I’ve spent the last 29 years with my back to my “audience”. When you paint murals in public spaces—on a sidewalk, in a park, in a mall, or on a trade show floor—you must by necessity spend the majority of your time facing the wall (or canvas, or backdrop). You would be amazed how this amplifies one’s attention to sound and smell. Some artists choose to tune out with headphones but I think it’s far more interesting to let cavewoman-brain take over and tune in to my surroundings. Plus the art is more impactful when one is open to engage with passersby!
At first, there is a mental frenzy that must be conquered. There is a hyper-focus on what your eyes are seeing directly in front of you. No matter how much is planned, sketched, or plotted on a grid beforehand you must confront that empty wall, raise your brush and begin—for all to see.
What is the most exciting thing for a visual artist? A blank canvas. What is the most terrifying thing for a visual artist? A blank canvas. It mocks you, taunts you—’Bet you can’t do it again!’. For a moment all those years of experience mean nothing. ‘What if’, you wonder, ‘all my talent leaked out my left ear last night while I slept?’. Just like an actor waiting in the wings to make an entrance afraid she’ll forget her lines the second she opens her mouth to speak, there’s always a few heartbeats of panic.
If your technique for a particular composition is a little rusty, one you haven’t worked in recently, you have to vamp for a bit, fill in a large area of a single color, start with the part that calls for a simple outline, until you’re sure your brush will obey your mind as it has all those times before. Every composition has a door to conquering it. Every door has a lock and a corresponding key. It could be mixing the perfect color, a blending stroke, the perfect placement of a shadow…and suddenly you’re “in” and the current takes you.
While not exactly on autopilot, you begin to move through the micro tasks toward completion the way we all move through the lyrics of a familiar song. You’re in the flow. A zen-like state takes over. That is when the ears (and nose) turn “on”.
The most poetic aspect of the public soundscape is found when arriving at an early, quiet hour of the day, following the slow crescendo of activity to it’s zenith and then, as it begins to recede, marking the reversal to quiet again. If you are in one spot for several days, weeks even, patterns emerge. You get to “know” the place and people by the sounds (and smells) that inhabit it, always with your eyes front on the task at hand.
If outdoors, you can still hear animal sounds at the beginning of the day, birdsongs and squirrel scoldings, the breeze caressing the trees. If indoors, you are aware of individuals… some whistling or humming, to the bold in full-throated song as they jangle keys to open doors or rattle wheels on carts and dollies. Zippers and clasps are heard as cases and bags are opened. The singers are often the ones giving loud greetings, but as the smells of hot coffee fill the air so do the whispers of a more intimate start to the day. The volume will rise soon enough. And yes, you with the Dirty Chai Latte and the thick foam sneaks? This is the third morning you’ve passed behind me at 8:15 talking to your phone…
In the exhibit hall the backup bells of bobcats and whirr of hydraulic lifts that dominate cacophonous set-up have given way to the hum of electric golf carts. Is that Maintenance, Security, or a VIP? That’s easy. Do you smell solvent, hear a walkie-talkie, or hear laughter and smell popcorn?
When the food smells begin to waft you had better be prepared with a snack or you are toast. As the kitchens ramp up to serve the masses, only the greatest hits, quick bites, street eats: Fat-Sugar-Salt, win the competition to reach your nostrils first. If you are lucky enough to be set up near a bakery, that morning perfume is heaven indeed. Otherwise, grilled meat, teriyaki sauce, garlic/pizza, anything fried, and waffle cones will own your attention. At trade shows warmly wafting snacks are a calculated seduction. One must brace oneself and plan accordingly!
The arrival of deliveries, buses, inspectors, supervisors, staff—all have their rhythm and pitch. The luxury sports car driven by the Italian leather shoe, the economy sedan by the rubber sole. The clank and screech of a panel truck, the exhale of a shuttle bus. And the horns, whistles, bells, and beeps, both analog and digital multiply exponentially in 30 minute increments until pre-lunch. Lunch brings a lull of industrial sounds and a mad increase in human conversation. Go figure! And back at it again until about 3 p.m. when it seems all eyes seek a clock and pause to anticipate the end of the business day. It’s clear those who can take a nap about now would and those who can’t wish they could.
There are dangers too: skateboarders, tourists on Segways, scooters, bicycles… hecklers, and the occasional drunk, all must be listened for and triangulated for threat level, velocity and distance to prevent collision. I rarely have to look up anymore.
On the trade show floor, threats to your composure are blessedly limited. The battle for empty space is all about recorded sound. Dueling music and video messages collide. The aesthetic juxtapositions are comical sometimes. Some companies want to keep the energy up up up, while others seek to envelop visitors in an elegant atmosphere. That first booth to test the playback makes everyone jump. All that thick carpeting laid overnight (which has that new carpet smell) does its best to muffle but no one needs to tell you when the main doors open to the hall because all speakers seem to hit showtime level at once. You can hear the boisterous crowd enter like an approaching wave. Don’t worry, when all the recordings get to about the fourth round of the loop you’ll tune them out in favor of your audience members, too.
So at last for the most subtle of sounds—the sounds of people thinking. My favorite. A lot of science has developed around the universal tingle we all get when someone stares at us from behind. With practice you can perceive and anticipate—as if you had eyes in the back of your head.
Is this visitor reluctant to approach? Maybe you should turn and encourage conversation.
Observing from a distance, encroaching on your personal space, or doing the “human zoom”? That one’s passed and stopped four times now! Let them catch you looking out the corner of your eye.
You would be surprised how quickly you can identify encore observers by sound and scent! (Boy, that conditioner smells awesome!)
Are they really intrigued, or just need something to watch while they finish that sandwich? (Is that a Korean BBQ taco!? Where’d they get that!?)
Are they curious about the art, the product, or just looking for a restroom? Smile and nod, let them know they aren’t interrupting and you don’t bite.
Will they ask a question: “What’s it going to be?” (I always answer: “You’ll have to come back and see!” ), or make a statement: “Hey, my nephew is an artist, too.” (“Really? Cool! What medium?”)
All this you will begin to divine while they inhale, sigh, fidget, shuffle their feet, and rifle their bags before they ever say a word.
And the martini shot in the banquet of public performer sounds—one we all know and can pick out beneath the harshest blare: the click of a camera shutter. It makes the hairs on the back of the neck stand up like no other. Thankfully, digital camera designers thought to replicate that sound to make the new technology familiar. When you hear it you will instinctively turn your head and scan the landscape… You can always tell the difference between amateur shutter and pro by sound. Also, pros give off an aura, a vibe. Though with all those stealthy phones and a thicker crowd you may not spot the source. Sometimes there are several at once. With any luck you will connect and they’ll snap a second frame, perhaps join you for a selvesie! Either way you will smile quietly and know you’ve hit the mark.
In this way I have met, chatted, and posed with people from all walks of life and nearly every corner of the world. A rich experience indeed.
A public mural is both product and process on display. Artists love the act of making art as much as the art itself. Public artists love to get caught at it! But I’ll bet you never thought it would make us such wonderful listeners.