A crew of happy night owls
During the summer and fall of 1997 I was one among many artists and artisans working in the construction of a laser tag facility in Middleburg Heights, a township south of Cleveland, Ohio. The name of the new venture was Lazer-X-treme. But this was no ordinary laser tag facility. The design for the lobby and the shooting maze had been ingeniously conceived to resemble the ruins of an alien planetary civilization.
The art and construction plan was the product of the fertile imagination of an artist and project contractor in the classic rock-n-roll vein named Jim Hendelson. The project was exciting, ambitious and complex, not unlike a science fiction movie set. To accomplish his vision, Jim had ensembled quite an interesting group of characters -with a high tolerance for loud rock music.
I worked as sculptor, shaping Styrofoam into alien architecture, a prop maker, and as a painter. I also created one of the lobby murals. The construction crew worked during the day and the artists and artisans worked during the night. It was all great fun working with an enthusiastic group of talented “night owls” without having the responsibility of being in charge of the project. I was just one of the guys -the one with earplugs.
When plans go wrong
Laxer-X-treme did well enough with area youth to encourage the owner to invest in the opening of another laser tag arena in Avon, another small township about twenty minutes west of Cleveland. However, this time around, Jim was not involved with the project. As it often happens when artistic vision meets business realities, Jim and Bob, the owner/entrepreneur of Laxer-X-treme, had creative differences so the task of designing the new facilities was given to the construction contractor of the first arena. The contractor, who was also an amateur modernist sculpture, then got a hold of me to design and produce the art on the new location.
He had good reason to contract me. First, they needed a conceptual rendering of the finished project to show the bankers and city powers what the place would look like. So I made designs and provided them a conceptual painting for the new place. Then, after all the necessary permits and business loans were approved, we needed to make the place look pretty and exciting with a substantial budget reduction when compared to the Middleburg Heights facility.
The new laser tag facility was simpler in design, consisting of a cylindrical multi-story arena with the lobby, party room and storage areas around the perimeter. The art was limited by necessity to the lobby area and it would consist entirely of painterly effects with the exception of four foam carved sculptures of dragons. The theme we went for was Tolkien fantasy as in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Ring series (this was before the Peter Jackson movie trilogy).
Construction began months before I did the art. Once again, I worked at night while the construction crew worked during the day. But by the time I came in, all the original plans had been changed due to more budget cuts and the art design had been considerably altered by the contractor/artist. While it all worked out in the end, I was not pleased with the changes.
What he did was use every piece of scrap plywood from the arena construction to build forms of architectural details. Unfortunately for me, all his ideas were in his head and they did not follow a coherent plan. For example, over two “pillars” flanking what was to be the main counter, he build two forms made up of overlapping plywood shapes. What this was supposed to be he didn’t have a clue. It was up to me to make something out of it that fit nicely into a unified design.
Having already pre-planed the entire area, I did not relish having to do the work again. This meant that I had to rethink my design approach. The completion deadline had already been shortenened by construction delays and now I had to start planning from scratch and figure out a way to make sense out of the whole thing. In the end I resorted to do what all good artists do when they find themselves in a bind: salvage what you can and then steal ideas from someone else.
Stealing from the best
The starting point for my updated design was still fantasy art. The laser tag arena was an enclosed area with no openings for natural light, so I approached the design as if the space was a series of caverns and tunnels worked by dwarves. Since in fantasy lore dwarves excel as miners and blacksmiths, I incorporated these elements into the “rationale” for my design.
Imagining the space as a fantastic structure carved by dwarves from solid rock, I decided to paint the lobby surfaces in the colourful hues of precious stones and give them rich textures of vein patterns as those seen in marble and granite. Since this was a fantasy theme I could get away with using strong colour saturations and stylised shapes. It also stood to reason that the "enterprising dwarves" would decorate their habitat with beautiful polished stones in a planned arrangement -with a degree of artistic taste.
I also planned on “opening” other surfaces by painting Celtic motif iron grillwork over blacked out areas. I applied grillwork to doors and the front of the customer counter. The contractor had attached plywood shapes to the counter face which looked like upside-down steps. These I transformed into leather shields, each one with a Celtic symbol. I also resorted to low-tech solutions to add texture and interest to other surface areas. For example, over the bands of colourful marbling surrounding the area, I carved crude figure relief on Styrofoam, glued them to the walls, and painted them to look like rock carvings.
I solved the problem of the “plywood sculptures” over the side “pillars” at each side of the counter, by painting them to look like flames and heated rock. In front of these, Styrofoam sculptures of dragons were positioned in place. These 3-dimensional images, done by another artist who had worked on the first laser tag arena, were not done according to the original design sketches where they looked like natural stone sculptures. So to blend them better into the overall design I painted them in a manner that gave them the appearance of being more textured and heavy.
Next, after treating all the wall surfaces in a variety of faux painting techniques, I proceeded to do the murals. My source of imagery was copied from the art of Tim and Greg Hildebrandt, fantasy artists and illustrators who had achieved iconic notoriety by doing the first Star Wars poster. I have always believed that if you are going to steal from another artist, then by all means steal from the best! This saved me a great deal of time.
What I did, precisely, was to cut and paste images from one painting or another and combine them into a new scenes or designs. I simplified or treated the paintings according to my own style and the needs of the design, but I had concrete imagery to begin with. I did the largest and the most difficult painting first -the lobby's main mural above the counter area. This mural was the most prominent “wow” piece immediately seen my customers as they enter the place. So I climbed the scaffolding and spent a week working with acrylic paints.
After completing the main mural, I proceeded to paint the imagery on the surrounding walls in a very fast manner. I painted them in greyscale using acrylic paint, and then I glazed tints of colour using oils. By working in this manner, I was able to paint most images overnight. Finally, I painted the floor surface to look like it was paved with large stone slabs and at the centre I added the image of a stylised dragon. With the help of three assistants, the entire floor was painted in one night. Then I applied a protective clear coating over the entire floor design by rolling three coats of acrylic varnish. Seven years later, it still looks new.
The commission was completed a week before opening day, giving enough time for the floor varnish to "cure" and harden. From the moment the doors were opened, the artwork became a hit with the viewers, particularly the young whose imagination knows no bounds. I was pleased with the final result considering the budget and time restrictions. Although this is not my favoured type of work, the job was a nice change of pace and it brought me closer to a different kind of audience.
On opening day, I was feeling a little uncomfortable at the thought of what my usual fans, the ones who are used to seeing highly polished "fine art" from me, would think upon seeing my latest "creation". Then I received the best complement from a very critical ten year-old named Eric. Upon seeing the image of a dragon that's about to pounce on a wizard, he exclaimed: -"Wow... this is the most awesome painting! How you do it?" I had to smile.
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