February 26, 2024

How the Mural Gets Made

Two local artists share what it takes to create enormous works of art
By Jillian Manning | Nov. 25, 2023

Brianne Farley is no stranger to turning a boring old wall into a vibrant, eye-catching mural. When she’s painting on that massive version of a canvas, she says it really feels like “the world is your oyster.”

You can find Farley’s whimsical works around northern Michigan, from the Dennos Museum and the Traverse Area District Library to Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate and The Little Fleet food truck lot. (Plus Trattoria Stella, the daycare room at Elev8 Climbing and Fitness, and more.)

But Farley didn’t set out to create giant works of art; in fact, she’s more used to working in picture book size as the author and illustrator of multiple books for children. Even her sketches for the murals she creates start out small and then get scaled up proportionally to fill entire walls.

“I do have to say that there’s an unexpected amount of math in murals, to my horror,” she tells us wryly.

Take her project at the Dennos, for example, which is her biggest project yet. The premise started out simple enough: Create a mural that references a sculpture of a Coelophysis, a Triassic-era dinosaur in the museum. (It’s an early ancestor of other two-legged carnivores like the velociraptor and the T. rex.)

“Then of course, I make my own parameters for myself just to drive myself crazy,” Farley jokes. “I was like, ‘I’m going to find out what era this dinosaur is from, and then I’m going to paint other dinosaurs, animals, and flora that are from that same era. And I’m going to make them all life size.’”

Once Farley had an approved sketch, she used a projector to amplify it onto the wall. Then came more math: She put a 1-square-foot grid over the sketch to get all those dinos to their correct, respective sizes. The mural was so large that Farley had to trace the left and right halves separately, bringing them together without missing an inch.

“It was actually really fun,” Farley says of the process. “I feel like that’s what I love so much about illustration … no project is exactly the same as the last project that you did. And I’m always doing all this research and learning stuff … and then I become, like, a super nerd.”

(For the other super nerds out there, you can watch a hyperlapse video of Farley painting the Dennos mural on her website at briannefarley.com.)

It All Began in a Bathroom

Sometimes the art does flow a little easier. So it was with her very first mural, which she created at The Little Fleet in summer 2014.

Farley, a TC local, was living in Brooklyn at the time and had just released her first picture book, Ike’s Incredible Ink. She’d come back home for a few book events, and a woman who was friends with The Little Fleet owners Gary and Allison Jonas saw her presentation. Meanwhile, the Jonases were looking for a muralist to come in and spice up the interior of the restaurant. Although Farley had never painted a mural before, an introduction was made.

Farley says the Jonases were looking for “super loose line art” and “some funky characters,” which happened to be right up her alley. Though she hadn’t done large-scale artwork professionally, she did have a bathroom in her Brooklyn apartment painted with chalkboard paint.

“I sent them a photo of my bathroom wall, and I just recently had covered it in weird characters. And I was like, ‘Do you want it to look kind of like this?’” Farley recalls. And lo and behold, they did.

But there were no grids or projectors that first time around. Instead, Farley came in and worked for eight hours straight, painting left to right across the room while The Little Fleet patrons enjoyed a drink and watched her work.

“It could have been very intimidating, because I was just up there making stuff up as I went along,” she says. “But that was actually part of how I decided to move back to Traverse. [The Little Fleet] literally had just opened, and I was like, ‘What is this place? You guys look like people that I would want to hang out with.’”

Working Big

Now, Farley lives and works in the same town where her art graces the walls of so many establishments.

“It feels good to know that these business owners who have these little community hubs want me to be a part of that, and it’s fun to see that stuff out in the community,” she says.

What’s next on her palatte—we mean plate? Two books are on the horizon: Farley has another original work, Worm Makes a Sandwich, coming soon, and she will be illustrating a book called Plenty of Pancakes by Carrie Finison, the follow-up to the duo’s 2020 Dozens of Doughnuts.

No murals are in the works for the moment, though she tells us she’d love to see the exterior of Elev8 covered in art one day soon. (Hint, hint!) But she does have a bit of parting wisdom for aspiring muralists.

“I think as I get older, the hardest part is that I need to schedule a recovery period. When I do make those hyperlapse videos of myself, I’ll go back and watch it and just be like, ‘Oh, that’s why I hurt! I was laying at a weird angle on the floor for a really long time.’ … Blood, sweat, and tears goes into this,” she says, laughing.

On a more serious note, she adds, “There’s something very freeing—especially if you’re someone who’s used to working small—about working big. And actually, now that I think about it, both of my bathrooms in my house here have mini murals in them … so yeah, it’s contagious.”

October Beach Days

Local fine artist and painter Katherine Corden has also caught the mural bug, even though she’s in the process of her very first one, a two-part piece that is transforming the restroom building at Traverse City’s Bryant Park into a work of art (pictured).

“I [hadn’t] really imagined my art on that scale or in that space before,” she says of mural-making. “I ended up really loving the process of painting it, so it’s definitely expanded my thought process when I’m … envisioning the future of what my business can do. It’s cool to branch out into the public art space.”

The Bryant Park project was special to her from the start, as it’s the beach she and her family have frequented for years. Even though Corden didn’t have a mural in her portfolio, she applied to the call for artists put forth by the Traverse City Arts Commission to show the Bryant Park restroom some TLC.

“So much of what I’m known for in my work … is my beach scenes,” Corden tells us. “My pitch was that you’re going to be looking through the building, so it almost disappears and the skyline kind of blends in with the peninsula and the background meets the peninsula on the painting. I was like, ‘This is unique—it feels like a very personal project.’”

The commission granted Corden the gig, and soon the work began. The first leg of the project took about 10 working days in October, with the weather shifting from 80 degrees and sunny to 50 with drizzle and blustery winds as she painted two walls of the building. The final leg—the largest wall—will be completed in the spring.

“I definitely felt like I was racing against the weather,” she says of the October stage. But the unusually warm start to the month did make the experience special, because that meant folks were actually at the beach while she was working.

“So many young families were there, and little kids were coming up and [saying], ‘Oh, your painting is so pretty!’ It was nice having interactions with the community. It was really sweet.”

Puzzles and Patchett

Like Farley’s Dennos project, Corden started with sketches, which she then aligned to a grid. Her first task was to draw that grid with sidewalk chalk onto the building. Her second was to get some scaffolding, since the highest point of the building was 14 feet. And her third was to match up the puzzle pieces of friends and family spending the day at the beach.

“You look at each square and you’re like, okay, so there’s a line that starts here … half of this square is the person’s face. And then their shoulder starts right here and it goes into half of the square, it cuts across on the diagonal through this square, and then out like at the middle of that one,” she explains, noting that proportions were important since she was painting a life-like beach scene.

Bit by bit, the puzzle came together, and finally, it was time to paint. While we’re talking, Corden counts the paint cans still in her studio—28 quarter-gallons plus two gallons a piece for bigger elements like the sand and sky. She notes she’ll have to replenish some in the spring when she finishes up and will likely have used enough product to paint a large home when she’s done.

But despite the sheer amount of painting to be done, she was in her wheelhouse.

“The hardest part, I think, of doing a mural is the preparation phase, all the way from designing through gridding it out and sketching it into the building. That’s the most time consuming, mind bending [part of] designing the mural,” she says. “Once that’s out of the way, you’re just mapping it out on the building and painting it. That’s actually much more relaxing.”

In a fitting twist, Corden was listening to an audiobook during the project: Tom Lake by Ann Patchett. For those who haven’t read it, the novel is set on a northern Michigan cherry farm and references the very land and water that Corden was looking out over every day.

“It was crazy because I was literally standing on scaffolding at the base of Old Mission Peninsula while I’m listening to Meryl Streep talk about cherry picking on her [character’s] family’s cherry farm on the peninsula,” she recalls. “They’re driving back and forth between Old Mission Peninsula and Interlochen and they’re performing and it’s about the arts. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m living in this book!”

The Impact of Public Art

For the winter, the paint cans are put away and the audiobook is over, but come spring, Corden will be back at Bryant Park to finish her work. (What should she read next? Send us suggestions!) She says she can’t wait to pick up where she left off, especially because the project has been such a special way for her to connect with the community.

“It’s been really encouraging just for my entire art practice [to do] something that people resonate with and people enjoy. You don’t always hear that feedback when you paint an original painting … if someone buys it online or through a gallery, you might never even meet that person,” she says.

Corden adds that it’s an honor to drive by her work and to know she’s part of making her beloved park that much better, mentioning the impact of art in public spaces and how it helps people take more care of those lands and buildings.

“I feel lucky that [the Traverse Art Commission] chose me and that people like it,” she says with a smile. “And I’m excited to show people the third side because I think the third side is actually the coolest side.”

Stay tuned! In the meantime, Corden has a new painting going up at Farm Club and is working on smaller paintings and sketches for her website, katherinecorden.com.

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