quote: I couldn't stand it when people called me 'el pintor' -the painter.
                    for that matter, I still can't stand getting paint on my hands. -John on being an artist






"It's up to us" mural
Location: At the intersection of Clark Avenue and West 25th Street in Cleveland, Ohio USA


John Rivera-Resto, December 2019.

Painting this mural project was a huge and very difficult task. It took over two years to complete amid a sea of problems and controversy, funding shortages, bureaucratic ineptitude, a harsh working environment, and great physical discomfort. This is the story of the creation of this mural, named by Scene Magazine: Cleveland's Public Art of the Year 2015, by Freshwater Cleveland: one of the 12 most instagrammable spots in Cleveland, a Cleveland landmark by Cleveland.com, and the artist who was honored by the Cleveland City Council with a Neighborhood Improvement Award.


Painters and aspiring muralists may consider this narrative a master-class in mural painting. Every step of the way was documented with photographs. Civic leaders, organizations and potential patrons wanting this type of art, may consider the narrative a road-map for the planning, funding and execution of a large scale public art project. Art lovers and critics may consider how their warm romantic notions of creating art are cold-showered by the harsh reality of the many twists, turns and the behind-the-scene drama that occurred on a daily basis.


But I believe all will be entertained by the narrative. It's a good story filled with a myriad of characters: a visionary public servant, a group of young, idealistic, and motivated students; a neighborhood wearing of public stereotypical perceptions, individuals wanting to inject their political views into the graphic, apathetic public servants, vocal residents who both praise and malign the story being told, and a very reluctant artist dealing with the issues while cursing every step of the way.


In the end, it's my story; I'm the story teller. So I'm ultimately responsible for all its shortcomings. My memories are colored by my own biases and moods. But time has made me wiser. Since the beginning of the project, I had seven years to ponder its outcome and reach some conclusions. So while not taking the edge off some observations (that's just not my style), I will try to dealt more on the motivations, intentions, and expectations of the participants; not just the outcome. Enjoy.


A final word, you can dispense the reading by simply following the sequence of photographs. They are in chronological order and the captions below each image will give you enough information to follow the painting's progression. But if you seek knowledge about the finer details of the craft, as well as a deeper understanding of what really goes on behind the scenes, that is to say -"to see things like a muralist and not a spectator", do the reading too.



john-rivera-resto-july-19,-2012

Muralist John Rivera-Resto -Muralmaster's "Dictator-in-Chief", at the It's up to us mural site, at the corner of Clark Avenue and West 25th Street, in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. -July 19, 2012.





The News Summary

Weeks before the anticipated completion of the mural, on a very cold and windy autumn day, Channel 5 News multimedia journalist Brian Archer made an impromptu appearance at the work site and filmed footage for a televised report. Viewing Brian's original broadcast is an excellent way to see at a glance what this project was all about before diving into the reading below. Just click on the video play button below to link you to video page. In addition, I also included the video of the extended interview on the same page. After seeing the videos, now with a good idea of what to expect, please comeback to enjoy the reading.



multimedia journalist brian archer


Just the facts

Work on the It's up to us mural project began in March 2012, and location work in July 2012. Completion was projected by the end of fall that same year. But painting was postponed due to unusual bad weather and crew scheduling problems until it was resumed in July 2013. Man-made delays and the early arrival of winter weather in the fall of 2013 again postponed the completion of the mural until June of 2014. A detailed account of the project's progression is given in the photographic record below.



computer rendering of the it's up to us mural design

The visionary public servant who started it all. Christopher "Chris" Luciani at a Ronald McDonald House event, September 2012.

This public arts project began as a collaboration between Christopher "Chris" Luciani, then Cultural Arts Manager for the City of Cleveland, Ohio (Note: in early 2013, Chris left for a career opportunity in Palo Alto, California), and muralist John Rivera-Resto. 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 adopted for the program.



computer rendering of the it's up to us mural design
Computer rendering of the design for the It's up to us mural, on Cleveland's west side, May 2012.

Wanting to emulate some of the magnificent public murals done in other cities, Chris and John decided to "raise the bar" -way high, and produce murals of professional quality and content instead of work limited by high school-age student's artistic abilities. To accomplish this goal, a two-phase approach was adopted. For the initial phase, trained student's would complete the "under-paint" stages of the mural, and for the second phase, the artist and professional assistants would do all the finishing touches.



computer rendering of the world of sweat and steel mural design
Computer rendering of the design for A world of sweat and steel mural, on Cleveland's east side, May 2012.

To prepare the students, John designed and conducted a training curriculum in mural painting. Two groups of fifteen individually selected students from the Cleveland Public School System, ages ranging from fourteen to eighteen, trained for three months prior to the commencement of site work to prepare them for their role. Two mural designs, both created by John, one for Cleveland's east side and one for the west side, were to be painted simultaneously with the assistance of the new apprentices and a few adult supervisors from the city's Cultural Arts Department.



computer rendering of the world of sweat and steel mural design

Chris Luciani with students at the west side class, located in Cleveland's Cudell Recreation Center.

Funding for the project was primarily provide from outside sources. Chris applied to several grant programs and did all the leg work. He also allocated space at one of the city's recreational centers to host classes for the westside group, and made arrangements with the Cleveland Boys & Girls Club to provided space for the second group -the eastside group. Additional funding for the students was provided by a Youth Opportunities Unlimited (Y.O.U), a nonprofit workforce development organization based in Cleveland, Ohio that serves teens and young adults ages 14-24 living in economically distressed areas.



computer rendering of the world of sweat and steel mural design

John Rivera-Resto setting up the day's Powerpoint presentation for the west side class.

In the end, as working arrangements fell apart and the timeline had to be extended, John broke his relationship with the city and completed the mural using the resources of his own company, Muralmaster, as well as funding raised by the local community. The mural on Cleveland's eastside, titled "A world of sweat and steel", was abandoned only weeks from completion (read about in the Murals page), and the westside mural, titled "It's up to us", was completed in June 21st, 2014. These are the bare facts, and now to John's personal recollections of the project.



The Beginning of a Friendship

The hot summer of 2001 found me perspiring profusely atop a scaffold painting a ceiling mural at the Gordon Square Theater. One morning, before leaving home to work on the project, I got a call from Christopher Luciani. Chris told me he worked for "the city" and had created a program called "Mural my Neighborhood" which employed teenage students during the summer school break. He had heard about me and wanted to know if I was working on a mural project where he could bring the kids on a field trip. I told him he I was working at the Gordon and we set a day for a visit for the following week.



john rivera-resto painting the gordon square theater ceiling mural

In 2001, John was painting the ceiling of the Gordon Square Theater lobby when Chris brought his students from the Mural My Neighborhood Program for a site visit. After the presentation, Chris confided in John his dream of producing professional quality murals and a promise to meet again if he could work out the financing for such a project. It took him 10 years to do so.

I prepared a PowerPoint presentation with a collection of some of my mural works and a few personal photos I felt the kids would find interesting. I know from experience that people are interested in how artists work and make a living as much as they are in seeing their work, if not more. Chris brought about 20 kids with him and we had a good time during their visit. Seeing a mural painting in progress is a fascinating thing to see. The fact that I had started my career when I was not much older than they were generated a lot of questions and really peaked their curiosity. If I did it they could do it too!



john rivera-resto painting the gordon square theater ceiling mural

The skills to create traditional "high-end" murals require years of practice and training. Very few schools are dedicated to teaching this ancient art so muralists tend to be self-educated in the craft or former apprentices of professional muralists.

At the end of the presentation Chris and I had a chance to talk aside for a few minutes about his big dream of creating great mural works around the city. He asked me what would it take for me to get involved in such a venture but I replied that what he was envisioning was professional work that required trained artists, adequate funding, and strong backing at the top to cut through the reams of red tape that you invariably encounter doing public art.



John-Rivera-Resto-at-the-completion-of-the-Gordon-Square-Theatre-mural,-2004

By the time I completed the ceiling mural at the Gordon Square Theater in Cleveland, my hair had grown back to its full length. This photograph was taken at the site a year after the Mural My Neighborhood group site visit, which was followed by the tragic events of September 11, 2001 two months after. There was a sense of pessimism in the air that also affected me. I lost all interest in painting.

As Chris mentally digested this, I further added that you could not do "high-end murals" with teenagers. It took years of practice to develop the necessary painting skills. But instead of dampening his visionary spirit, he seem invigorated by the challenge. He then retorted: -"If I can get the funding and work out the details, would you be interested?" I stared at him for a few seconds. Then with a slow thoughtful nod I replied: -"I might, we would talk about it then." He smiled from ear to ear, we shook hands, the deal was sealed, and I went up the scaffold to continue painting, perhaps a little sad for Chris knowing how slim his chances were. But call back he did -and it only took him ten years.



Mural my Neighborhood Program

It's November of 2011 in Cleveland, Ohio. Winter is about to set in and I couldn't wait till the first week of December to visit my parents on the island of Puerto Rico. This was my yearly pilgrimage to the land of my family and my wife Nancy loved it even more than I. This was our escape from the cold and gray Cleveland weather to the warm and radiant colors of the tropics. We had just celebrated our second wedding anniversary and life was good. It had been a productive year for me with several interesting projects under my belt (see the Artworks by Year page), so until our departure date, I was in a blissful state playing video games, sitting back and enjoying a long rest. That's when Chris called me to schedule a meeting.



the cudell fine arts and recreational center

Our initial meeting took place at the Cudell Fine Arts and Recreational Center located on Cleveland's west side. Cudell grabbed national headlines as the site of the Tamir Rice tragic shooting on November 22, 2014.

Chris' office was located in the Cudell Recreation and Fine Arts Center on Cleveland's westside. Note: This meeting took place a few years before the Cudell Center grabbed national headlines. On 22 November 2014, the 12-year old African-American Tamir Rice was shot by 26-year-old police officer Timothy Loehmann in Cleveland, Ohio, on the playground of the Cudell Recreational and Fine Arts Center. At his office, Chris showed me photos of murals created under the Mural my Neighborhood Program. Taking into account that they had been done by teenagers with little or no art training, I thought they were pretty good. If you keep things simple and basically followed a "coloring book" approach, with the right instructional guidance, you can end up with good looking art works, especially noticeable in drab urban areas. But the mural's subject limitations were also what you would expect of teenagers with little or no art training.



mural-my-neighborhood-program,-cleveland,-ohio--mural-sample-1

Mural My Neighborhood Program. Mural created by students at the Cudell Recreational Center, Cleveland, Ohio USA, 2006.

Murals, especially those that follow the narrative tradition perfected by the Italian Renaissance masters, tell stories and have deeper meanings that captivate viewers in an engaging manner. They are beautifully rendered and also serve a decorative function. But the focus of these works is not their artistic value, but rather the subject matter of the narrative they illustrate. Imagery in fact takes a back seat to story telling. This level of cognitive and emotional engagement is what makes them memorable. These murals were created to communicate first but also to delight the eye in the process. That's what great muralists did and this is the kind of art I like to do.



mural-my-neighborhood-program,-cleveland,-ohio--mural-sample-2

Mural My Neighborhood Program. Another example of a mural created by students, Cleveland, Ohio, USA.

After telling me more about the Mural my Neiborhood highlights, Chris opened his desk drawer and pulled out a few color copies of murals done in other cities in the United States. As he showed them to me he talked about what he particularly enjoyed from each mural. I listened with interest while pondering where the conversation was heading though I could make a good guess. It was obvious he wanted to take the Mural my Neiborhood a step further, but I knew this was not going to happen without a new approach for the program.



common-threads-mural,-city-of-philaderphia,-google-image

Common Threads, by Meg Saligman. Broad & Spring Garden Streets, Philadelphia, USA. Eight storeys' high, Common Threads features characters based on antique figurines owned by the artist's grandmother, with students from two area high schools mirroring their poses. The iconic mural, which was created in 1998-99, reflects the common threads that link us across cultures and across time. Google Maps Image.

Public murals done in other cities, especially many prominent ones done in Philadelphia or Los Angeles, were run through local government programs or business support, and had been done by experienced professional artists, not by inexperienced amateurs. But I have discovered that many people believe that a child whose work is prominently displayed on the kitchen's refrigerator make them instant Michelangelos. They are clueless of what it takes to do a large scale painting, the cost, the discipline, the hard work and the dangers of working high above the ground.



Gateway-to-the-San-Gabriel-Valley-by-Art-Mortimer-(2011)

Gateway to the San Gabriel Valley by Art Mortimer, 2011. 569 E. Mission Road, Alhambra, California, USA. Art Mortimer is a prolific artist from Long Beach, California, considered one of the originators of the mural movement in Los Angeles.

I listened patiently until Chris finally made his proposal: he wanted me to be in charge of the projects for 2012. He wanted to replicate what other cities had done. His idea was to do two memorable murals for the season, one on Cleveland's east side and one on the west side part of town. In preparation he had already secured a couple of grants to cover expenses and artist's fee. He would also use other resources available to him through the city's recreation department, such as classroom space, some art supplies as well as adult supervisors already employed by the rec centers. The students would be paid through another non-profit youth employment program called Youth Opportunities Unlimited.



parent's meeting at the cudell fine arts center

The student's parents were invited to a meeting at Cudell to discuss the program. Sixteen students were enrolled for the west side group and we wanted the parents to know what we intended to do. This was important because all the students were teenagers, the youngest being thirteen years old. The response was very positive and I got to know some of them well during the course of the project.

All this sounded good -in theory, but the monies from the grants amounted to less then what it would take to paint even one mural. At this stage there was not even an idea of what the murals would look like, or walls to paint them on, so there was no way to accurately make a cost estimate. But based on what had been done before, I was pretty sure the numbers wouldn't add up. For the kind of murals that had been done before, the resources sounded lavish by comparison, but for the type of murals we were envisioning, it was woefully inadequate.



east side mural class

The "east side" class learning how to do a "grid" drawing. The students were taught the skills needed to do the first half of the painting process: equipment and material setup and handling, safety, wall preparation, design transfer, and the application of base colors.

But what made me even more hesitant was the idea of working with teenagers. I had done that before (see "Mural History of the Puerto Rican People" in 'the Murals' page) and understood clearly the limitations of such an arrangement on a high end project. First, when you work with teenagers you do not paint, you supervise -all the time. You have to instruct them on everything and make sure they follow through. It takes ten times more time to explain things to someone and guide them through the process (and make corrections) than simply taking up a brush and doing it yourself.



mural painting class curriculum

In addition to drawing and painting exercises, the students were taught basic art theory (color, perspective, optics) and given a historical background on mural painting.

Secondly, maintaining good discipline is a problem. For me a job is a deadline to be met and the finished product has to look great. For youngsters, painting a mural it's a fun summer "arts and crafts" group project with emphasis on having fun, which leads to not being able to accomplish much. And in the age of cell phones, you are lucky if you get five minutes of work before they are texting for ten. Thirdly, even if they had any experiences painting canvases, this is basically useless when painting on a large scale. Bottom line, teenagers are not trained or experienced painters so their usefulness is very limited to me. To put it in even blunter terms: a group of teenagers on a professional mural site is a hindrance.



Gateway-to-the-San-Gabriel-Valley-by-Art-Mortimer-(2011)

Before the design was conceived, Chris had been searching for a wall. When you mention teenagers and painting, property owners think graffiti. So it took a while to find the right wall and negotiate with the owner to allow the use of wall.

You probably think I'm a pessimist at best or a heartless bastard at worse, denying young minds the opportunity to develop and nurture their innate god-given artistic talent. That I should have more faith in the youth of tomorrow and that I may learn a thing or two from the experience, like having more empathy for the potential geniuses of the future (because one never knows), and so forth. I heard all that rot from well-meaning people who have not a clue about mural painting. So I will put you in my position by explaining things in a way you can easily understand: Imagine you have to undergo brain surgery. Now, would you let a group of teenagers assist the surgeon operating on your brain just because they know how to apply band aids? I rest my case.



Gateway-to-the-San-Gabriel-Valley-by-Art-Mortimer-(2011)

Chris secured a wall at a prime location on the corner of Clark Avenue and West 25th Street on Cleveland's west side. It was almost 2000 square foot -18 feet high -a street block. The wall was a recent brick facade construction that joined several buildings that served as doctor's offices into one single complex. But it was not perfect. I had two working entrances going through them.

I explained my reasoning to Chris and made a few suggestions on how to tweak on the program's achievement to streamline some areas on the painting process. My intention was to wish him luck and move on. I told him he could call me at anytime for consultation on any other issue. But Chris would not be dissuade that easily. He lean back on his chair, took a few seconds to organize his thoughts, and then said: -"What can we do to make this work?" Now, that was the challenge... and that's how he got me. He threw down the gauntlet and I could not resist solving the puzzle. In short, painting another mural was not the attraction; finding a way to get it done in spectacular fashion with what we had was what attracted me.



power washing the wall)

On July 19, 2012 -one month behind schedule, location work began. The first order of business, scrub and power wash the wall. Because it paralleled a busy street, the wall was dirty with oily soot and grime. It had to be hand-scrubbed with strong detergent and throughly rinsed.

I was hooked, but I did not dive into a full commitment just there and then. I responded: -"Give me a week and I'll get back to you. I need to think this through." This was good enough for Chris. He let loose one of his hackle laughts, we shook hands, I was on my way. From the moment I left Chris' office I was turning things in my head. But no matter how I turned it, I always reached the same conclusion: I could not paint a mural using teenagers in the way it had been done before. Maybe some other artist could, but not me. Nor for that matter did I welcome the misery. The Mural my Neighborhood Mural Program would be fine without me.



A New Model for Mural Painting

Same as any complex task, painting murals requires careful planning and preparation. It is a progression of steps where each step builds upon the previous one until one reaches the end. These steps are not something that begin when you paint a mural. They were in fact started thousands of years before at the dawn of civilization and we muralists have been climbing them ever since. This is so because mural painting is a derivative process, which builds upon the advancements, methods and techniques of previous painters who labored on the caves of Altamira, the streets of Babylon, the tombs of Egypt, the great temples of Greece and Rome, to the magnificent palaces of the Italian Renaissance. There is nothing in mural painting today that has not been done before. What we do today is to simply tell the same stories in a different way.



sample clay brick textures

Bricks surfaces vary greatly from smooth to rough to pitted. A smooth surface would had been ideal to paint the mural, but the brick used to build the wall was the pitted kind. This presented a major problem, which was, pitted brick eats brush bristles like sandpaper. Also, it takes more paint to achieve an uniform surface on this type of brick.

Each generation of mural painters create stories according to the perspective of their time. This keeps the telling fresh, alive and relevant to new audiences. But mural painting methods and techniques have hardly change at all. The process for planing and executing a mural is still the same as the first ones done in antiquity. First, you visualize your mural design by creating a rendering called "a cartoon". This is your blueprint for the finished mural. Then you find a suitable location for the mural and erect ladders or scaffolds to reach the entire wall.



page under construction graphic

Materials and equipment were kept in a storage pod. Water buckets were filled every morning at a sink in the employee lounge inside the building since there was no other suitable tap to attach a hose. The average water consumption was five buckets a day.

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power washing the wall)

Chip brushes or "China brushes" have natural China bristles (hog hairs from China), with wood handles set in epoxy. They are not meant for painting, but for dusting, cleaning, or for applying stains, solvents or glues. But they can also be an inexpensive and expendable solution to the application of primers and base underpaint.

Next, the wall is washed to remove impurities and loose material, and a coating of a primer color is applied to seal the surface and make it uniform. Once the wall has been prepared -"prep", the cartoon is transferred to scale on the wall through one of various methods. Finally, the designed is painted by first blocking large areas of color and then detailing them with different brush sizes. Lastly, a clear protective finished may be applied to extend the life of the mural.



priming the brick wall

July 19, 2012. Students begin priming the brick wall.

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july 19, 2012, priming the brick wall

Primer was applied using heavy rollers and brushes. A team of students worked the ground level, and two other teams work the middle and top of the wall from a scaffold. Another team kept them supplied and helped move the scaffold along.

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students painting from the scaffold

Teenagers had fun working in small groups. Some got creative. Others liked waving at every passing car who never fail to beep the horns. As time went by, the beeping got out of hand as drivers expected to be acknowledge with a thumbs up or they would get mad. So John assigned a student to smile and wave back and give them the thumbs up.

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youth supervisor richard owens

Looking down from atop a scaffold can be unnerving to some with fear of heights. Richard "Ric" Owens, youth supervisor and John's right-hand-man made sure all safety rules were followed. He also kept eyes on everyone and everything on the busy street.

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page under construction graphic

Chamar Bright, 15, and Joshua "Josh" Serrano, 17, enjoyed working on the top level. Only those comfortable operating at the top were allowed to do so. Not everyone could. As an additional safety measure, cell phones were prohibited on the scaffold.

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page under construction graphic

Work progressed in slow methodical fashion. Virgin brick absorbs a lot of paint and the heat dries up the outer bristles of a brush. This makes brush work harder so the bristles have to be rinsed clean every 15 minutes. Notice student with sun hat waving at traffic.

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wall priming in progress

Friday, July 20, 2012. Priming continues. Water-base paints and primers (also known as latex-base, acrylic emulsion or synthetic polymers base coatings) dry very fast in the open air. They are the ideal choice for this type of project.

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wall priming completed

Wall priming was completed on the second day of work. This was the easiest part of the project but an important one. It allowed the students the opportunity to put into practice what they had trained for and also help make adjustments to the daily work process.

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the tubular scaffold

Three levels of tower scaffolding were assembled and taken apart for storage each day. The planks were 9-feet long. Doing this task was the equivalent of lifting weights twice daily, every day of work. At the end of the day, muscle-sore and tired, everyone dreaded taking the cumbersome construct apart.

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thalia fomby

Thalia Fomby, 15.

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yanna-morgan

Yanna Morgan, 16.

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jacob-buntyn

Jacob Buntyn, 15.

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amanda-maldonado

Amanda Maldonado, 16.

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joshua-serrano

Joshua Serrano, 17.

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thalia-fomby-and-shamyra-johnson

Thalia and Shamyra "Peaches" Johnson, 15.

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gabriel-pichardo

Gabriel Pichardo, 14.

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Margaux May, 14.

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Chamar Bright, 15.

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victoria velez

Victoria Velez, 17.

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ric-owens,-victoria-velez,-amanda-maldonado

Ric Owens was my 'Sergeant-at-Arms', making sure everyone was following site and safety protocols. Teenagers have a habit of wondering off as soon as they feel like taking a break (which happens a lot). Ric made sure he knew where everyone was at all times and herded back those who wandered off.

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john-rivera-resto,-53,-8-3-12

John Rivera-Resto, "Dictator-in-Chief", 53. When working with young apprentices on a large project, I don't paint; I supervise and instruct. It is not until much later, when all the under-painting is done, that I have the luxury of being able to concentrate on taking over the brush. Painting a traditional mural requires great concentration and attention to detail -"You have no time for distractions. The finished product has to be identical or better than the original design rendering."

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gridded design

The next stage after "prepping" is transferring the design to the wall. The scaled design corresponds exactly to the wall dimensions. The gridded rendering becomes "the bible" of the project until all the elements in the mural are drawn exactly to scale on the wall. Not all elements of the design are drawn at once. They are added in layers after large sections of the wall are painted in uniform colors.

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measurements-diagram

Measurements diagram made from the gridded design rendering. This was then reproduced to scale on the wall by the apprentices.

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transfering the design to the wall

Carpenter and water levels were used to assure the perfect alignment of all vertical and horizontal lines. Shapes were drawn with rulers and chalk. Large areas were then contoured with masking tape for painting.

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color chart for mural design

Paints were supplied by the Sherwin Williams Company. I pre-selected exterior grade colors with a flat finish. Since exterior paints tend to have a limited color range, I mix and combine them with Artist Acrylics to achieve the desire color saturation needed in the final detailing. Once completed, the mural would be coated with 'Liquitex Gloss finish', a water-base synthetic varnish that provides resistance againts humidity, the heat, and ultraviolet light. The 100% acrylic polymer varnish is flexible and non-yellowing when dry, non toxic and it greatly increases depth and color intensity. The end result is a more color-stable and durable mural.

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blocking sections of the mural

The second phase of the project was marking large shapes for coloring -a process we call "blocking". Our measurement rulers consisted of blue painters tape with marks every twelve inches. The tape was attached along the entire length of the wall. Another tape provided vertical measurements. The combination of the vertical and horizontal tape rulers provided us with the coordinates needed to reconstruct the drawings from the gridded design and for the latter placement of paper layouts. The main advantage of using tape rulers is that you can remove sections to paint over an area and then place it back.

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gabriel pichardo color blocking

Once sections were drawn on the wall -such as the panels in this particular door, they are "blocked", that is, covered with an uniform base color. Murals are painted in layers, one color over the other, beginning with backgrounds and ending with foreground objects and figures.

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blocking-stores-1"

Friday, August 3, 2012. After drawing each of the six building facades, we proceeded to paint them in their corresponding base colors. Other large area shapes in the design, such as awnings, store signs, and window openings, were also marked and blocked during this stage.

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blocking-stores-3,

In spite of it's simplicity, this part of the job goes on at a slower pace as each section is checked and double checked to make sure the lines are accurate to the inch and perfectly straight and leveled. The successful placement of subsequent layers and elements depends on the perfection of this stage.

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blocking-progression

Saturday, August 4 work progression. Some colors required two coats to achieve proper coverage.

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mural-progression,-8-16-12

I only worked 3 days a week at this location. For the next 3 days I moved to the east side mural location to work with the second group of apprentices. See "A world of sweat and steel" in the Murals page for pictures and commentary on this mural project.

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mural-progression,-8-18-12

Thursday, August 16. Heavy rains during working days further delayed work progress. The odd thing was that it only seem to rain on the days I was scheduled to work on this location -even though the weather forecast was for sunny days in the low 80s. Later in the afternoon it would clear but by then, our day was wasted.

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mural-progression,-8-23-12

Saturday, August 18 was a perfect day. We completed the project's first phase: blocking the buildings. But this was also the end of the Neighborhood Mural Program student involvement. A few of the students returned to volunteer their time after school or on the weekends. But by the end of the month, all activity on this mural stopped as I dedicated my full-time effort to the mural being painted on the city's east side. But the public thought this was the finished mural -and they were happy with it!

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mural reflection on storefront windows across the street

An unexpected discovery was seeing how good the wall looked in the storefront glass reflection across the street.

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beginning to add building details

The next step was to add layers of architectural detail one building at a time. The wall's bricks were incorporated as far as posible into the painting.

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painted cornice detail

Detail of the painted cornice on building-1. A cornice is the horizontal decorative molding that crowns a building, the top or a door or a window. Painting was generally done top to bottom to avoid paint drips falling of finished areas. Due to strongs winds, paint splatter is an inconvenience of outdoor painting.

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distressing brickwork

The bricks were painted with slight tonal variations that added richness to the architecture. The design called for each building to have its own personality and to represent the pulse of the community across a timeline. Paints used on successive layers were mixed from the base colors on design palette and packed in sealed plastic containers.

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building 1 facade detail

After the bricks were painted in tonal variations, they were further "distressed" -made to look weathered and aged, using thin washes of paint. Chip brushes proved to be ideal for this job. The brick surface "shaved" the brush bristles away quickly. But we had bought these brushes by the dozen for less than a dollar each. They really helped us stay within budget all the way to the end of the project.

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painting lower storefront panels on building 1

While the brick on building-1 was being painted and distressed, apprentice Amanda Maldonado worked on the storefront's bulkhead (that's the area below the display windows). She volunteered her time after school and demonstrated great skill and patience for painting outlines. Panels of dense foam were used to sit or kneel on while working on near the ground sections.

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brickwork and panels detail

Detail of brickwork and storefront's bulkhead panels. Later on, I decided to redo the bulkhead with another design that added a richer layer to the painted narrative. This was one of those rare instances when I make changes to a design.

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painting window corbels

Corbels (brackets to carry weight) being painted to "support" the heavy window sills. Eventhough these are painted architectural elements, we treat them as the real thing. In fact, all our architectural references came from existing buildings in the area.

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finished corbel detail

Detail of a finished corbel. The painting of many elements had to be simplified so that they would give an illusion of reality without having to paint much detail. This was necessary because the brick lines destroyed the illusion when the scale of the details was too small.

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building 1 detailing progression

Building-1 was looking fantastic. The shadows casts by street light poles added another level of realism.

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real cast street shadows on the wall add realism

Friday, September 14, 2012. Work on building 1 continued and was finished the next day. At this point this work-site was closed. The storage pod was emptied and the supplies were taken to the east side mural location. Then the rented pod and scaffold were returned.

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ric owens and tatoo artist craig wilson

Since the student apprentices have left and returned to school, a few volunteers came in to fill the gaps. One of them was Craig Wilson, a tatoo artist with a permanent smile and a sunny disposition. Ric Owens was the only paid assistant during the entire project on both mural locations and he proved to be invaluable. Chris Luciani would also show up at the end of the day to help us disassemble the heavy scaffold, a taxing job for only two people.

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painting on brick technique

The process for painting images on a brick wall: 1- The wall surface is washed with non-wax detergent -Trisodium Phosphate (TSP) and rinsed clean. Loose material is removed, missing mortar and holes are patched as needed.


painting on brick technique

2- The wall is sealed and made uniform with a coating of primer. This reduces porosity and makes paint adhere better to the surface. Next, one or two coats of monochromatic paint (under-paint) is applied as needed. This paint layer will serve as a base base for later layers.


painting on brick technique

3- A line drawing of an image is rendered on sturdy paper, such as "butcher paper" or kraft paper. In mural painting this is called "a cartoon". A series of cartoons are linked to create a composition. Illustration, drawing, layout, or design are terms sometimes used instead of cartoon.


painting on brick technique

4- Chalk is rubbed on the back of the cartoon. The color of the chalk should contrast from the base color. The cartoon is placed on the wall and secured with masking tape. Additional pieces of tape are place parallel to the outer edges of the paper.


painting on brick technique

5- "Registers" are added. A register consists of a continues line made with a permanent marker that crosses the cartoon to the parallel tape pieces along the edge of the paper. At circle or any simple marking is added at each ends of the line for easy identification.


painting on brick technique

6- The outer contour of the image (shown in red) is traced over with a hard pencil. This is done to transfer the shape of the image to the wall. A hard pencil is used to be able to trace hard enough so that a chalk marking (from the chalk residue rubbed on the back of the cartoon) leaves a tracing on the wall.


painting on brick technique

7- The cartoon is removed but the "register tapes" stay on the wall. Depending on the size or shape of the cartoon, any number of registers can be added during the previous step. A chalk tracing of the image shape will be clearly visible on the wall.


painting on brick technique

8- A mortar mix (made of water, sand and Portland cement or lime) is applied to the brick lines within the image contour to "level" or even out the painting surface. Brick lines create a channel that, when accentuated by sunlight, distort and "overpower" small scale images painted on a wall. A solution is to fill the channels with mortar to create a more even surface. The filler is blended smooth into the brick lines once the image area is leveled.


painting on brick technique

9- Once the filler mortar dries, the area can be smoothed further by rubbing it with a straight edge such as a metal spatula. The image shape is painted with the appropriate monochrome color paint. This base coat serves as "under-paint" for the image to be painted.


painting on brick technique

10- A second coat of paint can be added to achieve a desired color opacity. The areas around the shape are then retouched with the wall's base color.


painting on brick technique

11- The cartoon is repositioned on the wall making sure the registers align perfectly. Then the rest of the image is traced with a hard pencil.


painting on brick technique

12- The cartoon is removed, leaving a chalk tracing of the image over the colored shape. Depending on the kind of image being created, painting can be done over the chalk drawing. But for the most part, the drawing is "inked", that is, make permanent by redrawing the chalk-lines with fluid paint that has been thinned with water. This will make the drawing permanent and impervious to bad weather (a rain shower, for example, will erase the chalk).


painting on brick technique

13- The image is then painted in monochromatic colors (solid base colors) as required, taking care to stay within the contours of the drawing. Note that the register tapes also remain on the wall. Invariably, it may become necessary to reposition the cartoon to trace a detail that may have been lost in the painting.


painting on brick technique

14- After the base colors have dried, other thin paint layers are applied rendering flat shapes into light and shadow forms. The mixes are generally a darker and a lighter mix of the base colors, accomplished by adding a dark color and a white color to the base.


painting on brick technique

15- The image is completed by adding cast shadows and reflected highlights. A clear non-yellowing synthetic varnish is applied to protect the thin paint layers on the painting. Several coatings of the varnish may be applied to achieve the desired surface protection. A satin finish (less gloss) tends to work best on the finished art.


figure cartoon rolled up and ready for use

On our final day on location for 2012, I did a figure painting test on the wall. I could get away with painting simple architectural details on brick, but painting figures and face details over the brick lines would have been a taxing waste of time. So I brought along a cartoon of "the lonely girl" figure which I had drawn and rolled up the night before.

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tracing figure outline with thin paint

On location, chalk was rubbed on the back of the paper, then the cartoon was positioned on the correct grid coordinates, and secured with tape. Registers were added and then contour of the image was traced on the wall.

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figure contour

The cartoon is removed leaving behind a chalk tracing of the image's contour.

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floor leveler mix

We prepared two mortar mixes to try on the wall. One was a basic mortar mix and the other was one was a latex emulsion formula.

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adding filler mix to brickwork mortal lines

Mortar was applied to the brick lines with a spatula and allowed to dry.

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brick lines in figure contour area filled up

At this point we discovered that the bricks were too uneven to provide a flat surface. Some stuck out the wall more than others so we decided to add more filler in an attempt to better level the surface.

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dried filler repainted with base color

After the filler dried, Ric applied a coating of the base color.

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retouching base colors around window area

Other areas were painted accordingly. Notice the register tape in this image.

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tracing figure outline with thin paint

The cartoon was repositioned and the drawing was traced and inked. Then the cartoon of the cat was traced in position.

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cartoon of cat

Notice the guidelines set 12 inches (30.5cm) apart on the cat's cartoon. They corresponded to the gridlines on the design. This allowed for the perfect placement of images on the wall. Each cartoon was mark with the corresponding coordinates on the grid.

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blocking figure with base colors

With a reference image of the figure taped to the wall, I proceeded to quickly paint the image. The brick surface was warm, paint was thin and it dried fast.

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detail of cat being blocked

The cat image was painted in the same manner. Notice the pitted texture of the brick.

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blocking of figure completed

After an hour of work, I stopped the test. It had been very useful. We discovered that regular mortar worked best since the one with the latex additive, while it stuck well to the wall, made painting more difficult since it demanded a more opaque paint. Also, the filler from both mixes shrank when it dried so the brick lines were still noticeable. And lastly, in spite of the heavy primer and the base coating of paint, the wall was still very absorbent. So blending colors was going to be very difficult.

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girl with phone figure completed a year later

September 2013 -a year later. The image of the lonely girl and her cat were finished after finding solutions to the problems with the brick and the mortar.

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the nick america mural

The 2013 painting season did not have a good start. I was having problems with the city bureaucrats-in-charge after complications with the 'east side mural' (see A world of Sweat and Steel mural at the 'murals' page). This caused unnecessary delays and my mood was as dark as a moonless night (I hope this paints a mental picture for you). I also needed money so I switch gears and did another mural during the days we couldn't work on the site. And so, painting mostly on evenings and weekends during the first two weeks in July, I painted this mural for Mr. Nick America in Strongsville, Ohio. Go to the 'murals' page to read all about it. Painting this "tropical paradise mural" was like a walk on the park that managed to clear my mind and get back to "the wall". Private commissions like this one helped pay for my expenses while continuing work on the project.



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The beginning of every project begins with a list of the needed supplies, materials, and equipment. Working on location demands preparation and organization. You want the convenience of having everything at hand when needed.

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Another storage pod was secured for the second season on the project -summer and fall of 2013. All our supplies and equipment were stored here. The storage pod was placed at an alley next to the building. Equipment that I felt was too expensive to risk the chance of being stolen from the pod, stayed secured in my van. During working hours, the alley was closed to regular traffic with safety cones but our personal vehicles were parked within.

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I kept on my person all the items I could not risk leaving behind: the keys to my van and the pod, my wallet and watch, and my cell phone. These I would tie atop the scaffold when painting, and around my neck at any other time. Other indispensable gear were a sun hat, sunshades with UV filter, and ear muffler to block the infernal street noise.

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I decided to begin with building-6, the one nearest to the major intersection of Clark Avenue and West 25th Street. This corner was a dangerous spot because of the heavy traffic and the way some drivers ignored every traffic law while turning the corner. So I wanted to get it done fast during the best weather. In addition, it would give the public something positive to look at.

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I would spend my days painting the mural, and my evenings at my shop drawing cartoons of every image element and figure on the design. By the end of the project, I had done over 200. The process begins by squaring the paper into 12 inches (30.5cm) squares, marking the squares with the corresponding number coordinates on the design (which was previously squared in a smaller scale of 3/8" -0.375), and then drawing the images guided by the position of the squares. For large size cartoons, paper sheets are joined with masking tape. Once done, you roll up the cartoon, write an identification inscription on it, and continue the process night after night.

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Wednesday, July 31, 2013. The first figure done on the mural was the "father and son painting over graffiti". Chalk was rubbed on the back of the paper, then the cartoon was secured to the wall making sure that the grid coordinates on the cartoon matched the ones on the wall. Register tapes were added and then the contours were traced.

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On this same day, the contours of all the figures groups on bulding 6 were traced and inked. This was a priority so that the time consuming concrete rendering over brick lines could be done and allowed to cure while I worked on the first figures.

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Once the concrete dried, the shapes within the contours were treated with two coatings of concrete mix to cover the worse of the brick lines. When the mix dried, one or two coats of primer gray tinted primer were applied. After the primer had cured, the cartoon was re-attached to the wall making sure the registers matched, and the entire drawing was traced. Then the chalk drawing was inked with fluid paint. After the ink dried, a moist cloth was used to clean up the chalk residue.

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The background was painted first, taking care to brush along the figure's contour lines and not across them. Maintaining a precise drawing is key to this style of painting.

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The figures were painted in the traditional monochromatic manner: starting with a base color and then adding layers for lights and shadows. Brick and concrete retain the heat of the sun. With temperatures in the 80s and 90s, they got oven hot. This makes color blending very difficult as paint dries fast and, because of the porosity of the surface, absorption was uneven and some blended areas looked blotchy. So the key to painting under these conditions was to apply the paint in a more impressionistic and stylized style. Since the paint dries very fast, you keep your mixes as fluid as possible and work fast, but painting highlights with a more opaque mix.

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Having a limited paint palette helped with overall color consistency on the entire mural. Notice how sunlight sharply highlights the brick lines. This was a distraction, especially on bright sunny days. So covering the lines with concrete over the image areas helped the finished image stand out from the rest of the wall. Also, painting in a simple style with bold strokes, accentuated the images and minimizes the overpowering effect of the brick lines.

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Painting the floor area completed this scene. To add to the three-dimensional quality of the figures, that is, to make them appear as if they were really standing on the side walk, all the buildings were painted at a 90-percent scale, allowing for a section of sidewalk to be painted across the bottom of the composition. When seen from a distances, the painted sidewalk blended optically with the real sidewalk and this effect made it appear as if the figures were actually standing on the actual sidewalk and several inches away from the wall.

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While I worked on the paintings, Ric did all the cartoon contour layouts and concrete work. This tedious work that requires precision and consistency.

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The second grouping of figures is ready for painting. Notice the blue register tapes on the wall. For large size cartoons we placed a larger number of registers. The concrete residue over the surrounding background is wiped clean with a moist cloth or a sponge. This does not eliminate it all since the brick absorbs part of the cement. So the cleaning is just to remove loose residue which is mostly powder. But since the background color is only "under-paint" that will be painted over again, the residue stain is not a problem.

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Close-up detail of the wall. Notice the rough texture of the painting surface. While the concrete mix fills the worse of the brick lines, because of shrinkage as the concrete dries, they still remain visible. In addition, baked bricks are never perfect and it's impossible to perfectly align bricks when building a wall, so some stood out from the wall making the surface unlevel. Therefore, a second coating of concrete was then applied on the worst areas but this was kept to a minimum, because to make the surface perfectly smooth, the concrete layer would have to be at least 1/4" (0.66cm) thick. But since I wanted the painting surface to be as level as possible, we opted for simply "dulling" the depth of the brick lines so they would be less visible.

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We use inexpensive color chalk sticks, also known as sidewalk chalk, to rub on the back of the cartoon paper to make our transfers. The advantage of using chalk over graphite or carbon transfer sheets is that the chalk leaves no oily residue. For transferring small or intricate detail images (or on other surfaces such as glass), we use "Saral Wax Free Transfer Paper", which also leaves no residue and its easy to erase.

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Detail of chalk transfer. The cartoon is never entirely removed until we make sure the entirety of the image has been traced.

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Thursday, August 1, 2013. Amanda would stop after school to work on the mural. She proved herself worthy of becoming lead apprentice during this project and in time earn my complete trust to work as my Personal Assistant in Muralmaster, contributing to just about every large project to date. I even sometimes introduce her as "daughter number 2". In addition to Amanda, six other apprentices -Joshua Serrano, Victoria Velez, Chamar Bright, Gabriel Pichardo, Ric Owens and Craig "Awesome" Wilson, have worked for me on other projects. Also in time, Amanda and Josh's fiances -Lauren Morales and Britany Rodriguez, joined our happy troupe.

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While I worked inking this group of figures, Ric and Amanda worked on the next set. Notice the tape registers still in place in case we needed to retrace any part of the cartoon.

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After inking the figures, the background color was reworked. A reference black and white image was always taped on the wall for easy viewing.

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August 1, 2013. Work progression to the next group of figures. The process keeps repeating in methodical manner. At this point, I work on painting the images, Ric does the concrete rendering and priming, Amanda does the tracings and base colors, and other occasional volunteers assist in the process.

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Friday, August 2, 2013. "Elderly couple" inked and ready for painting.

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Sunday, August 4, 2013. My working setup consisted of a portable table to place materials and supplies, a dense foam pad for kneeling or sitting on the hot concrete sidewalk, and a work bench that served as a seat or as a one-step to reach higher sections. Because of the heat, paint mixes in sealed plastic cups are kept inside storage bins with a lids until needed. Brushes were kept in another bin, and water for cleaning in blue utility pails. Drawing supplies and copies of reference images were kept in the orange bucket. My ever present coffee thermos completed the ensemble. We have to be organized and methodical because anything not secured would be blown away by sudden wind gusts. Another reason to be tidy was safety and security as pedestrians continually walked by. Most Sundays, I worked alone.

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Monday, August 5, 2013. While I continued painting the second group of figures, work progressed steadily on the remaining figures on building-6.

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Ric was very proud of his work completing the groundwork of the lower figures on building-6. By now he had become the project's "concrete expert".

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Tuesday, August 6, 2013. The "food drive" group was the centerpiece of the second grouping of figures on building-6.

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Tuesday, August 6, 2013. Detail of under-paint flesh color on "the sweeper" figure. For the most part, under-paint is opaque paint but still thin enough to allow the inked lines to show through. Therefore, you can cover a lot of ground at this stage without having to worry about loosing the drawing. Since the lines are still visible, it is relatively easy to go over any desired area and redefine again.

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Back to Sunday, August 4, 2013. Immediately after completing the first group, I started working on the second. The figure of the police officer was the first one I tackled by applying a base coat of flesh-color under-paint. While doing research, I came across an image of actor Orlando Bloom (of Lord of the Rings fame) in the role of a policeman. Since it matched perfectly what I had in mind, I though: -"Why not?" And that's how his image ended up being the model for the painting.

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Over the base colors on the face and hair, I proceeded to model it beginning with highlights.

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police officer's face completed

After the highlights, I blended in the shadows and accentuated the lines. For this mural, I had decided to use a simpler style of painting, more lineal than painterly -more Botticelli than da Vinci, which would be easier to teach to apprentices. The student apprentices never got to this stage, but in the end, I completely adopted it because it allowed me to paint fast and because it proved extremely difficult to do proper tonal blendings on the hot and porous wall.

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color washing police officer's uniform

After finishing the face, I proceeded to wash a layer fluid color over the uniform. This served as my base color.

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detail of shirt being painted

Same as before, I modeled the uniform in monochromatic colors (blue base, light blue and dark blue). Then I accentuated the darks to bring up the constrast.

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painting figure group on building 6

Monday, August 5, 2013. The following day I continued painting the rest of the group.

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detail of cleveland browns football with dog emblem

When creating the design, I made sure the ball was prominently displayed. It represents Cleveland's major religion: football -that's "American football" to the rest of the world. And, every fan knows that the dog symbol on the ball represents the Cleveland Browns.

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ric owens applying concrete to brick wall

Ric had begun working the concrete rendering on the top figure groups on August 2, immediately after completing the lower ones. By the 6th of the month, the four groups had been finished and primed. Amanda had assisted him with the cartoon layouts. By now she was our "tracing expert". For this season we acquired a scaffold with 6-foot platforms instead of the 9-foot ones of the year before. With less hands on the job, lighter platforms were easier to handle.

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detail of scaffold on sloping sidewalk

Leveling the scaffold for stability on a sloped sidewalk -as seen on this photograph, was extremely important. To be able to do so, each leg was equiped with wheel jacks that allowed for individual adjustments. So our first order of business was to level the base section on the day's working spot before adding other sections to work on.

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detail of scaffold solid stem socket jack and wheel

A tubular scaffold 24" (61cm) solid stem socket jack and wheel. They are heavy but indispensable for working on uneven ground.

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top windows being prepped for painting

Detail of top group figures on building-6. The brickwork on this section of the wall took time because it was more uneven.

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building 6 in progress

>Tuesday, August 6, 2013.

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sealer between wall and sidewalk crevice

Weeds will grow anywhere, including the crevices between the brick wall and the sidewalk. We cleared them out when we prepped the wall, but it was a matter of time before they would showed up again. Like in many other public art projects I have been involved with, there had been no talk of maintenance at all during our planning stage. This is the reason why many pieces of public art are covered in weeds and why many other mediocre projects get funded: they require no maintenance, and consequently, no mounting expenses. So we took matters into our own hands and filled the entire crevice with a sealer (that would eventually be painted over).

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detail of uneven brick surface

Lettering was traced in the same manner as the figures. Since they were larger in scale, no concrete rendering on the brick was necessary to make them legible. The letters were then painted by Amanda with two coats of color (needed to achieve full opacity with light color paints), and then I "cut" them clean by outlining the surrounding background. Then assistants filled in the remaining negative areas in the background. By using this method, less skilled painters can work fast without having to worry about "messing up".

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detail of 24-hour sign

It was far easier to paint letters and graphics the way I described it in the previous caption -negative lettering, then hand-painting them over a dark background -positive lettering. Notice that for these graphics, we didn't fill in the brick joints since they were simple and large enough not to be visually overpowered by the brick lines.

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Amanda painting poster

Saturday, August 10, 2013. Amanda painted the food drive poster in solid paint colors.

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painting the food drive poster

Having assistants do monochrome painting or base-color under-painting meant that I could dedicate my time to paint modelling in other areas. This had been my plan all along. This is the kind of job relegated to apprentices until through practice and experience they develop the necessary skills to do paint modelling. "Modelling" is shaping solid color shapes into the illusion of three-dimensional forms through the addition of lights and shadows.

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detail of boy with football

Sunday, August 11, 2013. I continued modelling the other figures on the second grouping. On an average day I would move from one spot to the next and back.

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detail of children

This mural was a first in many ways. It portrayed a very dignified elderly European couple showing empathy for the needy, African immigrants contributing to the community, an inspirational "traditionally built" lady, Asian, Hispanic, Caucasian and Middle Eastern children, a white police office in a loving and positive role, a single mother happily dancing with her daughter, a caring housewife cleaning windows, a grandfather helping his grandson with his reading, and this was just on one building! And on the adjoining building it showed happy and productive citizens in wheel chairs, and the list goes on! They are the type of people you seldom see portrayed in public art.

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painting second grouping of figure on building 6

Monday, August 12, 2013. Second group of figures completed, except for a few details on the officer's uniform.

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painting the face of the elderly lady

The elderly European couple were next. How do you know this cool lady is European and not an American -though maybe she is a recent immigrant? I'll let you figure it out.

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painting the european elderly couple

Work progress as of August 13, 2013. By this point in the project, we were getting a lot of attention. At long last the public was getting a glimpse of what to expect.

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closeup of elderly couple

Saturday, August 17, 2013. I based the image of this gentleman on Bill Schenk, an early acquaintance after my arrival to Cleveland in 1977. Bill was originally from Germany and had such a thick accent that he made me sound like Shakespeare! We shared a lot of laughs. Thank you Bill for your friendship.

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food drive poster

After Amanda painted the poster in solid colors, I did the black outlining. As a trained sign painter, it was relatively easy for me to freehand the outline.

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painting the traditionally built woman

Modelling the face of the "traditionally built woman" conducting the food drive. As I painted her smile, I kept thinking of my cousin "Cuca" in Puerto Rico -a life-long traditionally built woman who is one the kindest, happiest and most energetic woman I have ever known.

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cleveland officer's shirt patch

A police office and his partner stopped by for a look-see. He was happy to pose for a photo of his uniform. I desperately needed an image of the Cleveland Police patch.

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mural progression

>Tueday, August 20, 2013. Work progress up to this day. A second coating of "adjusted" colors was applied on the building. Only when you are on location can you tell if a color is what you expected it to be. It usually never is. Surface texture and sunlight will affect the hue -the color's appearance. This was expected. The top building cornice was also been painted and simplified from a more elaborate design. I discovered that the architectural details I had intended to add were lost within the bricklines and took time paint. So what to do? You simplify and magnify proportions.

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building 6 progression

Wednesday, August 21, 2013. After completing the traditionally built woman -and painting a donation check in her hand, I worked on the lady sweeping the sidewalk. Hint: she is a new immigrant resident and the owner of the coffee shop & art gallery. The couple painting over graffiti are her husband and young son.

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elderly couple

The elderly couple slowly heading to the food drive table. They carry a basket of food donations. It took longer to decided what to put inside the basket than it did painting it.

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european immigrants

The cast shadows from street lighting falling onto the mural added a surprising sense of realism to the scene.

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painting of top windows

Thursday, August 22, 2013. After completing most of the figures at sidewalk level on building-6, I climbed the scaffold and began working the top windows. The happy single mom and daughter having an impromptu dance moment were painted first.

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window with dog

Just before finishing the day, a man drove by and stopped by the mural. He got out and pointed up with a happy grin. Then he told us that he had a dog identical to the one I painted on the window, and that he was telling everyone that "that" was his dog! I was happy to make his day. From that day on we referred to him as -"el chillo", Puerto Rican slang meaning: the lady's lover! We spent so much time with these fictional characters on the wall, that the lines between real and illusion were beginning to blur.

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beginning work on group of figures in building 5

Ric had already moved to building 5 while I was working the window figures on building-6.

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mayor grouping of figures primed and ready to go

Friday, August 23, 2013. The surface for the third major grouping of figures was primed and ready to go. Notice the brick surface and how uneven the brick are.

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painted sidewalk

Sunday, August 25, 2013. The lettering on the barbershop window was done (that's the bottom of building-5), the sidewalk was painted on building-6, and I continued painting the top windows. With each day, the painted illusion continues to take life and you realize again how great murals can be.

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Nancy Lewis doing a tracing

On some weekends like this day, my lovely wife Nancy volunteered to give us a helping hand. She helped with the tracings -and claimed she painted most of the mural! But since she is a chef -which makes me an artist that eats very well, I keep her around. And, she's very cute.

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tracing the barshop pole sign

Detail of Nancy tracing the cartoon of the barber's pole sign. We were constantly sharpening pencils, because to get a good tracing, you had to press hard.

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lady cleaning window

The windows were completed before the figures were painted. When working on repeated architectural elements, such as the windows, small diagrams were drawn on the project's daily log noting measurements and paint mixed used. Since more often than not elements were not painted in succession, but within a span of days or even weeks, log notes prove extremely valuable for continuity.

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spirit levels used as drawing and painting aids

A 48-inch (1.22 m) aluminum I-beam spirit/bubble level was used to mark and maintain parallel and perpendicular alignments. This operation was usually carried out by two people holding the level at each end on the irregular brick surface. A lightweight 'Johnson' 24-inch structo-cast (injection-molded structural-foam plastic) level, easily handled by one person, was used as an aid for painting lines. Sometimes levels were used in combination with a mahl stick.

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lady cleaning window

Over time, several viewers commented on how the image of the "lady cleaning window" made them feel... uneasy, since she risked falling down!

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last two windows to be painted on building 6

The final two windows on building-6 were completed.

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grandfather helping grandson with his reading

Detail of a "grandpa helping the grandson with his reading". I learned to read and write at age 5 thanks to my grandfather, Andrés Rivera-Rivera. He was also a math whiz and a voracious reader who was 6 months shy of 100 when he passed away.

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the cat and the canary window

Monday, August 26, 2013. The last window to be completed on building-6 -"the cat and the canary".

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the cat and the canary representing the next meal or artist's commission

The cat and the canary represented me. I was the cat, the canary my next commission. The cat could care less about what was happening below, his only focus was his next meal. It described my motivation to paint to perfection. That's what I was thinking when painting this mural.

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detail of food drive group progression

Wednesday, August 28, 2013. Background detailing on food drive group continues.

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Thursday, August 29, 2013. The dominoe playing group on building 5 was inked and readied for painting.

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detail of little girl holding donation can

Friday, August 30, 2013. The "little girl holding the donation can" was almost completed.

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final detailing of building 6

Saturday, August 31, 2013. Final detailing of building-6.

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awning on building 6 being painted

Monday, September 2, 2013. The awning on building-6 being painted. Notice the unevenness of the brick wall.

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detail of finished awning

Detail of finished awning.

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sidewalk view of building 6

Sidewalk view of building-6. Notice that, even up-close, you still get the illusion of the figures standing on the sidewalk.

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Monday, September 2, 2013. Moving on to building-5.

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top windows on building 5 ready to be worked on

The top windows on building 5 were ready to be worked on.

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image of father and daughter ready for painting

Father and daughter. Fathers -single, divorced, or widowed; straight, gay, or bi; rich or poor; religious, spiritual or athiest, all over the globe, love their children as much as their female counterparts, and their children love them back! This is a fundamental truth that needs repeating. This was my way of shouting it.

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This was an important image to the mural -an elderly lady watering her plants. The argument made by this image would eventually contrast with another image to be painted on one of the top window of building 1.

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building 5 painting progression

Tuesday, September 3, 2013. Adding under-paint colors to top cornice, the window curtains, the ground level figures, and the barbershop sign pole.

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barbership sign completed

Wednesday, September 4, 2013. The barber shop sign was completed. Having a barbershop on the mural was planned from the very beginning. In my view, barbershops are the most democratic arenas in this nation. It is where neighbors from every area of the social-political-economic spectrum gather and share their thoughts and beliefs on any issue. And like it or not, they keep coming back for more.

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painting of father and daugher completed

The father and daughter image was completed by day's end, the lower part of the window would have to wait till the next day.

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completing the father and daughter window image

Thursday, September 5, 2013. It's only 70°F (21°C) this Thursday, but the sun was relentless and the wall radiating heat felt like 90 degrees. I only needed the first section of the scaffold to reach the lower part of the window. For safety, a holding bar was added. Paint mixes are kept inside the plastic bin and placed in the shade provided by the upper platform. We actually used the scaffold just to shade us on many occasions.

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The production company filming Draft Day, an American sports drama starring Keving Costner, stopped by while I was painting utop the scaffold. They were filming additional material around town for a segment to be added to the DVD of the film. They asked if they could film my while painting and I said -"Sure; go'head". I've no idea is the few seconds ended on the DVD or the cutting floor. But, it made a boring day more interesting.

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painted section of mural with a protective coating of clear varnish

To protect the thin layers of paint applied during the modelling of figures, a protective coating of clear varnish was immediately after an image was completed. The fact that many pedestrians showed their admiration of the painting my runner their fingers over the painted surface, made this practice a must. Several more layers of the protective varnish were applied over the entire mural.

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Notice in this close-up detail of the photograph, how the varnish layer that was applied around the lower part of the window on the left, affected the vibrancy of the color of the wall. The varnish deepens the colors by making them appear more saturated. This was a factor considered in the planning and selection of the color palette. What's more, in addition to also increasing protection from the damaging effect of sunlight, the weather, and human touch, varnishing the entire mural provided an uniform sheen to the entire surface.

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barbershop-sign-completed

The barbershop sign was completed and varnished. The name is a take on Bob Dylan's iconic song, along with other snippets of the lyrics quoted throughout the mural.

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the barber's cat inked and ready for painting

The barber's cat was inked and readied for painting.

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joshua serrano blocking colors on food cans

Josh stopped after school to help out. His job for the day was to block colors on donated food items.

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food items being blocked

The small table is full of neighborhood donations: common food products from popular brands. Colors copies with images of these products were used as reference. After mixing paints to create the palatte, base colors were blocked. Since there is no lettering, color modeling or detailing, blocking is usually a fast process that resembles applying solid colors to a drawing on a coloring book.

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barbershop pole sign completed

Friday, September 6, 2013. The barbershop pole sign was completed.

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policeman shirt patch completed

The policeman's shield and shirt patch were also completed. The number on the shield is John's birthdate: November (11) seven (7).

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painting the elderly lady watering her plants

Painting progress on the second window of building-5.

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modelling the image of the elderly lady.

Saturday, September 7, 2013 -80°F and sunny. Paint modelling the image of "granny".

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barbershop door completed

Monday, September 9, 2013. The barbershop door was completed.

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granny window completed

Tuesday, September 10, 2013. The second window on building 5 was completed and a coat of varnish was applied.

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barber painting in progress

Paint modelling the barber was next.

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blocking dominoe group figures

Thursday, September 26, 2013. After completing "the barber and client" and the 'open' neon sign on the barbershop window, we began blocking the foreground figures.

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detail of fireman's cap insignia

The insignia on the fireman's cap was also completed.

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painting the fireman and his wheelchair

Friday, September 27, 2013. The "retired fireman" was finished and then work progressed to his wheelchair.

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Monday, September 30, 2013. We started modelling the children behind the table.

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detail of wheelchair painting

Tuesday, October 1, 2013. After completing the little girl with a green sweater, modelling on the wheelchair continued. The practice was always to paint whatever was farther in the background first, and the any overlaping elements on the foreground last.

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painting progression of dominoe game group

The other figures in the group had been blocked in their appropriate colors.

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mural progress to date

View of work progress to date. This photograph belies the fact that this was a busy location with heavy pedestrian traffic at peak hours. Everyone seem to have a comment they wanted to share. Many were surprised when I replied in their native language, which was Spanish for most part, and in their regional slang (I'm also an actor). But the interruptions got in the way of the work. So I had Ric play the public relations man -and he took it to heart! He could have run for City Council and won! And, as he was shaking hands and posing for photos, I blocked it all out with the help of ear mufflers and painted on.

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boy with glasses completed

Wednesday, October 2, 2013. The "boy with glasses" was completed. I was not spending a lot of time on these images. My brushstroke was bold and sometimes impressionistic.

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Painting detail of "the little girl with a green sweater". Even though I was keeping my paint modelling simple, I did took care to achieve the desired facial expressions. After all, my goal was to tell a story and characterization was (and still is) my best tool for achieving it. There is a relationship and a connection between the characters in a group scene that needs to come through. Visually reading this threads is what makes the scene memorable and dynamic. This is where my theater background as an actor and director serves me well.

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close up detail of the veteran's hat

The fedora hat of the "Puerto Rican veteran" was completed before finishing to the face. There is a story contained within the hat. It's being told by the pins on it. This is how it reads: the gentleman wearing the hat is a veteran from the US Army. He served in the Korean War. He was badly wounded in action -notice the purple heart ribbon, which let to him being confined to a wheelchair. He has friends missing in action. And lastly, he is a "Puerto Rican" veteran because the blue shield pin with an ax is the emblem of the famed and highly decorated "all-Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment".

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Thursday, October 3, 2013. Modelling of faces continued.

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painting food items progression

Sunday, October 6, 2013. The food items were one of the few things I truly enjoyed painting. After Josh had blocked most of the base colors, I proceeded to paint each item without any further drawing. I simply looked at the reference photos, mixed colors on a small disposable wax paper palette, and painted each item in one long uninterrupted session.

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completing the food items

Wednesday, October 9, 2013. After a two-day break, I started where I left off, and completed the image. After an hour's rest, a coating of clear varnish was applied to seal and protect the thin paint layers.

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faces of puerto rican veteran and girl in pigtails were completed.

I completed modeling the faces of the Puerto Rican veteran and the girl in pigtails. I also started modeling the shirt.

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veteran's shirt completed

Thursday, October 10, 2013. The veteran's shirt was completed, followed by the tabletop and dominoes.

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The elderly and children seem to have a connection of love, trust, respect and admiration that is selflessly given. I wanted to show this bond in a manner that did not shied away from showing the scars of life. So I searched for a way to visualize it in a scene that spoke volumes but did not preach. This was how, while designing the mural, the idea of showing people on wheelchairs began to take shape.


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Friday, October 11, 2013. It was important to show the children completely immersed in the game. They were not just playing; they were thinking. Notice how in the tableau the veteran makes his move. Judging by his expression, it's a good one! But the fireman just sits back, hands off, softly guiding the girl in the green sweater (possibly his granddaughter), on her counter move. There is a pause. It's an engaging moment.

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013. I view people with disabilities as great role models for newer generations. They defy the odds every day. So I composed the scene around two elderly gentlemen from different backgrounds, who have greatly contributed to society, that have earned our respect and admiration, who are resilient, positive, intelligent, and clearly enjoying life. People that in spite of their circumstances, are not bitter or complaining, but happy, healthy, loving and productive. They continue playing the game of life because life goes on until it stops. There is no off ramp.

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finishing detials on table legs

The table and the detailing of the girl's legs were completed, but the domino tiles were left blank. I was not interested in focusing on a particular play, but on the game itself. There is great symbolism in the scene. You may have heard the phrase -"falling like dominoes". It's about the repeated action of stumbling and falling. Like one's journey through life. So, I used the game as a metaphor to say that life's not fair. It has a darker side that plays no favorites.

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dominoes completed

Dominoes represent age, fear, misunderstandings, gambling, loss, destruction and also failures. It is life itself. You have to play the tiles as best you can. It's the hand you been given and it will take long term planning to reach your goals. But playing the game also helps develop critical thinking and improve your math skills, which, to paraphrase Galileo, it the language of the universe. But above all, the game teaches you to learn from your failures to improve the odds for success on the next turn.

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view of buildings 5 and 6 at dusk

Sunday, October 27, 2013. Due to chronic lower-back pain due to an automobile accident years before, I postponed painting this section of the mural until I felt better. Instead, I worked other areas where I could paint standing and not bending or sitting. Always hidden under my clothes was a back brace that kept my core tight. Since I needed a clear mind to paint, I took pain killers. Once I got home at night, I relaxed the nerves by stretching on an inversion table. This was my day-by-day struggle for 10 years until I had spine fusion surgery in December of 2016.

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view of buildings 5 and 6 at dusk

"Twilight" is that time of day between daylight and darkness. Lighting is soft, diffused, and warm; it does not produce strong shadows or harsh lighting. Under these conditions, the mural took a magical quality that made it look real. It actually made traffic slow down as drivers looked on admiringly.

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the barber's cat completed

Much later, the barber's cat was finally completed. What is he doing? Well, being the barber's cat, he is waiting for someone to open the door so he can go in. That's it. Just a common everyday occurrance. No symbolism intended, other than the fact that cats are also part of the neighborhood and people's lives.

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amanda chalking a sign layout

Tuesday, October 15, 2013. While I worked modelling paint on building 5, Amanda, Ric and Josh worked on building 2. We brought a second scaffold to be able to work on several areas of the wall at the same time. With the scaffold platforms lowered to serve as a work table, Amanda chalked the back side of a sign pattern for tracing.

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tracing the discotech sign to the wall

The large paper pattern was cut into sections, then taped in place for tracing.

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josh retracing chalklines with pencil

After the sign was traced, Josh went over the chalklines with a pencil on the rough brick surface. It was a cool Tuesday, with a slight breeze and the temperature holding at 62°F (16°C). The sun managed to break through in the afternoon to provide some walmth, but the glare on the wall made it almost impossible to see the markings without the use of dark shades.

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applying concret mix to windows on building 2

While Josh and Amanda traced the sign, Ric was applying concrete to the upper windows.

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doing concrete work on building 1

After finishing the windows on building-2, Ric moved to the windows on building 1. The images had been traced and inked on the last day of the previous season.

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outlining sign letters

Using a mahlstick for support, I outlined the letters with green paint, and then had Josh and Amanda finished them off. As we worked, the clouds returned and the wind picked up. Being a trained sign painter, I was fast with the brush, but my fingers were soon feeling like ice. My hands and ears are very sensitive to temperature changes. I suffer from tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and the cold made the condition worse.

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outlining letters

By 2:00 pm we had overcast with 78% humidity. The wind picked up to 12 mph and we were filling it. To keep warm I dressed in layers: a t-shirt and briefs followed by a set of thermal underwear and wool socks. Over these I wore sweatpants and sweatshirt, them my back brace, and finally, an extra large white lightweight cotton hoodie sweatshirt that acted as a wind breaker or a sun blocker. A wide brim army-style bush sun hat with chin straps, wraparound polarized sunglasses, inexpensive black knitted gloves, and tactical waterproof side zip boots complete my ensemble. When I got hot, all I had to do was remove one or two items of clothing. For extreme cold weather, I added a balaclava face mask and hood.

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amanda painting sign

As soon as I finished outlining a letter, Amanda would finish it. Then Ric and Josh would push the scaffold to the next position on the wall. Just in case the weather got out of hand, we kept several hooded sweatshirts and knitted caps available to anyone in the crew. At week's end, I would take home any used items to be washed. Another thing I'm sensitive to, is unpleasant smells.

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finishing sign

One layer of paint was not enough to achieve opacity, so Amanda had to apply a second coating. I was fortunate to have another pair of steady hands needed for lettering. This freed up my time to be able to concentrated primarily on modelling figures.

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josh and amanda painting discotech sign

A must in any painting crew is to have sturdy trained people that work well in a group and support each other. They are your most valuable resource and they contribute greatly to your success. So you try your best make them as comfortable as possible by paying attention to their needs. It pays to do so, because when your crew is happy, so are you.

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concrete mix rendering drying on the wall

This is what the first layer of concrete mix looked like as it dried on the wall. Then, a second thin layer was applied to make it suitable for painting. Eventually, a political poster would be painted over the area.

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Ric Owens

Ric loved location work. He started as a youth supervisor but ended up a muralist. The fact that he could do one-arm pull ups from the top bar of the scaffold never failed to amuse me. It also gave second thoughts to evil doers who might have been watching. On other jobs I have an American-Serb friend named Branko as my assistant, and he absolutely terrorizes everyone. It's good policy to have someone capable watching your back when working on less than ideal places. I'm no wall flower myself, but when I'm painting, I like to feel secure. Wouldn't you?

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discotech sign

The lettering on the "baby boomers discotheque" sign (shown in this later photo) was completed in a day. Since it was large in scale, with monochrome 12" letters, it was painted directly over the brick surface without any concrete rendering filling the brick lines.

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baby boomer discoteque sign

Later in the process, the sign was completed and distressed to look old. It's purpose was to identify building-2 as a former discotheque because, to show the passage of time, nothing else conjures the 70s like Disco music! This type of sign, as represented in the mural, were common commercial back-lit signs that consisted of a molded acrylic cover placed over a metal box containing florescent light tubes and an electrical ballast. My first job in Cleveland, while attending college in 1978, was working for Brilliant Sign Company, then housed an a large former war-tank factory at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River.

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painting progression as of october 16, 2013

Wednesday, October 16, 2013. Average October temperatures in Cleveland are between 50-60°F (10-15.5°C). But for the rest of the month the weather stayed mostly partly cloudy between the 50s and 40s. I was hoping for warmer weather to reach my completion deadline. I figured doing building 3 & 4 would be the easiest part of the mural since large scale images take less time to paint than detail work. So for the rest of the month we concentrated on completing buildings 1 & 2.

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priming upper floor windows on building 1

October 16 fell on a Wednesday. At 67°F (20°C), it was warmer than the previous day but the 15 mph wind kept up and it rained on and off the entire day. Our goal for the day was to complete concrete rendering of all the remaining figures in the mural and to do cartoon transfers. And so, Josh and I did cartoon tracings, Ric took care of the concrete renderings, and Amanda handled the priming.

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chalk outlines on building 2

Figure contours on building-2 were traced in preparation for concrete rendering. We immediately retraced the chalk lines with a pencil before the rain washed away the chalk.

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marked area for medical boxes

A couple of things that were added to the design that were not shown in the design rendering, were mailboxes and areas for signs and lettering in the two recessed entrances of the medical offices. So I began the day by marking these areas in chalk and adding them to Ric's concrete rendering list.

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concrete rendered area for dr. blank's sign

This area in the first recessed entrance was going to be Dr. Blank's business hours. To eliminate signage that would clash with the mural, I decided to incorporate them into the mural itself. This solution proved to be inspired since it added more reality to the illusion.

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priming upper level windows on building 1

After completing all the contour tracings, Ric began applying the concrete on the wall, beginning with the storefront sections on building 1. I was hoping on a few dry periods so that Amanda could finish priming the bottom concrete renderings from the previous day.

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a heavy downpour ended the day's work

Ric managed to complete all the ground level concrete renderings on building-2. By now we had a very good idea of how to speed up the concrete rendering process and best prepare the surface for painting.

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water running down freshly painted area

The rain held and Amanda managed to prime the upper floor windows. I gambled on a little more time to do the lower section. But that's when we were hit by a downpour and this ended the day's work. It didn't let up so we got soaked while taking apart the scaffold and packing things for the day. Notice in the photograph the weeds growing between the building and the side walk. We still had to complete pulling them out and applying a sealer to the remaining sections.

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rain running down the wall

The rain is one of those things you don't fight. In some jobs, you can place a tarpaulin (tarp, hootch) over the work area to continue painting. But on others such as this one, water poured down the wall straight from the top so a tarp would have been useless. If it's early in the day you wait a for a while to see if conditions change. But in a place like Cleveland, located next to one of the Great Lakes -Lake Erie, which makes the weather so unpredictable (and weather-casters so off the mark), you are better off calling it a day and moving on to your rain-day plan, such as doing cartoons at the shop or getting badly needed rest.

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cold fingers affecting our drawing skill

Thursday, October 17, 2013. That day was a humid 52°F (11°C) with light rain and overcast. The 10-12 mph winds was enough to numb our hands, as attested by this photograph of one of the tracings on building one. With trembling fingers, it was impossible to draw straight lines. Notice the dark graphite smudges as pencil lines are smeared during the tracing process. Graphite is very oily and stains the paint. For this reason we prefer to use fluid paints instead of pencils. But when rain is an issue, this is not an option. Before painting this figures, the pencil marks would be cleaned with a soapy cloth to remove the grease. This would still leave a visible line to go over with fluid paint.

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painting base color for sign

The sign on side wall of the recessed entrance to Dr. Blank's office received several coatings of primer and paint. This helped seal and smooth the area for fine lettering. We concentrated on this particular area since it provided some cover from the rain and the wind. Around 3:00 pm the weather changed from light rain to overcast and it held. This allow Ric enough time to complete concrete rendering on the remaining display windows on building 1.

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letting transfer to wall

The sign patterns (one for the graphic, and two for different size letters) were then traced and penciled in. This sign would list Dr. Blank's actual business hours. Once again, Amanda took care of this part of the job. She really had a gift for this kind of detailed, repetitious, and "boring" work.

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drawing mailboxes

While Amanda worked on the sign, I worked on the opposite wall drawing mailboxes. During all this time, patients were going in and out of Dr. Blank's office but it was a manageable situation.

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lettering sign with paint

Once the sign tracing was completed, I mixed fluid black paint and started showing Amanda how to paint the letters. Lettering is a skill that takes a lot of practice. The size of the brush and the pressure applied while painting determines the thickness of a stroke. You need a sure, steady hand. At first Amanda was apprehensive since her first attempts proved that it was not as easy as it looked. But after more practice and the reassurance that I could always fix anything by blocking with white paint, she slowly labored on.

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inked figures on display windows of building 1

By early afternoon, Thursday the 18th, since the rain held, Josh and Ric began to prime the concrete renderings and blocked colors on other sections of the wall, especially were lettering was going to take place. Amanda continued lettering and I worked on inking the tracings. That day the storefront bulkhead on building 1 was also repainted with a different base color. I had something else in mind for this area.

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painting the political poster

The "I promise to" poster was a prominent motiff in the mural. This one was on the display window of building 1, and another two on building-2. They were carefully designed to present a political comment that was with non-partisan. Namely, that politicians make promises. Nothing wrong with that. By the way, notice my wallet pouch hanging from the scaffold. I used to do this all the time because it got in the way of painting when hanging around my neck.

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John at the worksite, october 18, 2013

The following day, Friday the 18th of October, I had no crew so I worked on finishing details and inking the figures on building-2. I could not afford to have assistants for long hours so I scheduled them according to task. And when I didn't need to raise the scaffold tower, I usually gave Ric the day off. From this day on, the entire week that followed was too cold to paint. Temperatures dropped to the 40s (5-9°C) with winds fluctuating around 14 mph (23 km/h). So I used the time off-site to complete more cartoons at the shop.

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makeshift shelter for painting

In spite of the cold weather, on Friday the 25th, Amanda and I were back to to work on building-1. To maintain the project's completion deadline, I needed to make up for a lost week. But it was still cold and windy in with temperatures in the low 40s. So we wrapped a tarpaulin over the scaffold to create a shelter against the wall and placed a heat lamp inside.

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wall view from inside the makeshift shelter

As long as it did not rain, the structure provided a level of comfort and protection from the wind. Inside, a heatlamp was turned on and off to keep our hands warm. One of the platforms served as our working table. Inside the box we stored snacks, additional clothing, and my ever-present coffee thermos.

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view of heatlamp and storage box inside the makeshift shelter

The side facing the wall was opened so we could paint. The wall temperature was above 50°F (10°C) so we were good to go. While I worked on the figures, Amanda blocked colors on the poster. We were very grateful for Dr. Blanks "tea runs" when, almost daily, he would present us with cups of warm herbal tea. I'm not a tea drinker, but in those cold moments, we gratefully welcomed the brew with open arms.

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cold day outside the makeshift

The day temperatures did not rise above 50, but around noon the sun broke through for a while and warmed us up.

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painting figures doing a drug deal

The figures in "the deal" proved to be the second most controversial scene in the mural. They consisted of a man in jeans with a leather jacket worn over a hooded sweatshirt, and his female client in a fleece gray pullover hoodie looking at the ground. The characters were based on an actual deal that I had witnessed. The position of the hand would be changed in the finished version following the advice of an actual dealer who operated from a nearby corner.

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closeup view of dealer

Close-up detail of the hoodie and jacket. Several characters in the mural are looking directly at the viewer. The over-the-shoulder look make this one more poignant. The painting as shown in this photograph is still a work in progress. I would not complete this scene until the end of the project.

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building 1 painting progression as of friday, october 25, 2013

Painting progression of building-1, as of Friday, October 25th, 2013.

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starting were we left of, saturday october 26th, 2013.

The following day -Saturday, October 26, we continued were we left of. It was a cold day with temperatures between 45 and 48 degrees. The 17 to 22 mph winds were stronger than usual, but it wasn't raining.

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"My trophy wife" came to give us a helping hand and do "quality contol". She would always bring us goodies to eat.

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This will be the third copy of the political poster. But there are subtle changes from the first two. Take notice of the politician's face and notice his sideburn. Then look at his jacket's lapel and his tie. Same as the discotheque sign, it's a poster from the 70's, hence the then fashionable "boot sideburn" and the wide lapel and tie. So what's the statement being made? It's basically this: nothing really changes. The promises of today were the same one's promised fifty years ago.

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This day we concentrated on outlining and filling in with solid color the ground level images on building 2, including those in the second recessed entrance.

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This is "Charlie". He is the personification of one of the worse social ills that afflict our nation. The graffiti next to him is the strongest part of the message. But I wrote it as a puzzle; you have to look hard to see it. It's a metaphor for the plight of the homeless -they're invisible until you really look.

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"The runaway girl" was the most controversial figure in the mural. It created a storm of critism as soon as it was completed. Behind her is the second copy of the political poster, except that it has been torn. The placement of the runaway girl in middle of it represents a political system that failed her.

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We also did sign transfers on the doors. The doors on both recessed entrances were flush (smooth) steel commercial doors. These doors are sold with a coating of gray primer so that the buyer paints them in the desired color. However, hardly no one does this last step. And so, they rust earlier than they should, usually from the bottom. These doors met with the fate. So we scrubbed them, sanded off the rust, cleaned them again and primed them twice. Then we painted them to look like... you'll see.

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Amanda worked on the graffiti and the other signs. She is wearing boots, two sweatpants, an inner sweatshirt and an outer hoodie. Her music earphones almost covered by the knitted hat. She was sitting on another indispensable tool of the trade: a collapsible/folding plastic stool.

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A small plastic portable folding table proved ideal for a work table. Because of strong winds, our paint mixes and supplies were always kept inside a box, and cleaning water in small blue plastic pails. The water bottle and coffee thermos were always close by.

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When blocking with solid color, our rule was to paint over the dark painted outlines. I liked to do the inking myself because it provided me the opportunity to make adjustment to the drawing. For painting straight lines, I used a mahl stick as a straight edge. The ends of the stick (I had built several in various lengths) have small rising blocks at each end. So when I placed the stick over the uneven brick surface, it always remained off the surface but firmly placed. Then I ran my brush along the edge to produce perfectly straight lines. My favorite brush for outlining was the artist's Filbert head white bristle brush.

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"The runaway girl" was part of a scene that told quite a story. The clothing, the pose, and the expression were carefully thought out. As a rule, when doing lettering or graphics, we generally add light colors first -such as white, because it would take two coating of paint to get proper opacity. Then we use a darker color to cut around the letters.

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The bricks on the recessed wall with the mailboxes was completed. They will be distressed another day. The mail boxes were also inked. From here, we assembled the base section of scaffolding and I began blocking colors on the second level windows of building 1.

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View of work progression on buildings 1 and 2 as of Saturday, October 26, 2013.

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Monday October 28, 2013. After a cold morning in the middle 40s, the sun came out and warmed the day to the low 50s. We continued where we left off on Saturday by adding colors to the posters on building 2.

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When we mixed a particular color, we tended to apply it in any other area where the same mix was repeated, as in the flag portion of the political posters.

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The same red mix used on the poster flags, was used on the advertisement on this door. So Amanda moved from the poster to the door. Notice how I have also marked with the same red the area on the "sale" sign. This will be her next move.

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I continued painting the second level windows on building 1. There was damage to the lower part of windows 3 and 4 when rain washed down soft primer (barely dry but not fully cured) a few weeks earlier. So I worked a fix before continuing work on the windows.

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After repainting the damaged areas, I continued modelling paint on windows 3 and 4.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013. Window 4 on building-1 was completed. The dying plants have a direct correlation with granny on building 5. Put together, they tell a story of two homes.

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image of the working stiff completed

The window with the working stiff was completed.

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Image of theworking stiff, a person who has an ordinary job that is not well-paid.

A working stiff is a person who has an ordinary job that is not well-paid. He probably works two jobs. When he comes home he is too tired to deal with family drama. Life is hard and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. So he medicates with cheap beer and flips channels. Tomorrow, more of the same. The beer label reads "juice", a slang for alcohol. The shade of his window is skewed, representing a distorted view of life, colored by circumstances, and a lack of harmony at home. His house plants (a representation of the home) are not watered, and his children are neglected as he tries to stay afloat of his daily grind.

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tagged by graffiti

Early evening on Tuesday, October 29, 2013, the mural was tagged with graffiti. The vandalism was discovered right away by a passerby, who call someone who knew Amanda. I had just arrived home from the site when she called to give me the news. So the next day, I viewed the damage and shared the info with a local admirer -and influential member of the community (the neighborhood hoods). In a matter of hours they found out who did it. The perpetrator was a young person who had just moved into the neighborhood. I was assure that they had "a talk" and that the incident was not going to happen again. Reassured, I repaired the damage days later.

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image of a lonely boy looking down from the window

Wednesday, October 30, 2013. The lonely boy window completed. Isolation, disconnection... signs of a voyeuristic society, where people become witnesses to moving images without any direct personal interaction. Neglect, lethargy and apathy become viral in homes and neighborhoods.

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image of a girl and her cat as she texted by the window

Texting girl window completed. Everyone is at the tip of her thumb, but she is the lonelies of all. Even the cat looks sad.

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second level images on building 1 are completed

The second level of building-1 was completed. Together these windows tell a powerful story that many passerby can relate to. It is a story repeated in many homes.

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coloring on storefront windows of building 1

Lighting details such as lamps and hints of hightlighs were added to the storefront's dark interior.

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adding indications of lights on storefront windows

Painting hints of lights and shapes in a dark background provide visual stimuli to the brain. And the brain, wanting to make sense of it all, takes into account other visual surroundings, ties it all together, and then creates the illusion of something in peoples mind. In this case, those hightlights became the interior of a storefront.

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work progression as of october 30

By the end of the day, temperatures had risen to the low 60s and the sun made an appearance.

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Ric Owns painting in the cold

Rain days followed, but Rick and I were back on Sunday, November the 3rd. The day was cold at 45°F and the wind almost a steady 13 mph. We had scattered clouds and a bit of sun now and then. We felt even colder but we had to make up for lost time.

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ric owens painting and smiling

Ric is a morning person; I'm not. His great sense of humor and optimism has cheered me out greatly during some trying days on the job. I have always surrounded myself with talented and dedicated people who amuse me and make me laugh. This makes the work environment seem less like work and more like hanging out with your friends.

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American flag is drawn on door

The "fading American flag" was traced on the door of the second recessed entrance on building-2.

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blocking sidewall of second recessed entrance

We also blocked the side walls. When completed, this would be the panel with the list of credits for the project. I was told that the city would place a plaque with the credits, but I didn't trust them to do so. When I say "the city", I'm referring to the bureaucrats overseeing the project.

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another detail of painting plywood texture

I love painting plywood. I placed a piece of real plywood next to me, and then I copy it on the wall. Every sheet of plywood is an original abstract piece in its own right. No two of them are alike.

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Ric continued blocking colors, while I worked the plywood texture.

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The 1970's "I promise to" poster was blocked with two coating of paint per color.

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painting plywood texture

The second "I promise to" ripped poster was also blocked.

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Painting plywood over the display windows on building-2 was the one change I made in the mural design. Instead of windows with broken glass, plywood seem upon reflection the natural thing to do. There were many storefronts covered with plywood in poor Cleveland neighborhoods. This was a sign of the times. As neighborhoods revitalized, plywood went away.

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dusk shadows cast on buildings 1 and 2

The days were getting shorter. By 5:00 pm we had to call it a day.

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taking the scaffold apart

Cold weather causes muscles to lose heat and contract, creating tightness throughout the body. This results in more damage to muscle tissue that can be felt as increased soreness. After a day in the cold, we barely had the strength -or the will, to take apart the metal scaffold. So we moved around and warmed up for a while before attempting the task. I even cracked a finger once. On rare occasions, a volunteer would come by to help.

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One of the many lovely close-up views of the Cleveland skyline seen from the balcony of my apartment building in Lakewood's Gold Coast. That night, more than ever, I wish I had my life back, so I could just sit back, relax, and recover. This was a major reason to finish the mural as soon as possible.

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painting second level windows on building 2

Monday, November 4, 2013. It cloudy all day with temperatures back in the 40s. We concentrated on building-2, painting window shade and figures on the second level.

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crying boy detail

Children had a prominent role in the mural's design. They have no voice or say in everything that rules their lives until adulthood. Their welfare, their growth and safety is dependant on adult caretakers. But when the institution at top breaks down, children become victims of the fallout. The scars this creates last a lifetime -and are passed along to the generation that follows.

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the times they are a-changin sign

This title of the iconic Bod Dylan song that became an anthem of change for a generation, was a central them in the creation of the mural as they both intent to change people's views on society. But the mural also points out a harsh reality that is consistently true: that certains things never change, especially in the poorest segments of society. The repetition of the political post is the ultimate representation of this fact.

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sure we're open sign

This sign is ironic because it states that a business is open when we can clearly see is out of business and boarded up. This can be interpreted in many ways depending on your perspective of things. It could be the mentality of certain segments of society where optimism is blind to pragmatism, or the vicious cycle of a fickle economy, or the visual manifestion of the pulse of a community.

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awning on building-1

The awning on building-1 was completed. The address on the awning was the actual street address: 2512 Clark Avenue.

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Thursday, November 7, 2013. I celebrated my 55th birthday after a long day of painting. It was a simple but happy family affair, and I had reasons to be optimistic. So far, we were having better weather in November than in October, with dry days and temperatures over 60 degrees. Once again we were making headway.

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Saturday, November 9, 2013. Dr. Blank's sign was completed. Taking advantage of warmer weather, we had concentrated on completing all the lettering on the entrance.

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entrance view of building-1 at night

For the past few days we had repainted the building-1 storefront's architectural framework. Sealer had been applied to the crevice between the sidewalk and the wall thus completing that part of the job.

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night view of building-1 storefront.

I like to see murals at night with only the ambient light of street lights and moonlight. Having a balance color palette make the illusion more believable.

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glass aluminum framed door completed

Sunday, November the 10th, 2013. Being alone -and not having people go in and out the door, was good for my concentration. This had been a rusted smooth metal door with only a door-nob and a key-lock above it. Now it was painted to look as if it were a glass door framed in aluminum with handle bar bolted across. It looked convincing even up-close.

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detail of signs on front door

This sign made a statement. Inside the Ohio map read: "What dreams are made of." Winning the lottery is the hope of the working poor -a fool's dream but still a dream.

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Below the door's handle bar I lettered Dr. Blank's name and medical specialty. For good measure I added the eye exam graphic. These are the details that add interest to any subject. Even when short of time, I never neglect adding them.

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the painted mailboxes

I greatly enjoyed painting the mailboxes. I would have loved to do them in oils and have the time to do them right. But for a quick job, I think they turned out great. The recessed mailboxes look metallic, old and worn -and better looking in person than in this bad photo!

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detail of finished awning and glazing on building-1

Monday, November 11, 2013. I was cold and windy -45°/14mph. But we were prepared and pumped for another week of painting. Shadows were added to the awning on building-1 and the grill-work and glazing above the display windows was also modeled and completed.

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large paper layout positioned and secured to the wall

This was the first of the large paper layouts produced to trace the large scale elements for Building 2 and 3. Once the cartoon was positioned and secured, Ric and Amanda worked fast to complete the tracing. Because, just like clockwork, the wind would pick up to a gust and tear the paper to shreads. This never failed to happen, either on this job or any other job I have done.

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Amanda in good spirits while braving the elements on the scaffold

In spite of the cold, Amanda was always in good spirits. She loved working atop the scaffold.

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cartoon being traced from the scaffold

While Ric and Amanda worked on the tracing, I worked below on the recessed area. One good thing about working in there was that I got some protection from the wind.

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blocked colors on door flag

The door was blocked and a set of mailboxes drawn and inked on the side wall. Like the door on building-1, this was a flush metal door rusting at the bottom. The rust was sanded away and then the door was cleaned and primed. This it was painted to resemble an old wooden door with a glass window with blinds. In between the blinds and the glass was an American flag. Like everything in the mural, it was there to make a statement.

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inked drawing of a hand reaching for the moon

After the tracing was done, the cartoon was discarded into a trash bin. The chalk tracing was then inked with fluid paint. The finished drawing was that of a hand reaching for the moon. The placement of the hand was carefully designed to alined with the flag painted on the door.

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a protective clear acrylic shield was screwed on the first door next to the handle

Wednesday, November 13, 2013. The day was partly sunny but it was colder than the previous two. At 36° with winds of 16mph, we were feeling it. A shield of clear acrylic was screwed next to the door-nob on the door in building-1. This was the most likely area to come into contact with human hands, so, in addition to three coatings of clear finish, the shield provided another layer of protection to the painting.

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The signs on building two were aged, and a second coating of white was applied on the faux graffiti. This was my signature and the day we expected to finish the mural.

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The door with the flag was also distressed to make it look old. But because of the cold, I abandoned painting a more detail version of the flag and kept it simple. I this point, I could barely hold the brush.

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In June of 2018, during a restoration of the mural, I had the chance to have the flag painted as I originally envisioned it. The washed colors and tears on the fabric represented the "fading American dream".

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Thursday, November 14, 2013, 49°F. From this point on, we concentrated on finishing building 2, starting with the wood the display window frames.

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We noticed a yellowish stain running down between two windows. This was caused by water seeping through the other side of the wall. The top portion on the other side of that wall was the roof's parapet, which was an extension of the wall at the edge of the roof. So when water accumulated between the roof and the parapet, it came through on the other side -the mural wall. So we informed the building's owner that the parapet needed to be sealed with roofing cement to correct the problem.

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scene of parents having an argument being painted

I continued modeling the figures on the second level windows of building-2. This scene represented the stresses of life that deeply affects the home. The number one issue revealed by my research and an informal community survey, was economic pressure. Unemployment, under-employment, working minimum-wage jobs that offered no future, and the anguish of trying to make ends meet, were the factors usually stated for family conflicts.

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window showing two children victims of family strife

Sadly the victims of conflicts in the home are children. The emotions conveyed by this simple scene are sensations everyone can understand.

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the finished I promise to poster -70s version

The finished "I promise to" poster -1970s version. The faceless politician in gray, backed by the elicited patriotism and validation of an American flag, and the self-assured hand expression pointing at oneself -framed between the lines "I promise to", is an observation of the way we perceive politicians and the way reality shapes our politics.

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the sure we're open sign and the white color lettering below

Friday, November 15, 2013. At 52°F and party sunny, it was heaven. We continued working on the facade of building-2. Below the "sure we're open" sign, is writing in white. It looks like writing but it is not easy to read... because it's writing in reverse. I wanted the viewer to pause and try to figure it out. Because once you do, you have to ask yourself why didn't you see it before when it was so obvious to see.

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a reversed image of the previous photo

In this reverse image of the above photo, the writing in white becomes clear. It reads: "I'm a human being!". Read on its own, it does not make much of an impression. It's just a question mark. But when seen with the image of the homeless man next to it, it becomes a chattering scream. Since watching the 1980 film -The Elephant Man, directed by David Lynch, in which the main character (a severely deformed man in 19th century London) is accosted by a cruel populace who ignores his humanity, in a dramatic scene full of pathos where he (finding himself trapped) screams -"I'm not an animal; I'm a human being!", my heart was touched and my eyes were opened to the plight of the less fortunate among us. This has been the only moment I have ever shed a tear watching a film.

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finishing the second recessed door

The door was completed and a protective clear plastic shield was installed next to the handle. The brick side walls were also distressed.

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completing the corner of the recessed entrance

Detailing of the wall's corners was completed and the second set of mailboxes completed.

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second set of mailboxes completed

The second set of mailboxes were just like the first set but in a different color. I enjoyed painting them as much as the first set.

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Saturday, November 16, 2013. It's 60°F and partly sunny. At 16mph the wind is a little on the strong side, but otherwise, the weather was perfect for us to do the final -and the largest cartoon layout. My lovely wife Nancy once again volunteered her day to give us a helping hand.

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My brother Ricky also volunteered his time. This was not his first time lending a hand, but it was the first time he sported his knitted had in such a ridiculous fashion! He has always had an odd sense of humor.

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securing a very large paper cartoon on the wall

The cartoon of the child's face and the arms raising the beam had been drawn on a series of contiguous sections. Each section had been rolled up after masking tape had been applied along the edges to reinforce the paper and prevent it from tearing when hit by the wind. To hold the cartoon in place, we used segments of "black Gorilla tape" to warranty a strong hold. Made with double-thick adhesive, strong reinforced backing, and a tough all-weather shell, this duct tape is great for this kind of job. Gorilla tape sticks to anything!

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By day's end, the last tracing of the mural had been inked with fluid paint and the letters of the title had also been blocked. At this point, the completion of the project was in sight. I knew I could paint large scale objects faster than it took to paint smaller detailed elements. All I needed now was dry weather and temperatures in the 40s.

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Monday, November 18, 2013. With the tracing of the moon marking the visible end of building-2, we turned our full attention to distressing the rest of the facade. During this time, news videographer and multi-media journalist Brian Archer stopped by and filmed a segment for Channel 5 Cleveland. Seeing his piece (the link is at the beginning of this page) you will get a feeling of the absolutely miserable weather conditions on the work site.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013. The day was completely overcast with an average temperature of 39°F. The distressing and detailing of the ground level of building-2 was completed.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013. This was "the day I went crazy". Or so it seemed. To speed up the painting on buildings 4 and 5, I glazed the section with a dark coating of clear finish tinted with dark paint. I wanted to seal the brick pores even more and darken buildings in one fast operation. A dark semi-transparent glaze would allow me to model forms in color tones applied in thin paint layers that would dry faster. But bystanders and area residents thought someone had burned the place -and they were mad! Fortunately, word kinda got around that this was an intentional part of the painting process. Many would not be convinced until we eventually got to completing this section of the mural.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013. I immediately began applying thin layers of paint to bring out building shapes from the darkened background. Since the dark glaze I had applied made the wall more "slippery", I was able to rapidly paint and blend color on large sections of wall and define form by controlling the opacity of the paint with a large wet brush. The painting was done directly on the brick without applying concrete rendering to fill the brick lines and smooth out the surface. This was done because the large scale of the arms, for example, visually obliterated the brick texture, something that could not be done with smaller scale figures and details.

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rainy day on the worksite

That day, I could only work for a few hours because the skies turned black and it rained for days.

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completing torn poster and background details

Monday, November 25, 2013. I completed the torn poster. But this was our last painting day for the year. With 15 mph winds and a temperature of 32°F, the thin paint mix I was holding in a small cup, froze. I had had enough. Exhausted, uncomfortable, but above all angry, very angry at the idiots who had robbed me of four warm weeks ideal for painting, I threw down the brush for the year. Days later, I left for Puerto Rico. I returned the last week of May 2014 and completed the mural on June 21 -in a little less than four weeks.

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painting the elitist and the anarchist

May 22, 2014. It was a beautiful 60°F sunny Friday. Earlier in the week, we had a new storage pod delivered to stored our equipment and supplies. Then I spend a few days preparing the color palette, mixing and sealing paint in small containers, and another day getting reacquainted with the design. I began the season by completing the figures on the first display window of building-1: the elitist and the anarchist. They are part of a tablaeu representing a community meeting that's taking place inside the store on building-1.

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I like touches of humor on most of my works. So I added 'free donuts' to the sign announcing the community meeting, when it occurred to me that the best attended meetings I've been to, were those where donuts were served. The 'sale' sign is significant. What's for sale? Every group has an agenda not always in the best interest of the community, or there is always someone representing someone with an agenda. Truth, integrity, honesty -these are some of the things that sometimes are invariably bargained to the highest bidder or given away for the wrong reasons.

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The elitist person

The elitist believes that their way of thinking is superior and they should decide for other people, while the anarchist -individuals more likely to have radical or populist views depending on where the needle leans to, is in opposition to "the establishment" -the dominant or elite group that's in control of specific institutions.

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Notice the T-shirt with the image of revolutionary "Che" Guevara. This is one of the most iconic images in the world. It has become a symbol of dissent for the underdog, of civil disobedience, political awareness, or brutal dictatorships. When using people as representation of ideals or stereotypes, I cast the faces with the care one gives to actors in a play. Wardrobe is also important. The intention is that the viewer recognizes or identifies with a character at a glance.

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Saturday, May 23, 2014. The temperature finally jumped to the low 70s and there is not a cloud in the sky. This was what I called "perfect painting weather". The discontent and the ultra-conservative were completed next. These two characters represented groups less likely to accept change. The lines on the placard above them come from the song lyrics in "The times they are a-changin."

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image of the conservative

"The ultra-conservative" are people who are extremely conservative in their views, primarily those in politics and religion. They hold to traditional attitudes and values and are suspiciously cautious about change or innovation. I represented this group as an older gentleman wearing a hat, a stereotype of someone from the 1950s, formally dressed in a somber gray suit and tie. This is a gross generalization (I've known plenty of young and beautiful people who fit nicely into this group), but the image does convey conservatism to the general public. The gentleman looks at you with distrust in his eyes as he sizes you up to see where you stand in their world view.

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image of the malcontent

A malcontent is someone who is always dissatisfied. They tend to be angry and critical of prevailing conditions or circumstances, but never take action to bring about change. They seem to be always critical of everything, from the existing government to their neighbors or their neighbor's children or pets. They also find fault in all manner of things and are unreasonable and difficult to deal with. In my experience, you always find people from this group at just about any public meeting.

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John's son John Alexander at the worksite

Monday, May 26, 2014. Temperatures are in the 80's, the sun in baking the site and the wall feels like it's 100 degrees Farenheit. I'm now concentrating on the large scale images on buildings 3 and 4. I can not afford a full time crew so I have son John Alexander with me for the few days I needed to raise the scaffold. At 6'4" (1.93m), "Alex" is very handy to have around.

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May 26, 2014.  John Rivera-Resto painting the it's up to us mural

At some point, my legs were becoming as famous as the mural. I actually got eight marriage proposals from passing motorists, seven women... and one guy. Climbing up and down scaffolds helps you stay in shape. But I developed my shapely legs from years on the fencing strip. My wife finds them irresistible!

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detail of john wearing ear mufflers while painting

My ear mufflers and I had become inseparable as the street noise was almost unbearable (I also had small earplugs under the hat). Because of the glare, most of the time I was painting blind. I couldn't see what I'm doing. This meant that I had to go across the street every time I needed to check things out. Hidden underneath my extra-large sun-blocking pullover was a tight back brace so I could stand for extended hours on the same spot.

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detail of john wearing ear mufflers while painting

We spent two years of torture by noise pollution. Within a mile radius there is a conglomeration of every kind of urban noise maker around, and most within the same block we were on. Here's the round up: constant traffic on Clark Avenue and the corner of West 25th street (our exact location), a bus stop on the same block and dozens of buses per day passing by (and blocking traffic), aggressive drivers constantly honking, all sorts of delivery trucks to supply the chains of stores on Clark Avenue, near misses on a daily basis as people try to squeeze from a two lane into a single lane, or make a 90° sharp turn from West 25th unto Clark Avenue (narrowly missing our scaffold on the side walk), police sirens (the Cleveland Police Second District is within the geographical radius), emergency vehicle sirens every hour on the hour (Metro Hospital is down the street on West 25th street), fire engines (the station is just passed the hospital), an ungodly number of people with loud speakers blasting noise during peak hours, and of course, a major sidewalk and utility lines renovation project on the same street (jackhammers and generators). Add the occasional oddball screaming at some other being on the receiving end of a cell phone, and you have the complete picture of my hell.

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painting under the sun's glare

In addition to the constant noise, we had to deal with the heat radiating from the brick wall and the concrete sidewalk, and sun glare. For most of the day, the sun came at us at a sharp angle since the wall was positioned east to west. This accentuated every brick line and every bump on the wall making it very difficult to appreciate the painting head on. I always wore dark polarized sunglasses since my optic nerve is very sensitive to light (photophobia). Growing up in Puerto Rico, a tropical island with a radiant sun for most of the year, meant that I always had to wear eye protection while outdoors, or, as it happened on several occasions, I would go dizzy and faint. I believe daughter Selina also inherited this condition, and though thankfully not as bad as I had it, she also has had her spell of faintings.

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painting the flowering beam

"The flowering beam" was completed. At this point, there are several obvious observations. First is the fact that the top of the beam is sprouting leaves. A dried up piece of lumber has once again come to life. The other thing is that there is writing at the top and that the beam is being raised my many hands. But the one thing that is less obvious but just as significant, is that the lower section of the beam fades out over the domino game.

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the title of the mura: it's up to us

The public finally got to see the title. By the comments we received, I felt gratified that people got it! Many confessed to being moved by the message. For me, this is how I judge myself as an artist. It means I was able to use the right imagery to successfully communicate with my audience. But what does it mean? Written on the beam in letters is the phrase: "We the People". To me, these are three of the most powerful words in human history. They, of course, are the first words written on The Constitution of the United States of America. But I have observed, that when it comes to the daily task of governing and being governed, the people expect civil servants and politicians to fix everything that is not going well in their lives and their communities. So by spray painting in red over the word "We", and writing over it in white letters the words "it's up to us", now the phrase reads: "It's up to us the people". This switches the burden of action to everyone. That's the message.

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bicyclists pasing by the mural

For the next couple of days, I continued by painting the hands on the beam and other details on buildings 3 and 4. The beam represented a structural element that primarily resists loads applied to it. It may bend under the pressure, but it holds; its strong fibers gives it inner strength. It takes a community to raise it, and ultimately, to build a strong structure. The monumental scale of the imagery paralleled the importance of this fact. The passing bicyclist in this photograph provide a good comparison for determining its dimension.

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Friday, May 30, 2014. The arms raising the beam were completed. Standing in front of the mural, is my son Alex. The hands represent every citizen of the United State within this narrative, but its significance is universal. To avoid issues of race (something that "Americans" are obsessed with to a troubling extent), I decided to paint only raised arms in a tonal variety that represent everyone and no one. Being Puerto Rican, this was never a concern since, after a year under the hot tropical sun, everyone is equally burnt. I still have problems with the concept of racial discrimination or racial superiority -an issue that has affected my life since I have been in the receiving end of this gross display of ignorance, stupidity, and just plain evil.

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buildings 4 and 5

Taken as a whole, the arms raising the beam -a not uncommon image in popular culture (have you not heard about "raising the barn"), can also be viewed as racial diversity in a fellowship of people working together to "raise a community". In doing so they have truly become "the people". The beam that was only dead weight, has become alive; it's sprouting new leaves. This is a sign of growth and rebirth. The beam, the life burdens we all carry, became lighter by the inclusion of all. But the decision to join in has to be made as an individual. "It's up to us -the people" to make it work by taking action in the selfless act of cooperation and sacrifice.

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protective varnish being applied

As soon as the section was completed, we applied a coating of protective finish. Being so close to completion, I didn't want to take any chances of it being damaged by passing hands.

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moving on to painting the child's shirt

After the arms and beam were completed, I moved to the child's shirt, which overlapped the arms on the left.

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applying underpaint to the child's face

Saturday, May 31, 2014. I began modeling the child's face in gray tones. I was using 4 and 3 inch brushes and very wet paint (added water) to achieve some sort of tonal blending. Even though the day's temperature was only 75°F, the brick got so hot that I could only work the paint for a couple of minutes before it dried. I kept repeating the process, layer after layer until I was satisfied with the result up to that point.

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I promise poster and pealing paint

Sunday, June 1, 2014. The day's temperature was back in the 80s. I completed the "I promise poster" and then began to paint peeling paint on the store's bulkhead panels. I had changed the look of the panels from my original design to add a further layer to the mural's narrative. Peeling paint was now used to represent deterioration with the passage of time. It was also symbolic of the community meeting taking place inside the store, where discussion and consensus had deteriorated to the point that nothing was ever done.

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For the remainder of the day, I continued working on the panels.

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modeling the child's face

Tuesday, June 3, 2014. I further modeled the child's face by applying thicker layers of paint over the underpaint. The underpaints stage shows you were you want to go, the next modeling layer allows you to build form without the guesswork. Since you are not dealing at this stage with color, you concentrate only on tonal value. I dressed the child in a Little Leagues uniform -that's what's written on the shirt's round patch. This represents an idealized future, a better world -hope. One that turns its back to what has been and looks up toward what could be. Little Leagues is a reference to the beginning of spring and a parallel to the flowering beam. But it could also be interpreted as childhood dreams and times when life was simpler and rosier, the way I feel every child's life should be.

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The day had been overcast so the sun did not bake the wall. This was ideal for blending tones on the child's face and uniform as the paint took longer to dry. Another advantage of a cloud covering is that the harsh sunlight is diffused so you can appreciate the painting. Seen under this filtered light, the illusion looks real. These are also ideal conditions to photograph outdoor murals.

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charlie the homeless

Friday, June 6, 2014. I named him "Charlie". Life has dealt him a lemon and a hard piece of bread (by his foot). I got to know four "Charlies" during the time it took to do the mural. They showed up mostly on weekends and stopped to see me paint. One of them was more cultured and erudite than most art critics I read about. While interning in Washington DC, I had done a study of the city's homeless, talking to many of them and listening to their stories. It breaks your heart seeing how people ignore them like pariahs. This is why I wrote the graffiti above him (mirror image)-"I'm a human being". Anyone who brings up a mirror to read the inscription will also see their own image next to Charlie and hopefully notice him as a member of the community, worthy of our attention and care.

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Saturday, June 7, 2014. Progression view of hand reaching for the moon under-painting, and further facade distressing of the second level of building-2. Since the moon overlaped on the imagery of building-3, it had to wait until the child's head had been painted. I took care to paint the overlap over the Discotheque sign in transparent glazes so the sign would show through.

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I decided to make the deterioration of building-2 more dramatic. The paint chipping away represented the breakdown of the family (the narrative seen in the two upper level windows) and the scars needed to be prominent. Paint is peeling off the brick wall and the concrete window frame. The brick and concrete were left raw and exposed, the wounds were still fresh.

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further modeling of hand reaching for the moon

Tuesday, June 10, 2014. All surface textures on building-2 and the discotheque sign were completed, and the hand and moon were further modeled. The hand reaching for the moon was placed directly above the faded flag on the door below. This was to represent a that while the "American dream" may be fading, there was a way out, a way to regain hope and dream again -if we could once again dare to reach for the moon.

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the hand reaching for the moon completed

Sunday, June 15, 2014. Highlights and details were added to complete the hand and the moon. The metaphor of reaching for the moon was inspired by a speech by president John F. Kennedy. In the speech he inspired the nation to set one's goals or ambitions very high; to choose our destiny; to try to attain or achieve something particularly difficult. But he also cautioned that the challenge required sacrifice. But in the end, this was a choice, one that spoke to the best impulses of the nation, one that would lift and united us all. To me, this was a metaphor that could still inspire a community to greatness as long as we challenged ourselves collectively to achieving this goal.

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the hand reaching for the moon completed

The couple on the window were completed, and then I began applying color glazes to the child's face.

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view of the mural painting progress to date from east to west

Monday, June 16, 2014. I continued adding color glazes to the child's face but was not 100% satisfied. With temperatures in the 80's and the sun baking the bricks, the thin paint layers dried almost immediately. I could actually see steam coming from the wall as soon as I passed a wet brush. I simply could not do a proper color blending but neither did I have time to spare. By the end of the day, after the streets had cleared of traffic, I took these photographs.

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view of the mural painting progress to date from west to east

Later at home, I would upload the photos to my computer and look at the work progress to-date. It was only there and then, after I had time to unwind, that I could somewhat appreciate the totality of the work. On site, I could only see a piece of wall. But I didn't dwelt too much on the images. Or else, I would begin to focus on all the things I could improve, but had no time to do since I needed to move on to my next paying job.

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lettering on the food drive sign completed

Wednesday, June 18, 2014 -it's been in the 90's for the last two days! The heat radiating from the wall and the sidewalk is melting my pupils. I assembled a section of scaffolding next to where I was painting so that the planks placed at the top could provide some shade. And of course, there was not much wind either. I grew up in a tropical island were the sun can be brutal, but at least you feel a cool ocean breeze in the shade. I wanted to scream as I breathed fire. So I spent the day trying not to move too much, and doing finishing details, like lettering food drive sign.

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close up view of the food drive sign inscription, that reads: nobody wants to smile when they are hungry.  make your neighbors laugh with joy!

The reason I had waited to the end to write the inscription on the food drive sign, was that I couldn't think what to say. But that day, as I leaned back and emptied another water bottle, it came to me.

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painting the runaway girl

I finally got back to one of the most iconic images in the mural: the runaway teenager. To emphasize her frailty and youth, I made sure her garments look a size too big. She was almost a woman but was still a child. The pose was carefully thought out. Leaning against the wall, hands in the pocket of her coat, it showed strength and determination. Her stare looked right through you. She packed all her belongings in a blue duffel bag and patiently awaits for the ride that will take her away from the difficult life she has known. Once her decision was made, there's no turning back. Behind her is the torn poster, a symbol for broken promises and the system that failed her.

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the face of the runaway teanager

I wanted her to have the strong features of a Native American girl I once knew, those of a survivor. This face showed beauty, inner strength and the courage you must have to run away from a home with a history of abuse. The black eye represented suffering, cruelty and the violence of her mistreatment. If you were to study her face a second longer, you would also feel her mistrust of others. In 2012, a month into the painting, someone singled out this image in the mural's design (and also that of the homeless man), but the furor was centered on the runaway teenager. I refused to make any changes and the argument got very heated.

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page under construction graphic

Thursday, June 19, 2014. There were those who claimed this image gave "a black eye to the community" and glorified the abuse of women. But these voices were a small minority. I had a lion's share of defenders. Keep in mind that while we were painting the mural in 2012, the FBI and local authorities were digging the ground a couple of blocks away searching for the bodies of the three teenagers that had dissapeared from the area: Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Georgina "Gina" DeJesus. In May 6, 2013, they were discovered alive when Berry managed to escape from her kidnaper -only a block away from the murals location! This story garnered world attention. In the end, an advisory committee from the community heard the arguments and voted unanimously to trust my judgement and keep the integrity of the original design.

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finished tableau of the runaway teenager

I took this photograph the moment I finished my last brushstroke. The minute I saw the image through the camera's viewfinder, I knew this was one of my best pieces in a decade. It was a powerful visual of social commentary that did so without uttering a scream or trying to shock people. It was its casual commonality that made it so striking, and so ironic when you consider the other elements surrounding the subject. This was something I wanted to bring to the spotlight by providing the reflection in the mirror of the hidden soul. Because, even though many women and children do not show visible signs of physical abuse, they carry deep scars inside.

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painting the credits

On the side wall of the second recessed entrance, I painted a panel where I could write the credits for the mural. I have been promised a plaque with the credits at the end of the job. But bureaucrats had lost all credibility with me. So I followed my instincts and forged ahead. (photo credit: Israel Perez)

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the project's credits

I dedicated the mural to Chris Luciani. The dedication reads: "His vision and tireless effort made this gift to the neighborhood a reality." After the dedication, I gave credit to all the people who worked on the project, and extended my gratitude to the community leaders who became our champions. P.S. -I'm still waiting for the plaque.

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inscription on the side walk: please do not touch the painting

Friday, June 20, 2014. At intervals along the sidewalk I added the following inscription in English and Spanish: "Please do not touch the painting." Hopefully people would notice and pass the word around.

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painting the last two figures on the mural

Late in the afternoon, I began finishing the last two figures in the mural. I got a little bit of shade from that sun at that late hour which made things cool enough to be able to blend colors. The following day I completed them.

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the dealer and the addict were completed

Saturday, June 21, 2014. On this bright and beautiful Saturday afternoon, I finally placed my brush down for the last time. The dealer and addict were completed! But what do they represent? I always asked people: "What is the significance of this scene that makes it worthy of attention? Everyone points out "the obvious", but they fail to really notice "what's obvious". To begin with, the dealer is a handsome young white male and not the stereotype we always see in the media. He is based on true facts. I witnessed it happening. The dealer was a very handsome young white male. This was what gave me pause and made me think. Why was he a dealer when he could be a model? Statistically speaking, you do not get rich on the streets dealing in drugs. In fact, this is a dangerous and short career move that invites a lot of misery. So, why does he do it?

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image of the drug dealer

I began asking questions and talking to dealers and addicts. Being an artist opens all kinds of doors at every level of society because everyone loves art. People talk to me since they notice my interest is sincere. They are not used to that. They soon realize that I'm not judging them; I'm seeking understanding. And their raw answers put a human face to facts I knew as statistics. The too-common story is that many young people from disadvantaged homes and communities end up having problems with the law for a myriad of reasons. The end result is that they end up with criminal records no sooner they become legal adults. Once this happens, in our current system, you are marked for life. Finding a job and getting ahead becomes an uphill battle when you have a record. In the meantime, they have to survive and eventually support a family. But the only choice available to many is to do those things that got them in trouble in the first place. This becomes a vicious cycle that gets passed on to the next generation and the next.

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page under construction graphic

The other thing to notice is that the addict is a woman. You can not see her face and the shape of her upper body is disguised by her clothing. But she has wide hips and the longer abdomen of the female body. That's how you can tell. I represented the addict as a woman because addiction, considered to be primarily a male problem, is also a women's issue with a different set of challenges.

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page under construction graphic

At the end of it all, the main question remains: Why did I include the drug deal as an important and prominent scene in the mural? The answer is simple: because both the dealer and the addict are members of the community. Everyone knows a relative, a friend, a neighbor that is either connected or affected by this complex disease and its causes. They are human beings trying to make the best of their situation, with the same dreams and aspirations as everyone else. They are also characters in the narrative. Without their inclusion, the story would be incomplete. So instead of averting our attention from the issue (or simply skirting around it), I placed it right front and center where it can no longer be ignored.

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page under construction graphic

Late afternoon on Saturday, June 21, 2014. The mural was finished. I was free at last! The euphoria of having such a heavy load lifted from my back was intoxicating. I smiled for at least... three days. To celebrate my liberation, Nancy and I went out to dinner. Other than that, there was no fanfare. The following Monday I began packing and emptying the pod. The next couple of days were spent cleaning and storing leftover paints and supplies at the shop. I sent notice to the city's bureaucrat-in-charge about the murals completion so that the balance of my contract could be paid. Several weeks later, the check arrived, and as far as I could tell, that was the end of that part of my life. I felt like Peter O'Toole when, at the completion of two grueling years filming Lawrence of Arabia, he got up on a bar table and screamed in a drunken stupor: -"The fucking movie is finished!" My hero.

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john rivera-resto at the completion of the mural

On October 2, 2014, I was awarded a Neighborhood Improvement Award by The Council of the City of Cleveland, for: -"... the commitment, and dedication to this neighborhood you have shown through the innovative and thought-provoking mural... This Council applauds you as an inspirational and gifted artist whose active civic involvement has had an extremely positive impact on the lives of the residents in this community. Thank you!" With this final flourish, I completely block this project out of my mind. For that matter, I never made a conscious effort to go see the wall again.

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vandalism-on-7-14-2020

On the morning of Tuesday, November 14th, 2017, three years after the mural's completion, all hell broke loose. This was the gist of what was reported by every news channel in the city, and also on print and online media outlets: "...neighbors were welcomed by a gruesome act of vandalism against our neighborhood mural. One-third of the mural was defaced by bold and evident tagging, leaving residents and corridor commuters in rage." This was one time when all the media got it right: people indeed were outraged! The feelings were voiced during a news interview by Keisha Gonzalez, managing director of the Metro West Community Development Organization (and the nonprofit who would lead the restoration efforts). -“They were furious,” she said. -“I’ve never seen pitchforks go up that quickly.”

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2018 mural restoration

In June of 2018 the mural was restored to it's former glory and them some. With the right team and perfect weather, I was able to improve certain features to the quality-level I had originally envisioned. But to read about this somewhat weird but exciting story, and see the mural's restoration work in detail, you have to click on the image link below.



  • image link to 2018 it's up to us mural restoration page














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