Huntington Beach, CA
Grasping the scale and scope of 'really – REALLY'– big' took a while. In the summer 2020, friend and collaborator Sean Madden of SPMDesign had called to gauge my interest in this project, but Covid restrictions at the time meant that I was not initially allowed to tour the site in person. My first understandings of the available canvas – nine planes across the AES Huntington Beach power facility – were via images found online and in shared drone footage. This introduction was not a bad way to meet. With a birds-eye perspective from the get-go, I was able to think about the work as one digestible whole. I loved the way the architecture sat on the distant horizon, blending and popping all at once. Façades on the structure, façades in the water. A meandering idea. A colorful gesture. Also: the way an overloaded printmaking brayer tool can create a pattern that looks like reflection or corrugation. Palm trees. Soundtracks inspired by Surf City, watery things, gardens, and blue. The opportunity to float massive Matilijia poppies in a marsh.
Digging in and soaking up any potentially relevant or inspiring information about the surrounds of a site specific project is pure fun, and always reminds me of old-school high-school debate team summer research camp. I began this project with investigations into the flora and fauna of the area, and immediately learned that a swarm of butterflies can be called – a kaleidoscope ! This makes sense: there is disorienting and overwhelming beauty in the abstraction of colorful wings swooping and floating en-masse.
I also learned that Huntington Beach is situated along the Pacific Flyway, a major north-south route for migratory birds that extends from Alaska to Patagonia. Migratory birds travel some or all of this distance in spring and fall, following food sources, heading to breeding grounds, and overwintering. The Audubon Society has classified some of Huntington Beach's wetlands as an IBA (Important Bird Area), in particular effort to protect the wetlands, alkalai flats, and salt marsh habitats that host terns, the Snowy Plover, and Belding's Savannah Sparrows.
All in all, the area's marshes and wetlands support hundreds of bird species, amongst them wading birds including herons, egrets and pelicans, migratory shorebirds, waterfowl, wintering geese and foraging raptors. In flight and surf scurries, there is soothing magic in the fleeting, gestural perambulations of an incalculable number of birds moving in concert.
Conceptualized in studio following site visits, research, studies, and the making of maquettes crafted by the inch and then foot, the project is experiential from myriad perspectives. Abstractly comprehensible on the horizon from nearly one mile away, imagery begins to focus at the half, and then the mural is most closely encountered from a distance of a few hundred feet.
With a jumping off palette distilled from studied imagery, I wanted the overall composition to float between color abstractions and recognizable shapes, a conversation between what is defined and what is not. However, a scale that would allow a single bird or butterfly to read as such from a distance would render those forms cartoonishly huge. Flocks and kaleidoscopes, though, could read differently.
These roughly scaled maquettes, each around 3" tall, enabled me to shuffle section façades like a deck of cards until each face felt satisfying both on its own and when playing with others, and were eventually made into physical digital and mock-up collages.
While the initial maquettes did do a good job of describing an overarching narrative flow, they would not have enough information to accurately represent the fuller marks of painterly painting once enlarged. In order to get there, the next step was to create a series of accurately scaled canvases reflecting surface dimensions of the projects' façades.
Conceptually, I like to approach mural making the same way I approach a painting in studio: there is a seed of thought, there is a sense of color; there may be a memory or a stack of watercolor studies too, but in general, the painting works itself out on the canvas. I am not working from a sketch for a painting. However, for most murals, practical considerations intervene and the approach process needs tweaking. It is usually necessary to have a plan specific enough to determine the logistics of paint quantity, time, equipment etc., but not so specific that the whole work is explicitly plotted out. Regardless of scale, I am interested in freely moving paint around in intuitive and responsive ways, maintaining a sense of spontaneity and discovery.
Since the site dictated that the eventual mural would be rendered not by me but by a crew of dozens, the process for approaching this project required new tweaks. I wanted the studio canvases to replicate a theoretical mural size, but I also needed to retain physical manageability so that I could move canvases around the studio as I worked. I settled on 13 surfaces that, when lined up end to end, measured 76 feet long. The mural-ish-sized scale of the grouped paintings allowed me to closely approximate the way I approach painting a mural in situ, versus making a painting in studio. At scale, there is also the factor of time and immediacy, and a freshness that can come from having more space for marks to breathe. I wanted there to be richly applied lines and textural swaths of color to inform the eventual application. My thinking was that the more honestly I could make mural marks on these studio paintings - the more naturally loose and gesturally proportioned they could be - the easier it would be for the crew to authentically recreate the feeling of the work onsite.
The completed group of 13 individual paintings, which we referred to as 'the originals,' became the baseline maquette from which the team would then work from to scale up.
Once the originals were complete, a challenge became sourcing a type of paint that would both honor the color choices I'd made for the project, and also meet exacting technical standards required by the site. Across the nine façades, there were several different types of material surfaces to contend with - flat metal, corrugated metal, angled louvres, and a poly-composite, each with various sun and wind exposure factors. The paint would need to adhere to each myriad surface while retaining color consistency throughout. Temperature fluctuations, humidity, and marine layer fog conditions had to be monitored each day so that the paint application could appropriately maintain its bond to the primer throughout application and cure/dry time. The paint would also have to work well for all application methods required - paint sprayer, roller, and brush.
Many colors were relatively easy to match given the above technical parameters, while others took several rounds of tweaks and corrections to get right. Some of the neon-leaning colors originally thought to be available were ultimately taken off the menu. When a palette works, each color is like a player in a well-tuned orchestra. Even if only a tiny handful out of many instruments change key or are replaced with an ever-so-slightly different instrument, the result of those substitutions can throw off harmony with the rest of the band. But color relationships are flexible, resilient, and fluid, and with more adjusting and replacements, the final palette still enabled every color to do its job.
Once finalized with respect to the technical requirements, each color in the palette was given a number so that the team would know exactly what to apply where, and just as importantly, help to calculate the volumetrics of how much of each color would be needed.
Across the nine different façades, there were a variety of accessibility operations. Some planes could be accessed from the ground or with a ladder, others required assorted sizes of flat bed scissor lifts, articulating telescoping cherry-picker lifts, and hanging swing stages.
Before meeting the painting crew leads, I was a little nervous about handing off the hands-on mural painting. However, after hanging out and talking shop with these artists and painters, my anxieties were unfounded. The best in the biz, the SPMD crew of magicians understood what my marks and gestures are about, and where it counted, they even faithfully agreed to use a 1-inch brush where some others may have insisted on spray. The team's mixed bag of tricks - charcoal pouncing, grid lines, plumb lines and freehand marks allowed the composition to be perfectly scaled and articulated.
Start to finish – across two years, a pandemic, a crew of dozens, thousands of gallons of paint, a lot of problem solving, trouble shooting, and joy – et voilá! Kaleidoscope (How'd Ya Get To Be Happiness) clocks in at over 122,000 square feet, the largest mural in California. How fun is that?