The creative process behind my first mural.
“Why would we go to Greece in February?” we were asked.
Well, we found a super cheap flight–that was reason enough for me and my wife. So there we were, wearing jackets walking the waterfront back to our AirBNB in Crete. We struggled to find a place open for lunch when our host who lived next door invited us over to eat with her and her family.
As it turned out, we had a lot in common. She was an artist and often came to NYC to exhibit. We became friends, talking about art and travel. She suggested that I apply for the annual art festival happening in July– artists from around the world were coming to Crete to paint murals and install sculptures to beautify the city.
So I did.
And I got in.
I had never created any public art before, and didn’t really have any big ideas. I wanted something impactful, but also representative of my sense of humor and style. So I submitted two ideas, not really confident about either.
The first was a typographic approach. Inspired by Timothy Goodman’s murals and the modern philosophy of The School of Life.
Here was my sketch.
The second one was just sort of silly and made me laugh. It was a painting of a tunnel, as if Wile E. Coyote himself painted it. But instead of just a tunnel, like the cartoons, he would have gone to chase the roadrunner, only to hit the wall.
I was constantly reminded of that Ira Glass interview about beginners in the creative process. There’s a gap between having great taste and not having the skills to make something great. I could tell my work was amateurish but I didn’t know how to improve it.
So I embraced that feeling. I accepted that this is part of the process of getting to greatness. The mural was going to be mediocre, but I was going to learn a lot.
One month before the festival, they asked for a final submission. Panic. I spent two full nights brainstorming and writing and came up with this as my final submission.
Again, I’m not feeling super confident, but a little better. This is a message I believe in, and didn’t feel that cheesy. I just had this gap between knowing I wanted it to be better, but feeling that it was a little Pinterest-y.
But I’m out of time. So I head to Greece, ready to paint. I arrived at Midnight on Monday and by 730am Tuesday, I was mixing paint, ready to start. I blocked off the wall and painted the background first.
Next, I would add a chalk grid where I could reliably transfer my sketch into a mural.
When I finished with the blue, I had spent a morning in the neighborhood. The local taverna owner brought me a juice and a water every morning and tried to make made small talk. The passersby were friendly locals, all over 60 and barely spoke any English. “Bravo, bravo” I heard.
“Efaristó” I would reply in my poor attempt at a Greek “Thank you.”
Several buildings in the neighborhood were boarded up, and some of them had Gypsy families, squatting in groups of 8, 10, 15 in small rooms. Throughout the day, I would hear them yelling, babies crying in the background.
The neighborhood of Lakkos in Heraklio has had a bad reputation since the 1920s–a notorious hang out for drug dealers and users, wandering homeless, and lingering prostitutes. Almost 100 years later and the area is still trying to reclaim its image.
I suddenly hated my idea.
Coming in as this American artist, painting a mural in giant English words for a community that barely spoke the language felt insensitive. Inappropriate. Inconsiderate. Not only that, but the message of “Great things don’t happen accidentally” felt like it was rubbing in the difficult life these people lived; insensitive to the deep rooted struggle that had existed here for a century.
There was no way I was painting that sentence.
It took me a day and a half of rethinking and rewriting. While I wrote down nearly 50 other sentences that could replace my original idea, I had also just finished a small watercolor painting. It was of a young girl in a Trump camp on the border, and showed it to my Greek hosts.
“That’s your mural.” One of them said.
He went on to explain the situation in Greece regarding these Gypsy families as well as the Syrian and North African refugees. Greece (and specifically Crete) was often the first stop for many of these families seeking asylum. Families were separated, children put into refugee camps, there was political and social unrest with a struggling economy…And I knew he was right.
I sketched it out on paper before chalking it on the wall. And over the next 3 days, brought it to life.
Because our colors were so limited, I chose to do it in black and white, which ended up making more of an impact in my opinion than if it were a realistic painting in color. It reflected the news and it made her more of a concept or symbol than an actual girl.
While painting, I was reminded of a former boss’ approach to the creative process. We used to be rewriting commercials on set. Changing the story through the edit, and even finding clever ways to change what we shot, or reconstruct the whole idea. Until it goes out the door, there’s always room to make it better. Look for the weak spots, find ways to improve it. Just because you came in with one idea, doesn’t mean it’s perfect. It’s not done until it’s done. So take a look. It’s never perfect, so there must be a way to make it better.
That used to drive me crazy. But as an artist, it’s so important to be open to adjust your idea as you go. To separate the original inspiration from the current execution and refine it until the last second it’s shipped.
As I was adding the finishing touches, my friend the taverna owner came by to marvel at my week’s work. He had no words in English to communicate with me. In gestures, he tried to express his appreciation. And could only say, “Bravo, bravo,” as he handed me my usual juice and water.
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