It’s alive! Rise and shine, giant elk. Wait, what are you doing here? A few weeks ago I decided to “donate” my building, above, to Living Walls: Albany. The project, spearheaded by the ubiquitous Samson Contompasis, is designed to raise awareness about the use of public space, explore the options that a smaller city like Albany has to offer, and give the people a chance to interact with public art. I’m glad I had the opportunity to offer the artists of Broken Crow a space to express themselves and affect my community in a big, hopefully positive way. Read on to find out how it started, my motivations, and how it panned out. Bonus track: many more photos from other murals around the city and a map.
Click on any of the thumbnails to open a larger view, or check the full-screen Flickr slideshow if you have Flash installed.
In the past 10 days our city has seen the arrival of well-respected mural artists to help create unique pieces throughout our neighborhoods. Old buildings are brought new life by national, international and local visual & performance artists. During the Living Walls project the NYS Museum will also play host to a series of lectures and workshops that delve into the sustainability, livability and cultural future of our historic region. It took about 10 months for Samson, owner of The Marketplace Gallery, to execute this project. I can’t imagine the number of hoops he had to jump through but you can read more about his journey in his interviews with All Over Albany and Metroland.
In the picture above, John and Mike of Broken Crow. Samson had mentioned the project to me in passing a while back but it had slipped my mind. A few weeks ago media outlets started to cover his endeavor, I read about it on AOA and realized, to my surprise, that he was still looking for new walls. I told myself, “Wait a sec, I do have a big wall!”, and got immediately excited at the prospect of putting some art on it for people to see. I contacted Contompasis and he jumped at the opportunity right away. I reached out to most of my neighbors by email as well. I’m part of the Spring St. community, they are working hard to make Spring a better street—out-flowering me by a large margin—and that piece was going to be very visible from the sidewalk. This was my decision to take but I wanted to make sure my neighbors were supportive and enthusiastic about this project too. You can’t please everybody but the feedback was overwhelmingly positive so I committed to the project.
Samson got back to me with a few mockups from different artists and I immediately liked what Broken Crow had to offer: a giant, sleepy lion. I loved the idea of reintroducing large animals in the city and the owner of this building feels sleepy most of the time too. My wall is right against a large parking lot used by state workers during the week, I found it amusing that they would start their day with a nod from a wild, exotic creature. Kids were going to dig this piece too. I forwarded the design to my neighbors and received encouraging thumbs up. Contompasis cleared up some legalese for me soon afterward. The owners of the physical wall were the only ones he needed permission from. My street is only historic up to number 72 on the even side of the street—luckily, I’m on the other side. The Living Walls Albany Project is working directly with City Planning and they have embraced this project fully, he shared. We were good to go.
Broken Crow is a stencil-based artistic collaboration between Mike Fitzsimmons and John Grider. The two artists from Minneapolis, Minnesota began creating and showing art together in 2003. While painting their first large mural, they realized that the scale of this type of work allowed the opportunity to live “within” the painting rather than controlling a smaller canvass. Broken Crow developed a unique style that combined the creation of intricate, large-scale stencils with the speed and spontaneity of street art. Through painting, they seek to reintroduce wild animals back into the urban habitats that we humans live in. To date, they have painted 111 murals around the world, for a living (the elk was #110). Their mural art can be seen in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, Milwaukee, Chicago, Baltimore, Reno, Nashville, Austin, Dallas, Mexico, New York, Paris, London and Africa.
I spent a large part of my weekend cleaning up the wall, removing the vines, climbing my ladder up and down, Mario-style. I removed the trash that had accumulated there for years on the parking lot, this was long overdue and I was itching to go crazy with pruning shears. The dense vegetation standing there before was, unfortunately, an invitation for people to litter. I can only hope that starting from a clean slate and adding this large piece of art will slow down this trend. I met Broken Crow Monday night and we look at what they had in store. The lion design was gone but they had a huge elk ready. I’m not certain I would have agreed with a piece as graphic as the wolves they painted on 220 Second Ave for example, but the elk worked great for me too.
By Tuesday we were still playing cat and mouse with the parking lot management. Vehicles are parked right against my wall as early at 7:30am and it was clear they were not going to let us work on the building during the day. I talked to the guys manning the booth, pondered going medieval and poring boiling oil from the top of the building, then let Samson work his magic connections. Broken Crow was busy painting elsewhere in Albany but by Wednesday I started to wonder if this was still going to happen—rain on Thursday wasn’t a good omen either.
Wednesday early evening I found a few messages on my voicemail. Samson and Broken Crow had set camp outside my building. I was stuck in Clifton Park for band practice but tried to help them remotely find a way to power their portable lights. By the time I reached Albany later that night, the silhouette of a giant elk was looming over the empty parking lot. It looked great already. John and Mike had decided to use the color of the brick for the elk itself and surround it with their signature blue, wavy background. Hello, negative space. The incorporation of the existing material didn’t stop there. The animal is positioned so that it looks like it is eating off the trees on Spring St., when viewed from a distance. Of course. An old building used to stand against mine and had left a noticeable darker outline on top lighter bricks. Broken Crow worked this feature in the design to create the underside of the beast. Genius.
Above, another mural by Gaia & Nanook, near 75 Livingston Ave. It required less than 5 hours to complete the elk. This is really quick. It had taken John 2 days to create a full-size stencil, which had been sliced into 50 or so 36″ by 36″ panels, shipped to Albany, and duct-taped on the wall to paint the outline. Both artists were a pleasure to interact with and very articulate about the whole process. The mural is huge and looks kick-ass at night, I’ll try to install lights later this year (please contact me if you know how).
I sent an email to my neighbors that evening and invited them to check John and Mike hard at work. More people stopped by during the night, intrigued by the animal. This is what it is all about. Broken Crow wants people to think about their cities, about their lives. They want to provoke discussions, bring a community and neighbors together through public art. This is a noble intent. The reality, as far as I’m concerned, can be a bit different. You are bound to make unhappy neighbors with a project that size, it just can’t please everybody. Time heals all wounds (crossing fingers). I wish I could have seen the faces of the state workers that next morning though, that elk already makes me smile each time I see it on my way back home. We need a good name for it.
Above, work by OverUnder, near 220 2nd Ave. The inception of the privately-funded Living Walls project can be found in Atlanta in 2010, where Monica Campana started a coordinated effort to engage the public via street art, built a platform for much-needed dialogue, and fight rampant advertising. I can absolutely relate to the later point. I’ve mentioned it before, there is no such thing as the perfect country, but when I moved from France 10 years ago I was struck by the discrepancies between what I regarded as “core values” in my home country and what you guys have to put up with here. The impossible costs of health-care and education come to mind but the visual assault of advertising isn’t far behind. Why would you let massive signs and billboards invade your landscapes? I’m starting to see this very trend grow stronger in Frenchland when I travel back but alas, it happens slow enough that people get used to this sad scenery. If only they could see 10 years in the future. To this extent, I’m a big supporter of public art as a way to balance, if not fight, this commercial barrage.
Above, work by How & Nosm, near 39 Lark St. I only learned recently that a city-wide mural project had already happened in Albany in the ’70s. The paintings are long gone except for one, a cyclist on the corner of Washington Avenue and Henry Johnson Boulevard, a block away from my building. I drive by every morning on my way to work and had wondered about its origin. I find it very fitting to put a new mural so close to this remnant. I read that the city’s Historic Resources Commission required that “Contompasis be bonded for the murals’ upkeep to avoid them becoming degraded like the one on Henry Johnson”. I made no such demand, I for one believe that this new mural is now part of the building and should weather with it. There is beauty to be found in a peeling vestige and I hope that the vines I slaughtered last week will grow back as well. I envy the incredulous kid who, in 20 years, will wonder what extraordinary animal is peeking from behind the foliage.
There are a lot more murals to be found in Albany. Jump on your bicycle and try to find them all, it makes for a nice ride around the city. Artists involved in the project include ROA, How & Nosm, Chris Stain, Gaia, Cake, Michael DeFeo, Broken Crow, Over/Under, Nanook, Jon Burgerman, Veng, Depoe, Radical!, White Cocoa, Evereman, Scott Michael Ackerman, Uneek, Clown Soldier, Marcus Anderson, Joe Iurato, Papertwins, Jacqueline Brickman, VRNO, Hellbent, Gregory Maxwell Dunn II, YARK, Army of One, and Deacon Czar. Check the Living Walls page for an updated list. I captured many in the past few days.
Above, work by Broken Crow, near 250 Sheridan Ave.
Above, work by ROA, near 210 Sheridan Ave.
Above, work by Broken Crow, near 220 2nd Ave.
Above, work by OverUnder, near 210 Sheridan Ave.
Above, work by Doodles, near 20 Learned St.
Above, work by LNY, near 448 Delaware Ave.
Above, work in progress by OverUnder & Don Shore, near 241 Sheridan Ave. This is a great example of a collaboration between an artist, OverUnder, and the owner of the building. The latter, Don Shore, owns a handmade ceramic tile shop, L’esperance Tile Works. The design was reworked to incorporate tiles he provided. Many more photos and details about this collaboration on the artist’s blog.
Above, work by Michael DeFeo, near 100 Watervliet Ave.
Above, work by Clown Solider, near Rensselaer Riverfront Art Park.
Above, work by N’DA, near Rensselaer Riverfront Art Park. Interestingly enough, the park already featured 162 murals thanks to… Samson’s mother, Jackie Brickman. Back in the mid-90′s, her organization RAMS (Rensselaer Arts Movement Society) painted many of the columns to imbue some life in this concrete desert. Fast forward to 2011, many of the murals were in dire need for a refreshment when Samson teamed up with the Mayor of Rensselaer to renew this commitment to the park. Full circle.
A great photoset by Flickr user psesinkclee:
Another photoset by Flickr user Luna Park:
Yet another set of photos by Flickr user milfodd:
Another set of photos by artist Overunder:
I created a quick map of the murals: http://bit.ly/lwalb
- Living Walls:Albany (also on Tumblr and Twitter)
- The Living Walls project, Living Walls in action (All Over Albany)
- Huge coverage and great photos at Brooklyn Street Art: Living Walls : Albany Roundup, Images of the Week 09.18.11, during Living Walls : Albany, Work in Progress :How and Nosm and Overunder, Joe Iurato Transending, Street Artist ROA and a Dead Squirrel, Overunder and Broken Crow, Clown Soldier, Wing, Shin Shin, NohJColey, N’DA, Cell Phone Snap : Broken Crow + Wolves Feasting on a Carcass, Cake, Joe Iurato, Overunder, Chris Stain in Church, Museum : 9/11 Mural
- overunder: Riverfront Park in Rensselaer, overunder: Tile Mural for Living Walls Albany
- The Art of Urban Renewal (Metroland)
- Living Walls aims to examine intersection of art and public spaces (Times Union)