Act Well Your Part… collage mural (1996)

In 1996 I was invited to enter a competition run by the Honors Program at SIUC, where I was a senior, to construct a mural at least 8′ square on the theme of “honor”. I submitted a 12″ x 12″ collage maquette along with my proposal (the first photo in the slideshow below), and was selected as one of the finalists. The competition was judged by Dr. Williams, the director of the Honors Program, a professor from the School of Art and Design, and a professional muralist. My proposal was selected as the winning entry, and I was awarded $500, plus expenses to create the mural. My original collage was published, along with the completed mural, in the Honors Program semi-annual publication, Papyrus.

I was thrilled to have won the purchase award—my first paid art job—but I was scheduled to spend the next six months as an exchange student in Holland at the Utrecht University of the Arts. I negotiated with Dr. Williams to complete the mural the following summer, after I returned from Holland.

While I was in Utrecht, I made some preliminary “sketches” in oils. I experimented with collaging elements into the painting, including broken glass and cut-up strips of foil.

The quote “Act well your part, there all the honor lies” was well-known to me, because it is the motto of the International Thespian Society, of which I am a lifetime member, but I did not know the source of the quote. Somebody told me it was from Shakespeare. However, I was wrong. I learned later that the quote comes from Alexander Pope.
Honors mural, © 1996 J. Thomson When I returned to the United States in June, I set out to complete the mural in the summer before classes resumed in the fall. Luckily, I was living in a rented house in nearby Murphysboro, IL, rather than in a dorm room. The house on Lucier Street had a full walk-out basement with high ceilings, and  a large window that let in lots of light. It was the perfect studio to create my artwork.

I started by gathering hundreds of magazines, and spending hours combing through them looking for interesting colors and textures. Unlike most paper collages, which use interesting imagery removed from its original context, I wanted this collage to be almost completely devoid of any recognizable elements. To create my palette, I sorted my clippings into several different trays grouped by color. My training as a painter really helped me organize process of creating this huge collage.
Honors mural © 1996 J. Thomson I used two sheets of plywood, and temporarily joined them together with two by fours. The entire panel was gessoed with several coats of acrylic gesso, then gridded out with pencil.

I then began gluing individual pieces of magazine clippings to the panel using acrylic gel medium as my glue. Most of the clippings are triangular in shape, roughly an inch wide by two or three inches long.
Honors mural © 1996 J. Thomson I approached this project as a regular job, and worked 5 days a week on it, for about 8 hours a day. The entire process from beginning to installation took about three months, and I estimate that I spent over 500 hours working on it. Not a bad deal for the Honors Program! (A dollar an hour!)

I was worried that I would not have enough of a particular color I needed, but I was able to find enough material without having to purchase any magazines specifically for the mural. When I was clipping, I trained my eye to only see the color or pattern I wanted, and none of the actual “content” of the magazines.

Honors mural © 1996 J. Thomson I am indebted to the SIUC Honors Program, and specifically to Dr. Frederick Williams for this project, and for trusting that I would complete it on schedule. Dr. Williams only checked up on me during the construction phase once, and I invited him out to the studio to see the progress. He was very pleased with it. I think other professors might expect an undergraduate student to not follow through, or change the design along the way. I am happy to say that Dr. Williams never gave me that impression, and trusted me completely.

While I really enjoyed this method of working, I found it too laborious to keep at it. Although I would consider another commission in this style, I wouldn’t do it now for less than $25/hour, which would make this particular project cost $12,500. (That’s $195 per square foot.) But if you’ve got the cash and an empty wall, call me!

Honors mural © 1996 J. Thomson Almost done! There are probably over 10,000 individual pieces of magazine clipping in this mural.

The shot below shows my studio setup. I was lucky in that this house had tall ceilings for a basement, and was ground level at the back of the house. I could pull my truck into the back, and there was plenty of natural light and no neighbors.  I really did like this studio, but the house itself was only so-so. It was cheap though… only about $300/a month if I remember correctly. There was a patio outside the studio, covered by the deck above that kept direct sun away from my work area.

Studio shot © 1996 J. Thomson

Honors mural © 1996 J. Thomson

In this shot, you can see my method of working: I did most of the background first, starting with the dark colors around the perimeter. I left the text alone, except the R & E in the center, which used the same colors I was working with around the edges.

Once I had the yellows and lighter colors of the background done, I went back and started work on the letters. You can see some letters have larger pieces of color in them. That’s where I happened to have a bigger piece in the right color that fit the shape I needed. Most of those pieces got covered with additional layers of smaller pieces.

The overall effect is shimmering, and reminds me of stained glass. People often scrutinize it, looking for hidden imagery. Apart from maybe recognizing a texture (hair, for instance) you really can’t tell what any of the sources are.

Honors mural © 1996 J. Thomson

This shot shows the collage nearly complete. All that’s left to do is outline the letters with black gesso. I did this at the request of Dr. Williams, who wanted the text to be easily “accessible” by the general public. In other words, he wanted it to be easier to read. I had no problem with it, since I used a black pen to outline the letters in the original mockup collage. I used a squeeze bottle filled with black gesso to outline the letters, as seen below. As a final step, I sprayed several coats of a removable, UV-inhibiting varnish to protect the piece from damage and fading.

To transport the mural from my studio to campus, I had to slice the collage down the middle using a sharp knife, where the two plywood panels were joined. After installation at Faner Hall, I spent a few hours disguising the joint and several screws with more magazine clippings, then gave a final coat of varnish.

© 1996 J. Thomson © 1996 J. Thomson

At left, a closeup of the mural, showing the various patterns and textures.

Below, the finished mural installed on the second floor of Faner Hall, outside the Honors Program offices. (The Honors Program has since moved to a different building, and I am unsure of the fate of this piece.) EDIT: I have since been informed that the mural is still installed at Faner Hall, and will be included in an exhibit at the University Museum celebrating the building’s 40th anniversary.

Honors mural © 1996 J. Thomson © 1996 J. Thomson