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.
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.
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.
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.