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A World Built of Sweat and Steel


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Location: 7835 Broadway Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44105

A Word...


               What follows is a narrative about the painting of a very significant work of public art. The project began in June 2012 and was projected to be completed during the fall. Our projections fell short of the mark. Although you may find this story inspiring and very instructional, this incident is not one I care to repeat. Don't get me wrong, there is a lot for me to be proud of in the work done. But the execution of the project was so difficult that a tragicomedy can be written about this real-life experience -and you will be able to witness it all in pictures!

               Readers will be pleased with this account because it provides a fascinating insider's look into one of the most challenging tasks in traditional art, namely, the painting of an old fashion mural. While it was being created, the process captured the imagination of an entire community as well as that of those who travelled from different part of the city of Cleveland to admire the work and take photos. Now, through this page reaching a worldwide audience through the Ethernet, a new audience can join into the experience and see what can be done with a lot of hard work and perseverence, and how the most self-absorbed of reasons can bring it all crashing down. But first, let's begin with a little background.



Members of 'Mural My Neighborhood Program', East side group

Mural My Neighborhood Program


               The project began as collaboration between Christopher "Chris" Luciani, Cultural Arts Manager for the City of Cleveland, Ohio, and me, John Rivera-Resto, in business as 'Muralmaster'. Under Chris' leadership, the 'Mural My Neighborhood Program' employed high school students and an artist/teacher to paint murals around the city during the summer months. However, for 2012, a new approach was taken up for the program. Chris decided, with my full encouragement, to "raise the bar"; -way high, and produce murals of professional quality and content like the ones seen in other American cities like Philaderphia -"the City of Murals in the US", Los Angeles -"Mural Capital of the World", or Steubenville -"the City of Murals in Ohio". We have plenty of walls in our city, a good pool of talent, and an amazing history to inspire thousands of stories. So what was stopping Cleveland from becoming "the City of Murals by the Lake"?



Eastside mural painting group doing hand training exercises, April 2012.


               Sure, we could look at the hugely successful City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program as our model, but to expect professional level work by teenagers with scant artistic abilities in this most difficult of all art mediums is folly. Let me be clear by saying it one more time: "Young kids -and many artists with or without diplomas, cannot produce traditional representational murals with professional results". Without a regiment of training, education and experience in this art known as "the king of arts", it is not possible to do professional quality murals. I say this with the conviction of an artist with forty years of full-time experience in the business, as an educator who has taught college level courses on mural painting, as a civic leader who has served as trustee in many prestigious arts organizations, and as a mentor and advisor to many young artists.



The first meeting of the Westside mural painting group, March 12, 2012. Some parents sit in the back row.


               Nevertheless, no matter how talented or artistically promising a young person may be, to expect then to perform at a professional level without a cultivation and exhibition of the necessary skills, would be the equivalent of having them perform brain surgery just because they are very gifted at applying band-aids or because they may be good at opening tamper-proof aspiring bottles. I'm not being cruel in saying this; I'm doing you the favor of a reality check. Since the Italian renaissance to our current day, this has been the unvarnished truth.

               It should be note that the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program -to give one example, while involving thousands of people from the general community, employs professional mural artist as the core of their program. This ensures professionalism and sets standards of quality. To learn more about the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, visit them at - http://muralarts.org

Working with teenagers...


               I personally do not enjoy working with teenagers. Having my two children around when they were at that age cured me of the desire. I demand concentration and dedication on the job. Teenagers have a thousand kinds of distractions disrupting their work focus at every turn. They demand your constant supervision and this grows exponentially as the group gets larger. But in spite of my predilections, I have worked successfully with teenagers in Puerto Rico and in Cleveland (see ‘Mural History of the People of Puerto Rico’ in the Currents Work page), as well as in other parts of the world.



Since they were children, my kids travel with me to most of my worksites -where I put them to work. This picture was taken in London, back in 2000. Selina Marie was a very independent sixteen year old and John Alexander a restless seventeen. I was, for the most part, an untraditional father.


               But working with young kids takes a lot of you. It can be exhausting. I have produced plays and done murals with teenage crews, troubled youth among them. The experiences have been rewarding and to this day I get constant reminders of those projects by people who remember them with particular fondness. Many have asked me what my secret is. My secret is simply this: “I believe every human being is worthy of my respect.” I treat them as adults, with the seriousness they deserve. But I also make them accountable. “You want to be treated as an adult, then must act like and adult –and be responsible for your actions.”

               The problem, I have observed, is that many teenagers do not behave properly in certain circumstances because they have never been taught how to. Many lack a positive role model they can learn from and emulate. So I become that role model for most. I begin a project by showing them a PowerPoint slide show of my work and telling them a little about my life, including some of the unpleasant parts. Then I continue my pep talk with the following line: -“I’m not here to love you; I’m here to get a job done. If you want love, stay at home.” This gets their attention. Then I make them my co-conspirators by telling them what “we” are going to do, "how" we are going to do it, and what “you” are going to get out of it. Then I assure them that “they” will be able to do it, because “I” will show them how to do it –not a boast, but verifiable facts they have seen in the slideshow. And finally I tell them, -“It’s going to be tough –I’m a hard task master, but “we are going to have fun!”. Then, after they had a few moments to digest this, I conclude with: “Are you with me?” And they usually are.

The curriculum


               When Chris invited me to join the program as an artist/instructor, I was conflicted. Being a Cleveland-born native I always harbored the thought of doing a public mural worthy of me. But there was my apprehension of working with teenagers. What’s more, I was in demand and taking this job meant a considerable expenditure of time and one hell of a pay cut. But I also saw it as an opportunity to start the ball rolling in generating a city-wide interest in murals. It was an ambitious thought, perhaps naïve in view of the current political/economic atmosphere in the city, but it was a new frontier –an adventure. And Chris was my kind of guy: a dreamer who dares to do. In fact, I later discovered that Chris’ does not approach work like a profession; for him it was a vocation! This was indeed a rare quality in a city employee.

               During our initial planning discussions I strongly argued on selecting a certain type of student: those who could change a tire, do hands-on work, or hammer nails. In fact, I remember saying –“No artsy ones”. Now, before you give this too much thought, you must understand that mural painting is not like “easel painting”; it is very hard physical work. This is the opposite of a school project where one sits on a stool and work table pretty much alone and do pretty “little” pictures. No, mural work is about assembling scaffoldings, setting up heavy planks, working large scale layouts, carrying buckets and boxes, painting with large size brushes and using your entire arm. And, you have to do it in the open, in a noisy environment, and with little amenities (like restroom suitable for girls). By the end of the day you are going to be tired, hungry and sore. Then the next day, you do it all again.



Learning how "the grid method"


               Furthermore, traditional mural painting is about following a process –a slow process, a centuries old process, and it must be followed precisely. It’s like construction work; you have to follow building codes. In previous experiences I noted that the artsy types do not like the “P” word –perspiration. And to my consternation, they had developed bad habits of how to do things. That’s why I always prefer to work with kids who are predisposed to follow rules, enjoy physical labor, and are not afraid to get their hands dirty. Now, if you find me an artsy student with all the above qualities, chances are that I will hire them later on to assist in my own professional projects (in fact, I have already done so with three of my former students from the Mural My Neighborhood Program).

               Now, to quote Ric Ownes, my assisting artist for the project: -"Chris has a kind heart for sad stories". Indeed he does. He recurited all the students from a list of applicants, and most of them came from the Cleveland School of the Arts! Well, my own kids attended the Cleveland School of the Arts. In fact, my daughter Selina graduated from this school, where she concentrated on acting and photography, completing her senior year as an event photographer for the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame, and winning the prestigious Governor's Award for photography in the process. Still, family ties or not, I would not have hired her for the program! Remember what I said about the "P" word?



My daughter Selina, then 14, working at Laser-x-treme project.


               Well, no remedy. We ended up with a nice group of artsy kids, but a least some of them could change tires, and the others could (I hoped) be trained. They were a colorful group with a range of temperaments from A to Z. We even had several ADHD kids (and we will talk about medication later). In general, they were most entertaining; I could've used a laugh.

               To get them prepared for the project, I created a curriculum "for apprentices". My goal was to teach them how to do on their own every step of the process up to a certain point. Then, I would take over and continue the advance stages of painting with an assisting artist. This was nothing new to me since I have done so in the past. In addition to teaching them about the mural painting process, I made sure to dedicate a couple of classes to the history of mural painting. I wanted the students to understand that they were now becoming member of an elite class of artists, with a history and tradition that when back centuries. For most of them, this was a revelation.



Learning the principles of linear perspective and how the brain works


               Two groups of fifteen students, ages ranging from fourteen to eighteen, trained for three months prior to the commencement of site work. Two mural designs, created by me, were to be painted with the assistance of these new apprentices. But to be able to work on the project they needed to be taught the following skills: how to reproduce a drawing or rendering using the 'grid method', how to produce paper layouts; how to do "chalk transfers"; how to correct and "ink" transferred drawings; how to use measuring equipment and chalk lines; how to assemble and disassemble scaffolding; how to properly clean and maintain brushes; how to preserve the seal in paint cans and the proper way to pour paint mixes into work containers; how to place layouts in the right coordinates using a master; how to paint within contours, and how to model form in monochrome. In addition, they needed to learn the rules of perspective, a little about light and optics (for the proper determination of light and shadow), as well as basic color theory.



Mural painting class -monochrome painting exercise


               In addition to in-class exercises, the students were strongly encouraged to do 'hand training exercises'. The purpose of these exercises was to train the anatomical mechanics of the hand and arm to the movements needed for large scale drawing and painting. Training for "hand dexterity" is necessary for drawing fluid lines during the "inking" process and for being able to paint within the lines. Why is this so important? Well, have you ever tried drawing an object but the drawing looks nothing like the object? Since you can see the object and describe it clearly, then the problem is not with your brain. Obviously something is not working between your brain and the pencil. And that something is... your hand -to be more precise: the muscles, tendons and nerves in your arm and hand. What's wrong? Just like basketball legend Michael Jordan practiced and practiced shooting basketball hoops, an artist needs repetitive hand training exercises to adapt and mold the physical infrastructure of his drawing hand. The more you train (at least 15 minutes a day) the better you will become.

               The curriculum was a specifically designed to have the students ready for the work site. High expectations demanded rigorous training. Painting a highly detailed, two thousand square foot mural, exposed to the wind and sun, high atop scaffolding, can only be accomplished by a well trained and discipline outfit. It can be dangerous and safety measures had to be imposed and rehearsed. In short, that was a lot of work for merely three months. But the learning proved crucial at the worksite. At the end of the instructional period I felt that the students knew more than most art students I have met in college. By the end of the program, I was sure they knew more about mural painting than most art students in college.



'A world built of sweat and steel' -original mural design for the Eastside location



               The plan was to paint two murals simultaneously: one on Cleveland's Eastside, the other on the Westside of the city. I worked with the first group of apprentices on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays with the second group. Chris handled all the logistics and several adult supervisors worked along with the students assuring the all daily tasks and site protocols were followed. This practice allowed me the time needed to concentrate on the design itself. Or so we believed possible... until unforseen circumstances changed the plan. And so, thanks to daily notes on the project's worklog and a photographic recording of the progress, here is a concise telling of the story.



'It's up to us -the people' -original mural design for the Westside location


June 2012

Preparing the wall


               Chris Luciani had an almost impossible task: finding a wall. He had been doing the 'Mural My Neighborhood Program' for many years and had a track record of work and photos to show for it. But every time he scouted a wall suitable for painting a mural, his requests for the use of the wall were turned down. Maybe business owner's apprehensions were confounded by the fact that the mural program was done by teenagers. Put together the words "paint" and "teenagers" and visions of "graffiti" come quick to mind. I would have been wary too of a request to have a horde of kids "messing" a wall on "my property"!



Chris Luciani, the "hands on" creator of the Mural My Neighborhood Program


               I believe this negative attitude results from ignorance of the program and murals in general. To begin with, aside from the Mural My Neighborhood Program, the City of Cleveland has done little to promote an art form that brings thousands of dollars to the economies of other cities in the form of tourism. They have "mural tours" moving visitors and locals from site to site, visually learning about countless stories that make the history and the cultural richness of their communities. It's a matter of public pride. What's more, the creation of murals creat a great feeling of community empowerment and of government involvement. But what I have learned is that in many Cleveland neiborhoods people really have no idea what a mural is suppose to be -other than a summer project to keep kids busy, and especially, what a professionally executed work can do for them. Please do not misundestand me in what I'm saying. I don't blame the public. I have discovered during forty years in the business in many places around the world, that people from all walks of life love art and even have better taste than most critics. They know what they like or dislike when they see it and will tell so immediately! So how can you blame them for not knowing better when there is not a single professionally done mural in sight?



WAB Fabrication Co. at 7835 Broadway


               Good publicity is desired by any public project. People notice things when the media focuses attention on something noteworthy. Word gets around. Unfortunately the Mural My Neighborhood Program had not created that media buzz needed to capture the public's imagination and the full attention of grant givers. Sure, there was a mention in the paper when a project was completed, or maybe a nice photo, but those impressions didn't last longer than next day's news. I know as a professional that murals are a very effective public forum. Murals tell stories that can influence the public. Public perceptions can change. But murals have to be designed to be more than decoration, they also need to stimulate the mind; they need to touch peoples souls. This is what a professionally design mural is supposed to do and this is what we were after.

               Well, at the very least, Chris intended to make a change for the better; I wanted to stir the pot. Serve the public a nice steak dinner and from then on they will not be satisfied with bologny sandwishes. They will demand better! So by painting an excellent example of a traditional mural, the public would now have something with which to measure up future works. Artists and project planners would take notice and consequently try to do better. Chris and I had a shared vision, though I have no faith in "working for the city" or any other group where you are expected to do an imposibility: please everyone. No great work of art has ever been created by committee, but meddling is precisely the type of opportunistic or obstructionist habit of politicians and city bench warmers that lack the vision, the passion and the courage to take action with projects that benifit the community at large. I learned this when I was seventeen, right after painting my first mural -and nothing has changed since. But I trusted Chris because, in spite of negative comments, a lack of support and other institutional roadblocks, it was his initiative that started the program and it was his tenacity with outside funders that convince them to trust him. He told them -"Give me a chance and you will see every single dime you give us going into the program", and they believed him. I could do no less.



Inside view of WAB Fabrication Co.


               And so, time was running out to begin the mural painting phase of the program but we still did not have a wall to paint on. A building on the corner of East 55th street and Broadway Avenue presented the best opportunity. It had a good side wall facing West on Broadway, a mayor intersection with lots of traffic and public visibility. But when Chris approached the business owner with a mural proposal he too refuse the offer.



Isamu Noguchi's 'portal' at the Cleveland Justice Center

               Having been rejected on his first choice, Chris then moved to his second choice: a wall on the side of the WAB Fabrication Co. building. At this stage, I was not involved in the process. My time was spent doing research on a theme for the mural design and conducting mural painting classes with two groups of students, one on the West side of town, the other on the East side. Up to this point, I could only work on ideas since I needed an actual wall -and a study of its surroundings- to plan the design. But it was already May and time was running out.



Thomas Ballard and son doing the inital wall preparation A wood frame work was installed over window recesses to support metal plates


               As it turned out, the owner of WAB Fabrication was receptive to the idea. Now all Chris needed was a finished design to show him and reach an agreement. I first saw a photograph of the wall and I was not excited about it. So I drove to the site for a closer look. In person, I liked it even less. To begin with, the wall faced a side street intersecting Broadway Avenue; it was not facing the main road. What’s more, this area of town was sparsely populated and only traffic travelling North on Broadway toward downtown Cleveland could view the wall. If you drove south on Broadway you would never know it was there. I reasoned, what was the point of doing a mural with low public visibility?

               What’s more, the brick wall surface was not uniform. The mortal between the bricks had aged and the joint lines were sunk deep from erosion. This is the worst possible scenario for painting on a brick wall. In addition, the wall had a series of windows openings that had been sealed with plywood. So in order to make the it mural worthy, the wall had to be resurfaced. In my experience, the best way to resurface brick is by rendering the wall smooth with a coating of cement. Having grown up in Puerto Rico, where all the houses are made of concrete, this was an easy choice. I had painted dozens of murals on smooth rendered concrete walls.



Sample metal plate screwed to brick wall Detail showing metal plates and screws


               However, Chris had used another method of wall surfacing for other murals done in previous years, namely, painting on sheets of smooth metal plates. This was new to me. I had painted murals before on a variety of surfaces but never on metal. I was receptive to the idea but not entirely sold on it. I simply had no experience with the metal plates to reach an informed judgment on the matter. But since this process had worked so well in previous projects, we decided to explore both possibilities by getting estimates on the cost of doing it both ways. As it turned out, if memory doesn’t fail me, installing metal plates was cheaper than concrete rendering the wall. Being already busy into creating a design, I didn't give it much thought and let Chris decide which method to use. As long as I had a surface to work on, I was not going to worry about it. BIG MISTAKE!

Sanding and washing


               Th----n.



Monday, June 18, 2012 -9:30am. Temperature: 87 degrees. First day on the job -and the realisation that we were screwed! Next day temperature was in the nineties -the metal plates began to buckle under the intense heat and the screw heads began to pop off. We were most definitely screwed!



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Priming


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Applying base colors


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The grid


               Grid: a network of horizontal and perpendicular lines, uniformly spaced, for locating points on a map, chart, or aerial photograph by means of a system of coordinates.



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July 2012


Background and foreground


               This on.



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Layout, tracing, inking, blocking


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August 2012


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September 2012


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October 2012


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November 2012


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November 7, my 54th brithday!



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December 2012


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On my way to warm Puerto Rico for the Christmas holiday



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May 2013


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June 2013


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July 2013 -da Vinci's horse


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The end in sight!



Study of a horse by Leonardo da Vinci Con--48--ll







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