Kate Painted A Mural


At last, it’s done. I painted a mural.


mural portfolio pic


It was hard for me to imagine ever getting to this point. In fact, there were many times when I was sure the mural wasn’t going to happen at all. I simply couldn’t imagine a day when I would walk by that terrible concrete retaining wall and see not one hundred and six feet of cracked and dirty concrete, but one hundred and six feet of paint: paint that I put there, painstakingly covering every single square inch through months of hard work. I consider this project to be one of my greatest accomplishments to date. Not coincidentally, I also consider it to be one of the greatest challenges I have ever taken on. There were challenges I foresaw: creating an original and beautiful design, facing the physical enormity of the space, transferring and scaling the design, etc. But there were many more challenges I never saw coming: zoning issues, funding setbacks, the heat, the sheer organizational effort of organizing a project on this scale and over such an extended time period… I could go on. But what I also failed to predict was the total sense of achievement and enjoyment the mural afforded me. I had fun. Every single day. Even when it was 95 degrees out and 18-wheelers were whizzing past at ridiculous speeds and I kicked over a bucket of paint onto the sidewalk, I still loved every second of it.

The biggest surprise of all was my interaction with the community. As a plein air painter I’ve spent a lot of time painting out in public, enduring endless unsolicited comments and interruptions. Because of this experience, I wasn’t looking forward to being so completely exposed as I worked every day. But by the end of the first week on-site, my attitude was starting to change. People were approaching me with genuine interest in my project: they were curious, excited, sincere, polite, and kind. They wanted to know everything: who was I? What was I doing? Who was funding me? How did I know how to paint a mural? Was I doing it all by myself? When would it be done? After the initial barrage of questions in the first few weeks, I started to get regulars. People who lived nearby or commuted past the mural started becoming familiar faces. People started walking by and saying nothing but “thank you” with no further explanation. I was totally taken aback. The simple thank yous were so powerful and unexpected and I want to take some time to say some thank yous of my own. There’s no way I can possibly thank every single person who had an impact on this project, but I’m going to try my best.


Thank you…


to the bus drivers who drove by me every day. Although simple gestures, the friendly honks and waves they gave me clearly conveyed their support. When I had the rare chance to speak to the drivers as they stopped for passengers, they were, without exception, unbelievably kind and supportive.


to the young girl (and her family) in the apartment complex across the street from the mural who visited me on multiple occasions. She brought over a drawing of me working on the mural, paintbrush in hand. On it, she had written “thank you.”


to the elderly woman who got off the bus every day at the same time, and repeatedly reminded me how oppressively hot the weather was. I can’t say I was so thankful for her little reminders at the time, but she became a familiar face who I now realize was simply trying to connect with me.


to James Benson, who lived near the mural and became an avid supporter both out at the mural site and online through the mural’s Facebook page. He took a sincere interest in my process and I always enjoyed speaking with him. He also brought me an ice cold soda on a particularly hot day, which I won’t soon forget.


to Eugene Dean, one of my favorite regulars. Eugene, too, lived near the mural and stopped by regularly to check on my progress and to encourage me. I often spoke with him about the various challenges I faced throughout the project, to which he responded with words of encouragement. He was always a welcome visitor.


to the dad with several kids in tow who asked to take a selfie with me – he made me feel like a celebrity!


to all my friends at Potomac Paint, who were endlessly patient with a novice painter like me and mixed an absurd number of paint samples for me.


to my favorite Professor, John Lee for teaching me how to paint and draw in the first place and for all his advice throughout the design process. No blending!


to Lauren Ashley and Hiromi Isobe, my elementary school art teacher and high school art teacher, respectively. Seeing both of these women who had such an impact on me at the mural opening made it that much more special.


to Angela Adams, Joan Lynch, Jeff Zeeman, Tina Worden, and everyone else at Arlington Cultural Affairs and Arlington Public Arts for all their support throughout the grant application process and for tirelessly helping to promote the opening event.


to Courtney Murphy for telling me to push the design to the “next level” and for encouraging me to apply for the Spotlight Grant. I am so grateful for her involvement in this project.


to the handful of Engleside residents, many of whom I have not met, who personally funded this project after we lost the vote at the co-op level. Without them, the mural simply would not have happened.


to my parents, who helped a LOT. From being sounding boards for design ideas to lending me lots of tools to helping with the drawing, I can’t thank them enough for all their involvement in this project.


to Tom and Kristen who were always willing to keep me company while I was painting, and who listened to me talk about nothing but the mural for an entire summer and beyond.


to all the blog readers and Facebook followers who kept up with the project from near and far. I was shocked at the number of neighbors, former classmates, faraway friends, and new acquaintances who told me they had been following my progress online. Although I put a lot of time and effort into this small blog, I never really expected anyone to read it. Knowing that my hard work has been appreciated makes all the difference.


and lastly, to John Laswick for being the impetus and driving force behind the entire project. He refused to give up on the mural even after all the challenges we faced. He made it happen. Thank you for trusting me with this project and for providing me with such an exceptional opportunity.


Thank you.



All photos by Tom Woodruff



Final Mural Blog Post 2

Final Mural Blog Post 3

Final Mural Blog Post 4

Final Mural Blog Post 5 Final Mural Blog Post 7 Final Mural Blog Post 6

Final Mural Blog Post 8

Opening Event Recap

Many thanks to all who came out to the mural opening reception on the 24th. Seeing so many friends, neighbors, Arlington Arts affiliates, Engleside residents, and new faces celebrating together was a perfect conclusion to the project. County Board Member Libby Garvey, Engleside resident and Arlington Commission for the Arts member Courtney Murphy, Engleside board president John Laswick, and I spoke briefly about our roles in creating the mural and in the arts in Arlington. Everyone then joined me in revealing the finished mural, pulling down one hundred feet of black plastic sheeting that was covering the mural. Check out photos of the event and the finished mural here and stay tuned for a longer post wrapping up my final thoughts on the mural.


Please send your photos of the event to katefleming20@gmail.com or post them to Facebook at www.facebook.com/katepaintsamural.

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Kate (Finally) Paints a Mural

If you’ve ever taken on a painting project, whether it’s an artwork or a bedroom, then you know how good it finally feels to dip your brush in the paint once all the prep work is finally done. When I cracked open that first can of paint, I felt like I was practically finished; I was into the good stuff. I had been looking forward to that paint from day one. You should know that I’m in love with paint: the texture, the smell, the pigments. Oil paint is best of course, but I still have a particular fondness for latex house paint. Working with it made me feel closer to the Abstract Expressionists of the mid-20th century.

I ordered samples of all the colors I’d picked out at Potomac Paint in Arlington, and giddily opened them up one by one when I got home. Color at last! I decided to paint one color at a time, moving methodically across the entire surface of the mural over and over again. I started with the lightest color and moved down the scale I had created for myself. This way, when I inevitably made a mistake, I would easily be able to cover it with the next color. Dark covers light much easier than light covers dark.

Interior paint on the left vs exterior paint on the right
Interior paint on the left vs exterior paint on the right

On the first painting day, I rolled out a paper drop cloth, readied my brushes, and considered my options. My drawing was all straight lines and sharp divisions of color. I had made myself a giant paint-by-numbers, now what was the best way to paint it in? I could either put down miles of painters tape, use a something like a 2×4 as a straightedge, or simply try my hand at cutting directly to the pencil line. Option number three is what a professional house painter would do. As my dad so kindly informed me, “real painters don’t use painter’s tape.” No pressure. “Real” painters don’t use painter’s tape because it takes longer to tape everything off than to rely on a steady hand. To my surprise and delight, I too found success with this method. I realized that using tape or a straightedge would only slow me down. Besides, I could easily paint over any mistakes once the paint was dry (and believe me, there were mistakes). Once I painted all the shapes’ edges with the brush, I went back over the whole thing and filled it in with the roller.

As I flew through the first and second and third colors, I remember thinking to myself how straightforward the rest of the work was going to be. With my painting process worked out and my colors all picked, what could possible go wrong? And then there was what I like to call the interior paint fiasco. To spare you all the gory details: I used the aforementioned sample-size jars of paint to paint all the edges. I then purchased gallons of the same colors to roll the inner portions of the shapes I’d painted. Paint samples only come in interior paint. Interior paint changes colors when exposed to the elements. Exterior paint does not.

So I mentally cursed myself for being so naïve as I painstakingly repainted the first four colors of the mural, setting myself back a couple of weeks. In the end, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I discovered how much better everything looked with a second coat. The bumpy, holey concrete wall sucked up a lot of paint and made it difficult to get full coverage.

With this little hiccup behind me, I hoped to finish the project without any further drama. Now five weeks into the painting process, I went on vacation. When I returned ten days later, everything was suddenly wrong! No, nothing about the mural or the paint had changed while I was away. But having some time away from the project gave me fresh eyes and I didn’t like what I was seeing. The colors were all wrong (to me and only me, of course). I had five colors left to paint, and I felt that the colors I had picked out needed to be more vivid, more purple, and darker. So I returned once again to my friends at Potomac Paint and asked them to show me every purple imaginable. I eventually picked out some Benjamin Moore purples, which were considerable more vivid than the C2 colors I’d selected previously.

Choosing new paint colors
Choosing new paint colors

I also took this opportunity to fix another problem with the color that had been nagging me for weeks. The second color I’d painted was far too blue and was destroying the overlapping/translucent effect I was going for. After making these edits, the mural was finally beginning to come together.

I faced many challenges throughout the course of this mega-project. But my greatest enemy? The heat. Arlington summers brought me ninety-degree day after ninety-degree day. The paint dried in mere minutes, even on my brushes as I continued to paint. Once I ran out of light at the end of the day, I returned home to painstakingly wash and pick out every last piece of dried-up paint from the bristles. Paint in the open container I held developed a skin after an hour of exposure, and became viscous and thick. Conversely, the heat afforded me the ability to second-coat areas almost immediately after I’d painted the first, speeding the job along.

But while the paint was drying, I was melting. I tried to avoid working during the heat of the day as much as possible, and became acutely aware of the exact time of day when the shadow of the wall would disappear and leave me exposed to the sun. I applied sunscreen constantly and donned a giant, dorky hat (worth it). I always kept water with me and tried to remind myself to take breaks in the shade every now and then. Many thanks to all the friends and family who brought me cold drinks and helped me carry the 8-foot ladder (my second-greatest enemy, especially at the end of a long, sweaty day).

As I worked my way through the colors, I edited and repainted constantly. I ultimately abandoned the plans I had printed out for myself and began to work more intuitively with the color system I had developed. I changed the colors in some areas over and over again, refusing to stop until it was really right. And before I knew it, it was done. I had imagined finishing this mural for months and months so its actual completion was almost surreal. I enjoyed (nearly) every second of painting this mural, so finishing it is certainly bittersweet. Stay tuned for information in the coming days about the mural opening event… and for finished photos of the mural!

Making the Drawing

After all the meetings, the research, the grant writing, the sketching, and the digital design work, at last, it came time to work on the wall itself. When I first stepped out to the site with pencil in hand and intention to actually get to work, it was pretty surreal. The project for which I had fought for over a year was finally becoming an actual physical reality. The first task was to properly prepare the surface of the concrete in order to insure the mural’s longevity. Because of the Spotlight Artist Grant I received from Arlington County Cultural Affairs, I was able to hire a subcontractor to do this work. I immediately enlisted commercial painter Douglas Fernandez and his crew. I don’t have any pictures from this stage of the process because they work so fast! By the time I realized work had begun, it was practically already finished. Douglas used C2 primer specifically formulated for concrete, tinted the color I planned to use as my lightest color in the finished mural.

Once the priming was complete, I was finally able to really get started on-site. It was hard for me to focus at first: the traffic, the construction across the street, the sweltering heat, and well-meaning passers-by all vied for my attention. This is where a good pair of over-the-ear headphones came in handy.

My dad using the laser level’s receiver


I began by drawing a two-foot by two-foot grid across the entire surface of the wall with a carpenter pencil. Carpenter pencils allowed me to draw a nice, thick line that wouldn’t easily wash away. I went through quite a few of them. The vertical lines of the grid were up first because they were the easiest. I used a tape measure to measure along every two feet across the top of the wall (which was more or less level) and an eight-foot level to mark the vertical line down from there. The horizontals were a little trickier because while there weren’t many of them to draw, they would each be over a hundred feet long. That’s where my dad (the contractor) came to the rescue (as usual). He brought out one of his favorite toys: a Stabila laser level. We set up what looked to me like a surveyor’s tool on a tripod in the median of Lee Highway, and then held a receiver against the wall at various points where I had already drawn vertical lines. The transmitter shoots out a laser lane that’s invisible in the daylight, but the receiver allows you to mark exactly where the line is. It beeps at faster and faster frequencies as you get it closer to the laser line you’ve set up. Using this fancy tool, I was able to get precise gridlines that would form the basis of my drawing.

The plans I’d made in Illustrator and InDesign had the same to-scale grid overlaid on top of the design, allowing me to scale up the entire drawing from a print-out on several 11×14” sheets of paper to a 106-foot wall. I started from the right, where the wall was shortest and the design was simplest. Using a yardstick and a four-foot level, I transferred my design to the wall.

The finished grid
The finished grid

I intentionally made the entire drawing, with the exception of the large radial forms, using only straight lines. This was mostly because I wanted to create contrast between the overlaid circular forms and the rest of the design, but I also knew it would make transferring the drawing much easier.

Drawing out and scaling-up the entire design by was yet another opportunity for fine-tuning and redrawing. It was also an opportunity to realize some of my glaring mistakes. Once I had drawn out roughly sixty feet of the design, I came to a sudden realization. Everything was off. Why? I went back to the start of the design and began marking off every ten feet. Ten feet, twenty feet, thirty feet… eighty feet, ninety feet, one hundred feet, one hundred and six feet… wait a second. I had marked the wall in my plans at 116’. I had simply remembered it incorrectly and created my entire design on the basis of this incorrect figure. A big lesson to be learned here, the hard way: measure once, cut twice, as the saying goes. (It seems I need to re-learn this lesson with every new project). This meant that I needed to cut out ten feet of design in the left forty-six feet of the wall. I went reluctantly back to the drawing board and cut out a landmark that I’m not going to tell you about because it’s not in the mural anymore. I promise you won’t even miss it.


One of seven pages of plans
One of seven pages of plans


Once I had recovered from this little blunder, I finished drawing the straight-line parts of the design and began on the radiating circles. I had intentionally drawn all of the circles’ radii in Illustrator at round numbers in two-foot intervals, in order to make this process easier for myself. I tied a long piece of string to a carpenters pencil and then marked it off at the measurements I needed. Then I enlisted the people in my life who have the misfortune of getting sucked into all my projects (thanks Mom and Tom!) to hold one end of the string where I wanted the center of the circle to be, while I held the pencil perpendicular to the wall with the string taut, tracing a big circle. With the drawing complete it was finally time to get to my favorite part: the paint!

Although this post is long and probably seems complicated, this process only took about a week. I was shocked at how fast it came together, and optimistic that the painting would be just as quick. But that’s a topic for another blog post.


Design Process

If there’s one thing painting has taught me, it’s that coming up with big ideas is infinitely easier than actually turning them into visual reality. In my previous post, I talked all about my ideas and influences and concepts. This post is about how I struggled to make those things into a real, concrete design. As I mentioned previously, my sketchbook was the natural place to start. My sketchbooks are not pretty. They’re filled with scribbly, ugly, scratched-out and half-finished ideas; but that’s how I like it. The sketchbook is a place where I can fail over and over again in a non-committal sort of way.

After I made a lot of really bad drawings, I finally ended up with the one I put in my last post. I liked that drawing and the direction it was moving, but I started to realize the limitations of pen and paper for this project. The finished design needed to be perfectly geometric and to-scale, so I moved to a computer program called Adobe Illustrator. I developed my skills in Illustrator when I first began as an intern at the Smithsonian Office of Exhibits Central (around the same time I began to work on this project) and I am so grateful for that timely learning experience.

I decided to continue with the same 30-foot (to scale) section of wall that I had been working with in my sketchbook; it was pretty much impossible for me to conceptualize the entire 106-foot length of the wall at once. I scanned my preliminary drawings and placed them in an Illustrator document. My next step was to trace these drawings with the pen tool and line tool, creating a vector drawing. Vector drawings are not made of pixels and thus can be infinitely scaled up without losing any image quality. As I traced, I also edited. Re-drawing is nearly always beneficial to the work, as it allows you to revisit the image as a whole instead of just picking at pieces of it and worrying about ruining what you already have. Although I knew the final design would be based on colors and shapes, I kept it simple with black lines on a white page at this point in the process. This is how I start most of my paintings; the drawing is the foundation of it all.Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 7.24.01 PM

I struggled for a long time with the color. Color is everything. The drawing would mean next to nothing if the colors weren’t exactly right, and I wasn’t sure where to pull the colors from since I wasn’t working from life. I wanted the color to be subtle, varied, beautiful, true to my work, and unobtrusive all at the same time. In moments of aesthetic crisis, I always turn to my college professor and mentor, John Lee. He reminded me to look to my sources: Charles Sheeler and Aaron Douglas. They both use a rich range of purples and blues countered by complementary yellows, so I decided to use a modified version of their color schemes. I filled in the Illustrator drawing using the Live Paint tool and I at last had a preliminary design to show the condo board at Engleside Cooperative.

Once I eventually received approval from Engleside and a grant from Arlington County, I returned to my design. The Spotlight Grant changed the mural from a project between one client and one artist to a community-oriented project. I decided to solicit the community for ideas about content before I moved any further with the design. I set up this blog and the Facebook page over at www.facebook.com/katepaintsamural and asked one simple question: what landmarks do you want to see in this mural? As the ideas flowed in, I went back to my sketchbook. I made sketches of all the additional landmarks community members had suggested, and scanned and traced them into their own individual Illustrator documents so I could try to work them into the design. I also completely reworked the original design, as nearly nine months had passed since I first created it. I brought the design back down to its linear foundation and redrew both Key Bridge and the Rosslyn Skyline to make them more specific and dynamic, and used these two landmarks as the anchor for the rest of my mural, working outward from there.

The last step before recoloring the design was adding radiating circular forms throughout the work. I pulled this idea directly from Aaron Douglas’s murals; he uses concentric shapes to draw attention to particular areas of the work. In addition to directing the viewer’s attention, I wanted to give the mural a distinct look from across the street. For pedestrians looking at the mural up close, the mural is an abstracted and geometric cityscape; for the car or bus commuter, the mural is a series of abstract, radiating, circular forms. It is, in a sense, two different murals in one.Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 5.04.38 PM

With all the shapes and outlines complete, I colored everything in using the Live Paint tool in Illustrator. I had a very specific system for color. I acted as though each landmark was its own translucent shape. If a shape was on its own as the only layer over top of the background, I used the second color on my color scale. If another shape overlapped it, the overlapping space would be assigned the third color on the scale, and so on. By imagining the shapes as physical layers I was able to create a sense of depth within my strictly geometric design. Of course, I often confused my own self about how many layers were in a particular spot and so the coloring process took more brain power than I’d like to admit.

All in all, I spent over 100 hours working on the design (which is maybe why this post is so long!). Once it was complete, I felt that the hardest work was over. I had made the plan and all that was left was to execute it… a 750+ sq ft mural hand-painted by only me. Piece of cake, right?

Design Ideas

Making a 106-foot-long, 781 square foot painting is no small feat. I can’t just show up with some brushes and a few tubes of paint and crank it out in a day or two. Although still a painting, this painting is totally different from the ones I usually make, requiring extensive planning and forethought. I begin every painting with lots of drawings and compositional sketches, but things always flow and change once I have the paint on the canvas. This project doesn’t afford me the same level of flexibility for a few different reasons. First, it’s enormous. Everything is scaled up, including the amount of time it takes to make adjustments. Painting, repainting, and making small adjustments isn’t really an option. Second, I’m using latex exterior house paint instead of my usual oil paint – and lots of it. Latex paint is thin and watery, and can’t really be laid out on a palette and mixed the way oil paint can be. I have to select and map out distinct colors before I even start painting. And third, it’s a commissioned, publicly viewed work of art. The design must meet my own high standards, yes, but it is also about creating something amazing for the client and for the community. And that’s a tall order.

All this being said, I started this painting the only way I know how: with a pencil and a sketchbook. I first began planning this mural with my friend Elena. Elena is the one who introduced me to the project, and she was originally going to paint it herself. However, she soon accepted a job in Nicaragua and later another in Guatemala so the project fell to me. We had discussed ideas of abstract color shapes or stripes, but a second meeting with the condo board at Engleside revealed their interest in an image that referenced the location of the condo – within historic Arlington and along Lee Highway, the pathway to Key Bridge and to Washington. And that’s when I looked to my sketchbook. After soliciting the condo residents for their ideas about Washington and Arlington landmarks, I filled pages of my sketchbooks with simplified and geometric representations of these places. I later solicited the entire Arlington community for more ideas through my Facebook page and blog.

Adding Value to the Sketch
A Preliminary Sketch of the Mural Design

But before I could get very far, I looked to my other favorite and fundamental tool of image making: Art History. With the help of my former painting professor, John Lee, I selected a few key artists from whose work I could draw influence. The first was Aaron Douglas, American painter and Harlem Renaissance muralist. Douglas’s complexity of overlapping shapes had always inspired me, and I felt that his adeptness at depicting history would lend itself well to my project. I also looked to the work of

A Mural by Aaron Douglas Entitled "Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery Through Reconstruction," 1934
A Mural by Aaron Douglas Entitled “Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery Through Reconstruction,” 1934

Charles Sheeler, “Canyons,” 1951

Charles Sheeler, another 20th-century American painter. Sheeler is perhaps best known for his precisely made paintings of the Ford Rouge Plant in Detroit. However, the paintings of his I’m most interested in are semi-abstract and made up of overlapping shapes of buildings. Both Sheeler and Douglas use rich purples and ultramarine blues in their shadows, which I adore. Lastly, I looked to contemporary artist and Virginia native Ryan McGinness.

I stumbled across his work at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and was blown away by his silkscreen prints created with layers and layers of simplified icons representing prominent pieces from the VMFA’s collection. Geometry and simplification, paired with a layered and overlapping aesthetic became my goal for the design.

Okay, so by that point I had my ideas nailed down, but ideas are just that: ideas. Executing those ideas is a whole other story… I’ll get to that in my next pos

Charles Sheeler, "Canyons," 1951
Charles Sheeler, “Canyons,” 1951
Ryan McGinness, "Aesthetic Comfort," 2008
Ryan McGinness, “Aesthetic Comfort,” 2008

Speed Bump

Progress on the mural (and on this blog) hit a bit of a speed bump last week. As I was putting the finishing touches on the design in Illustrator (more on that later), I got a call from Angela Adams over at Arlington Public Arts. Angela was a huge help throughout the Spotlight Grant application process. She was calling to let me know that my project did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Arlington Public Arts Committee. This seemed, at first, a good thing; I would not need to go through the Public Art Committee’s approval process and so I could get started right away. But there was one catch: because it was determined to be a non-public art project, Angela and I concluded that I would have to follow the County sign ordinance. Here’s the bit of the sign ordinance that seemed to apply to my project:


A mural or work of visual art that otherwise meets the definition of “sign” in this §34 but that conforms with either of the following standards shall not be subject to regulation under this §34:


(1) Art that is installed or located in accordance with the Arlington County Public Art Policy; or

(2) Art that meets all of the following criteria:

  • (a) Is located on the wall of a building in any district, but not in R districts or RA14-26, RA8-18, RA7-16 or RA6-15; and
  • (b) Includes no text legible from a public roadway; and
  • (c) Includes no logo or trademarked symbol; and
  • (d) Includes no specific commercial product, although it may include such generic products as automobiles, furniture, soft drinks or other items where the brand is not apparent; and
  • (e) Includes no picture, symbol or device of any kind that relates to a commercial business, product or service offered on the premises where the wall is located.


Not exactly a thrilling read, I know. But the general idea of the ordinance is that signs cannot include legible text, logos, or advertisements. No problem! But (a) is where I got a little hung up; my mural site at Lee Highway and North Veitch Street is in an RA8-18 (basically, residential apartment) zone. After a year of meetings, drawings, design work, and grant applications, it seemed like the whole project was about to get derailed by a county zoning ordinance.

Angela suggested that I head to the county zoning offices and ask to speak with Clif Hogan, who had dealt with these kinds of issues before. I met with Clif and he was perplexed as Angela and I. My project is not a Public Artwork, true – it’s on private property. But “sign” didn’t seem to properly describe it either. Isn’t there anything in the county ordinances for private works of art? Clif told me he would do some research and get back to me in a few days.

In the meantime, I stopped all work on the mural. I didn’t want to sink any more hours into a project that might get canceled. I was also afraid that I would have to go through some sort of zoning exception hearing that could take weeks or months to complete, and we would run out of warm weather for painting once again. It seems like all the hours I had put into the project had gone to waste.

I hadn’t heard from Clif in a few days so I decided to nervously give him a call. If the project was off, I wanted to know about it as soon as possible. The phone rang and rang. The suspense was killing me! He finally answered. “Oh, I’ve been meaning to give you a call. Seems like your project isn’t a sign at all, it’s a private art work, which we were somehow missing the ordinance for.” This was something so obvious, yet so not obvious in Arlington County ordinance language. I still don’t quite understand how Clif worked it out because I haven’t seen the ordinance he referred to, but I have the County’s go-ahead and that’s what matters! I lost a few days of work in the process, but I’m getting back on track. Stay tuned for updates about how things are looking at the mural site!

Getting Started

The retaining wall in all its glory

Getting a big project started can take some time. Back in the summer of 2014, Engleside Cooperative approached me about painting a mural on their retaining wall. As a recent college graduate, I was excited about the prospect of taking on such a large commission. I was also naïve about the amount of logistical work, planning, and budget building that would need to go into a project of this size. I had painted a mural before – the first in a now six-year senior class tradition at Washington-Lee High School – but my wonderful art teacher, Hiromi Isobe, had essentially handled all of the planning and logistical work.

As I began developing design ideas for Engleside, it soon became apparent that my ideas were a little bigger than their budget. Engleside’s condo board debated and eventually agreed upon increasing my funding (due to the tireless efforts of mural commissioner and Engleside resident John Laswick). The warm weather soon turned cold, and it was too late. The mural was still in the back of my mind throughout the winter, but I knew it would have to wait. In sub-freezing winter weather, latex paint would not dry.

While I waited for better painting weather, Engleside resident Courtney Murphy brought my attention to the extended deadline for the FY 2016 Spotlight Artist Grant through Arlington Commission for the Arts. A grant of this kind would make a huge difference for my project; it would mean I could hire a professional painting service to do the time-consuming and labor-intensive preparatory work on the concrete retaining wall. The wall was cracked and dirty, and would need to be cleaned and sealed before I could apply paint if I intended it to stick. Concrete is a difficult surface to paint on because it is porous; water actually moves through it.

The months dragged on without any news and I started to seriously doubt my chances of receiving the grant and I wondered if I would be able to complete the project without it. When I had all but given up (as is usually the case) I found this message in my inbox:


Dear Kate Fleming,


On behalf of the Arlington Commission for the Arts, I am pleased to inform you that we are recommending to the County Board that your FY 2016 Spotlight Grant, “Mural on Retaining Wall at Engleside Cooperative” be supported with a cash award of $5,000.


Awesome! I was so excited and honored that the Arlington Commission for the Arts through my project was worth their attention and funding. What’s more, as an emerging artist, I felt like this grant legitimated my career and portolio.

Getting the funding from the Arlington Commission for the Arts and Arlington Cultural Affairs has finally gotten this project moving in a real way. It’s been a full year in the works, but things are finally starting to pick up speed. Before I can get started on painting the mural itself, I need your help. Let me know in the comments or via Facebook (www.facebook.com/katepaintsamural) what Arlington and D.C. landmarks are most important to you. I’ve received some community input already but I’m looking for more ideas of what to include in the mural. Check back here soon for an update about the mural prep and maybe even some sneak peeks of the designs.