Capstone Class Project

Art + the Environment Minor

An Immersive Art + the Environment Experience

by: Gretchen R. Wood
Spring 2018
Independent Study – A. Geffen

This page chronicles the work completed during the installation of a mural project at the Meadville Medical Center’s Medical Arts Building during the summer of 2017 in Meadville, PA. The project was a collaboration between Allegheny College students Nayana Pratt and Gretchen Wood and their professor Amara Geffen with much help and input from the Meadville Medical Center (MMC) staff and board of directors.

What follows is a personal, first-hand account of the project’s progression and may not be a complete representation of every aspect of this project as there were MANY different components to this project – too many to list here. Instead, this account takes a look at the author’s perspective (G. Wood) and includes many of the projects I was either directly and deeply involved with or projects from others that naturally relate to the progression of the narrative of this project overview. Please Enjoy!

This little sign appeared in the worksite one day, offered up by a community member who appreciated the work being done.

1. The Site

LOCATION: Meadville Medical Center – Medical Arts Building – Main Entry Space

The space we were working in was the primary entrance to the Medical Arts building which houses a number of medical practices including maternity, pediatricians, and surgical care offices. The entry space had a semi-enclosed loading area surrounded by parking lots and a footbridge that crossed over a large stream that led to a grassy park area just a few yards away.

1A. MMC Mural Site Wall
1B. Bench Seating
1C. MMC Mural Site Wall (curve)
1D. Second Site Wall

The outdoor walls of the site were a clean red brick and mortar with some cement sections on the second wall and were sheltered under the roof of the loading area. Measuring the length of the curved wall proved challenging and we had to check our measurements multiple times. The size and shape of the second smaller wall were much easier to calculate than the curved wall.

MMC site measurements
Long Curved Wall w/ Bench: 40′ 9.25″ x  9′ 4″
Second Wall: 20′ 8.5″ x 9′ 4″
Pillars: each face is 3’4″ x 7’11”
1E. 3/4″ Scale Drawing of Curved Wall

To understand the perspective of the wall-space we were working with, we decided to map out the exact shape of the long curved wall. From one angle, we can look at the entire length of the wall as one long continuous line, but when we look from another angle, the wall almost appears to fold in on itself. Understanding this shape allowed us to design from this perspective and know the space more in-depth.

2. Preliminary Sketches

Initially, we were given a wide-open door to create any design for the space that we wanted to attempt with no restrictions beyond what was available within the space and the creativity of our own imaginations.

As art and the environment students, Pratt and I worked with professor Geffen to generate some initial sketches and work up ideas to get the ball rolling. There were others who had already contributed some sketches and ideas for the space that we were able to view and draw inspiration – we were invited to elaborate on what others had already done.

2A. Interlacing Branches + Stained Glass Effect

Playing with branches + colors. This is one of my earlier sketches that was modified about a hundred times (well, maybe 9, but it felt like 100). Evolving a sketch takes time and working, and I have learned that coming up with a design is a process – one that pushes us outside of our comfort zone and asks us to look again and again.

The intersecting branches of the trees were time-consuming to sketch, so after a few revised versions of this sketch, we opted to make unfinished sketches to get a ‘taste’ of what an image could look like and save time by not making complete sketches.

2B. Experimenting With Smaller Trees

This sketch was a way to view how groupings of trees with smaller trunks and branches might look. I presented a trio of views + options here to explore different tree groupings.

2C. Playing With Symmetry + Depth

This is one of the unfinished sketches that was done a bit later. The attempt was to merge the two styles of tree groupings offered in the two sketches above (2A + 2B). The spaces between the tree trunks were designed to look like archways to call attention to the church-like reference of the stained glass effect of a previous sketch (2A).

3. Projected Images

By taking photos of the sketches and uploading them to a laptop, we were able to connect to a projector and see how fully scaled versions of our sketches might look. Seeing these life-sized variations of our drawings altered our views of what we really liked in the way of designing the space.

Suddenly, some of the images we were drawn to on the small scale didn’t make sense in the larger context of the space. Similarly, we ended up really liking some of the images we had originally assumed wouldn’t work on the larger scale; perspective has that way of shifting how we see things with just a simple move inward or outward.

3A. Fairytale Forest

Here we can see a section of sketch 2A (above section) projected onto a wall in the campus art studio. We marked nine feet up the wall (the height of the mural site wall space) and enlarged our scaled images to expand the full nine-foot height.

The little girl in the image is my 2-yr old daughter who sometimes accompanied me on quick visits to the studio to drop off work or check-in. Here she lends a bit of perspective for our fully-scaled projection.

3B. Narrow Trunk Trees

Here is the large-scale version of image 2B (above section). Once we saw the full-scale images, we decided to begin directing our sketching efforts towards designs that were themed around trees.

The MMC board of directors indicated that they also liked the concept of trees, but wanted a more photo-realistic option than our abstract trees. We knew that, between the three of us, we could never fill a huge wall-space like this one in a single summer AND do all of the incredible detail work involved in a realism-style mural, but we wanted to give the MMC something they would love. So, we began to explore what the middle ground might look like.

3C. What Makes a Tree a Tree?

Collecting our feedback from the MMC and taking a look at what we were feeling good about, our little group starting looking much closer at trees to understand their shapes and their lines.

Here, Pratt stands in to give perspective to this image professor Geffen crafted with a little help from Stefan Martin (3D). This image began to bring our trees into a more realistic sphere without requiring more time to paint than we had available.

3D. Design Cues from Existing Artwork

The projected drawing (3C) was a reverse image of a sketch modeled after this drawing of a tree by Stefan Martin.

4. Tracing Trees

4A. The Light Table

We collectively spent several days at this light table tracing photos of birch trees that we had printed. Each tracing was a lesson in the lines and shapes that nature takes… organic and sometimes unexpected. The beauty of nature that we sought to create made us look closely at the shapes and lines of each tree, every branch, and the open spaces between them, so that we could render a more fluid design. We found ourselves manipulating our tracings to create tree shapes and lines that we liked.

4B. Crafting Beautiful Trees

Utilizing simple cut and paste/tape methods, we finally ‘Frankensteined’ some natural-looking trees that created a sense of flow throughout the design for the long wall.

These tracings/manipulations were a labor of love and I was so glad to see this tree layout come together.

5. Finalizing a Design

Discussions about many different background design options were discussed and relayed as we worked on the foreground tree design. We went through a series of concepts and sketches before finally settling on one.

5A. Foreground Tree Images Come Into View by Wood
5B. Background Imagery Begins to Take Form by Pratt and professor Geffen
5C. Background Underlay Sketches by Pratt and professor Geffen with Tree Overlay Sketch by Wood
5D. Paint Sample Sketch by Pratt
5E. Color Pencil Sample Sketch by professor Geffen

This colored sketch became the final rendering of our design. We were finally ready to move into the next phase of our work – painting.

6. Painting

5A. A Little Help From Our Friends

The staff at MMC generously offered help with cleaning the space, priming, and painting the base coats of the bold blue background color we had chosen.

5B. White Chalk Wall Tracings

Utilizing the projector once again, the sketches of the trees were rendered to be viewed on the wall so we could roughly sketch in the trees and branches.

5C. Chalk Tree Lines
5D. Refining Tree Branches

It ended up being an incredibly time-consuming undertaking to paint and refine the trunks and branches of the trees. This process took longer than we had initially expected as we removed and added limbs by using either white or blue paint to change and redirect the flow where we felt it was needed.

5E. Painting Trees

Pratt begins laying in the foundational coat on the first tree.

5F. Dance Break

Clearly, Painting is Loads of FUN!!

5G. Birching

Professor Geffen laid in the majority of the detail work on the birch tree bark. She refined a technique that was difficult to duplicate without looking like multiple people had worked on different parts of the mural, so we all agreed to have her “birch” all of the trees.

5H. Trees Have So Many Leaves

As professor Geffen ‘birched’ the trees, Pratt and I began the nearly endless task of painting leaves. There was a rhythm and flow that needed to be present in the application of the leaves so that they looked natural and not like applique stickers. It took painting leaves on a few different branches to begin to really feel what this should look like.

5I. Birds and Leaves

We also began to play with bird silhouettes, shapes, and colors. Cutting them first from paper, then strategically sticking them into the trees on the mural walls. We would look at them for a while, some would move far, some would only move an inch. But, this allowed us to look at how we could create a sense of movement and flow throughout the entire space – the birds were used to draw the eye across the entirety of the painting.

5J. Birds and Birch Trees
5K. Wood, Pratt, and Geffen
5L. The Second Wall

The decision was made to take on the challenge of designing and painting the second wall. We mirrored the two trees from the previous design to save us some time. Pratt set to work on designing a bicycle to paint in between the trees.

5M. Birds and Birch Trees
5N. Bike Drawing Projection

Pratt designed a bicycle to place at the middle of the second wall. The sketch was projected and traced before any painting began. I got to stand in for scale.

Even though we mirrored the same two trees from the first wall, the distance between their respective locations within the space along with each of our individual hands refining each of the trees and branches, they looked significantly different from one another when the painting was complete.

7. Finishing Up

7A. Racing The Clock

We reached a point where our workload and our time frame for the project were not aligning very well and we were concerned that we may not finish in time. Pratt and I both had plans to leave the state for an extended period of time and would not be able to carry out the remainder of the project.

We spoke to professor Geffen about all of this and she assured us that she would continue on with the project alone and would recruit some help to finalize it. The majority of our remaining time was dedicated to finishing up as much of the work we could accomplish before the close of our time together.

Our final days of painting came and went, and while the mural wasn’t quite finished, Pratt and my time on the project was. When I returned home after three weeks of camping with my family, one of the first things I did was to visit the finished mural.

7B. Birds, Birch Trees, and Bicycles (Oh, my!)

The completed image of the Second Wall with Pratt’s bicycle between the trees.

7C. Reaching Branches

I love these branches that reach and flow into the neighboring tree.

7D. An Intimate View
7E. Bunnies, Birds, and Birch Trees

My two children (my little bunnies) both loved visiting mommy at the studio and on the mural work site. They felt the magic of what we were attempting to create and it reflected back through their sweet faces.

7F. Meadville Medical Center’s Medical Arts Building

This lovely image was distributed among MMC staff and to each of our team members. Such a heartfelt appreciation for the work we completed.

8. Reflection

This experience taught me many lessons not only about the application of a public work of art, but also a lot about myself. I felt a personal journey of self-development and progression alongside the ladies in this group. I feel fortunate to have met them and had the opportunity to do this rewarding work with them. Every time I walk through the entry to the MMC Medical Arts Building, I get a feeling of connection to my community – the people and the place.

8A. Tree Pose

Yogini painters Wood, Pratt, and Geffen posing in Vrksasana (tree pose). Namasté