Painter Stephen Westfall knows that where there’s a wall, there’s a way. For his geometric, Technicolor patterns, a large, blank wall provides a canvas that “presents a thrilling level of architectural scale,” he says.
And so when Westfall was commissioned by George Stauffer, dean of the Mason Gross School of the Arts, to paint a mural for the new Mortensen Hall, he knew as soon as he viewed the building plans that he had found a perfect home for his work, even though the space was a bit unconventional.
Extending over the Class of ‘59 Grand Staircase, Westfall’s “Ardor” is 14-feet high and about 12-feet wide. Its bold, angled pattern is based on earlier works by Westfall that were inspired by the mosaic-tiled floors of churches in Rome, the city where he spent a year as Fellow of the American Academy from 2009 to 2010.
Fitting the work into the architecture of Mortensen Hall came naturally and in a way that “works beautifully,” Westfall says.
“The slight incline of the walls animates the pattern in a really interesting way,” says Westfall, who teaches painting in the Visual Arts Department. Even the surrounding earth tones proved to be a harmonious companion.
“I knew the colors would pop,” Westfall says. “I welcomed the warmth of the red in that corner.”
Westfall chose two of his former graduate students, Erika Hickle and Alan Prazniak, to work on the mural. Using Westfall’s design as a kind of paint-by-numbers guide, Hickle and Prazniak enlarged the drawing onto the wall by creating a basic grid, “a lot like a giant connect-the-dots,” says Hickle, a 2012 MFA graduate.
The unique space did present challenges for the painters, who spent “four grueling, 12-hour days” working on the project over winter break, says Prazniak, who graduated in 2011.
“There were some architectural details that we had to take into account while making the painting, such as handrails and adjoining walls,” Hickle says. “Also, it was interesting working on a 20-foot scaffolding that was set on a staircase.”That scaffolding didn’t always reach to where Hickle and Prazniak needed to work, so they found themselves crafting makeshift tools to get their painter’s tape where it needed to go.
Westfall oversaw the first application of color, a palette of flat acrylic Benjamin Moore house paint, and then left Hickle and Prazniak to their work. Murals often involve a team of painters—“otherwise, you’ll never get it done,” Westfall says.
“There’s a level of trust involved,” adds Prazniak. “Stephen knew he was in good hands.”
With juxtapositions of colors and angles, the completed painting displays Westfall’s studies of the “tension between symmetry and asymmetry”—and is just fun to look at, he hopes.
“The whole culture of geometry is in this simple design,” Westfall says. “But there’s beauty, joy, and mirth in it, too.”