My favorite professor at university, Mr. Hardin (who, one of the master’s student explained to me was actually a PhD, but preferred the more humble title), taught us to push our limits in our work. To aid this lesson, our assignments were to be painted on the largest canvas possible that could fit in our car. I took the city bus to school, so this was problematic. But I settled on using the largest canvases that I could afford as a working student without loans – a set of 4 foot by 5 foot canvases that I picked at the famous annual parking lot sale of a local art supply store for a fraction of their worth.
Mr. Hardin’s core lesson suited me well. Long before college, I indulged regularly in pressing boundaries and creatively finding ways I could follow the rules without following them as whoever made them intended. My parents always knew I’d be an artist. I never understood how they could be so sure, but in retrospect my creative non-compliance was probably the clue.
Years later, I am settled into a comfortably domestic life, now swallowing the rules of steady employment and enforcing rules onto my children. But I still find ways to release my creative angst. My roundabout career finally landed me in marketing, a delicious mix of visual communication combined with creating, following and breaking rules. Then in my free time, I paint children’s murals.
Though Mr. Hardin’s lessons brought out in me a penchant for large swatches of paint, the inspiration to leave the canvas and paint in real life came from my boss’ wife, who at a dinner showed me her children’s room with the mural she painted of each of her children dressed in God’s armor (Ephesians) – all done in regular house paint with regular paint brushes. Genius!
Fast forward a few years. I helped paint the mural at my city’s crime prevention center mural in the shopping mall and another small mural at my son’s Montessori school. So fun – I wanted more.
By accident of fate, I take my older son to Little Flower Childcare on the Southside for the after school program (another story for another time). I love the Billings Catholic Schools’ childcare programs, and I love Sue, the director at Little Flower. She’s as tall as her students in stature and taller than three people stacked in spirit.
I also love old buildings with all their character, but after taking my son to the after school program for a year, I couldn’t stand the old white walls in the entranceway any longer. I gathered up some gumption and announced to Miss Sue that she needed a mural in the front hallway. Far from being offended at my forward suggestion, she perked up and confessed she always thought so too, but never had anyone who could or would paint one. I informed her that now she did, and I struck a deal with the executive director of daycares, Katie Seibel, to paint the long wall in the entrance way.
I painted on Friday’s after work. I confess that it took me far longer to complete than I liked and probably stretched the patience of the BCS administration who were also housed in the building. But it wasn’t long after completion that Katie came to me with an offer to paint down the stairwell in the same building and three other schools. I have a soft spot for teachers and ended up working on more walls than I intended.
I learned many lessons along the way, including managing volunteers (a special thanks to my husband, my young friend, Violet, and the Seibel family). Each wall completed faster than the one before. I am starting (and hopefully finishing) my last mural for awhile over Labor Day weekend in the basement classroom at Little Flower, where it all began. Miss Sue has long been inspired to paint an aquarium on the long curved wall along two sides of the room.
My toolbox includes the usual … • Paint – red, yellow, blue, brown, black and white. All other colors can be mixed as needed. Technically you can mix brown, but it’s easier to just buy a gallon. • Rollers and paint trays for backgrounds and large areas • Brushes of varying widths • A tall step ladder ($30 from Walmart). Flat steps are important, and the paint tray at the top helps too. The flat steps are more important – your feet will thank you at the end of the day. • A dozen or so of mixing containers. I picked up a stack of small hand size trays at Walmart, and also a stack of paint cups from the art supply store for pretty cheap. I also use baby food jars for storing small left overs. • A large tarp. When finances allow I prefer to use a roll of plastic that sticks to the floor, but tarps are cheaper and reusable. • Rags – lots and lots of old t-shirts and towels
And some handy tools • A small piece of sandpaper • A small container of spackling for all those pesky little holes old nails and screws leave behind. • A small hammer with a nail wedge. Great for opening and closing cans and removing nails • A swiss army knife … mostly for removing screws and staples stuck in the wall. • Painters tape – Masking tape works too, but it’s harder to remove without pulling paint off the wall. • Plastic spoons for mixing colors. • Chalk for sketching design on the wall. • Thumb tack and long string for drawing arcs and circles • Portable radio
I worry a bit about painting an underwater scene in a basement room. I don’t want it to feel too closed cave, but Sue has a vision. I’m just going to have to find a way visually to break the assumption that underwater is closed in. Rules. They’re always there.