down at the airport, which is broken up between positive and negative space as you go up from one deck to the next. The challenge there is taking all of the measurements that the digital surveying crew came up with and making this very awkwardly shaped wall read as a flat image.
Another big challenge was how to work on this massive project when you’re only looking at a tiny little section of it. When we were installing it on the garage, the pieces looked like little abstract paintings. It wasn’t really until we got back at the end of the day or swiveled our lifts around so we could take a look whether or not it was actually reading as a flat image.
AVC: So what would you do if you stepped back and noticed that a couple sheets didn’t quite line up, or the colors weren’t a perfect match?
JL: We don’t worry about it too much. If one sheet doesn’t line up, you get it to meet up as good as you can. You don’t kill yourself too much, because you can drive yourself absolutely insane in the studio and when you put it up on the wall, it’s still going to be off a little bit, that’s just the way it is. Because walls are never perfectly flat, they have imperceptible little curves and niches in [them] that throw things off. So you get it reasonably close, and just expect to do touch-ups on the wall.
With “How Philly Moves,” every single aspect was mapped out and structured so that it was like putting a puzzle together where we knew each piece was going already. We had complete mock-ups in the lifts with us, and each single piece of parachute cloth was broken down and numbered, so when we went to put a sheet of parachute up, we knew exactly how many inches away from the previous sheet of cloth it was supposed to be.
AVC: When I think of painting a mural, I always imagine The Agony And The Ecstasy. Is it physically tough to paint that much?
JL: Everyone would probably give you a different answer to that. My job is what I would be doing in my free time to do if I had another job. I mean, when I wake up in the morning, that’s what I want to do. But if you’re just talking physically exhausting, it can be, definitely. Hanging off of scaffolding—It’s actually much more of a physical job than a lot of people realize as far as the grunt work of having to carry materials around and up and down scaffolds and up and down lifts. Yeah, it can be exhausting.
AVC: Do you have a favorite step in the process?
JL: I don’t know, I’m gonna sound kind of corny saying this, but I love every aspect. I don’t know if there’s any one part of a project that I enjoy more than another. From sitting down at the community meeting and gathering ideas, figuring out how all those different ideas, that hodgepodge of different ideas, is going to collectively come together into one design, until the final dedication, where community members who were heavily involved say a few words on the project. I know that sounds like a generic answer, but…
AVC: Is there anything about the nitty-gritty of painting murals that you think people don’t realize?
JL: Yeah, there’s a lot. There’s a lot of naysayers of the Mural Arts Program, and I think a lot of them tend to just see the finished product and not see the people in the background, all the teamwork and community events that go into a production. They’ll hear things from the Mural Arts Program like “art makes change” and “art saves lives,” things like that. And they’ll look at a finished product and say, “All right, that’s just a picture on a wall.” But what they’re not seeing is all of the conversations that are sparked, all the ideas that are ignited, all those things that lead to the production of a mural that you don’t get just going past it. The mural kind of just stands as a reference.
AVC: Your website says that you’re a “Fine Art Activist.” What exactly does that mean?
JL: The part of my job that I really enjoy is the community-activist job—not so much myself as a community activist, but feeling as though I’m giving a voice of some kind to community activism. It’s kind of my way of looking forward to where I want to take things.
AVC: You probably meet a lot of people through the Mural Arts Program that you probably wouldn’t otherwise meet.
JL: Each project provides an incredible amount of people who, whether or not they’re directly involved in the production of the mural, you’ll want to remain friends with them. Projects that I did five or six years ago, maybe every two or three months, I’ll stop back and knock on a couple of doors, see if people are around. When a project goes really well, you almost become an honorary member of all these neighborhoods. And as far as people directly involved in its creation, like teenagers or [inmates] in the restorative justice program, it’s inspiring, and it’s really rewarding to see individuals who have never considered themselves interested in art or community dialogue or anything like that to really grasp onto it, to be leaders within the project.
AVC: What's important about public art that’s not particularly neighborhood-focused, like the Clothespin?
JL: I think the more exposure people get to works of art in their everyday life is, whether or not anyone even realizes it, generally a good thing. With the arts programs being diminished the way they are, people are getting less and less exposure [to the arts]. And let’s face it: Orchestra halls and museum galleries can be kind of intimidating places for people to go, initially. So we have people reaching adulthood and getting old, and they think they don’t “get” art because it always feels as though it’s out of their reach. When it’s actually out there in people’s daily routine, I don’t think that could possibly be a bad thing.
AVC: Do you have any favorite pieces of public art in Philly?
JL: There’s the new nursing mural on Broad and Vine, and there’s a double mural at the Sunoco station at 22nd and Walnut.
AVC: Oh, I know exactly which one you’re talking about!
JL: I absolutely love that project. It’s by an artist named Michael Webb; he’s a Mural Arts artist, and he was actually the first person I worked with when I moved to Philadelphia.
AVC: Why is it your favorite?
JL: The Sunoco station is on the site of a church that used to stand there. There’s a wall on the west side of it, and there’s a wall on the north side of it. On the west wall, Michael Webb painted windows that have this ghostly reflection of the church that once stood there. Then on the north wall, he painted a shadow of the church. I really enjoy the subtlety of projects like that, when you almost have to go past two or three times to notice it, and then every time you go past, you notice something else, like, “Oh, wow, I didn’t notice that little aspect before.” And even though it’s been there for 12 years, it kind of becomes this ever-evolving piece.
AVC: You’ve been working on “How Philly Moves” for how many months now?
JL: We moved into our studio on August 16, 2010, and we put the last little bit of touch-up on the wall on the July 23 deadline.
AVC: So are you ready to work on a new project, or is this kind of sad?
JL: A lot of people have been asking me that same question, or if I’m happy that the project’s over. The short answer is no, because it was completely addicting. It was the epitome of everything I wanted to work on in the Mural Arts Program so far. It’s been everything about the more traditional projects intensified by a thousand. I find myself craving going back out and working on it.