Two Murals, One Fabulously Distracting Intersection

There are times when choice epithets and cheap insults are music to an artist’s ears. Jeremy Gregory’s sprawling mural, “A to B”, on Market and South 11th, was being painted over when the rain of insults began to fall. “A to B” had dazzled passersby for a scheduled period of six months, but now Spaceworks Assistant Gabriel Brown was prepping the wall-size canvas for an incoming artist.

Photo: Diana Leigh Surma
Photo: Diana Leigh Surma

“Jeremy stood back and laughed as I painted primer over his mural, while citizens drove by yelling angry comments at me,” recounts Brown, also an artist. The repeatable ones included “‘Why are you painting it white?!’, ‘That looks terrible!’ and ‘Your painting sucks!'” The public outrage testifies to the popularity of Gregory’s painting – and the quality of new murals appearing across the city.

On left: Market St. mural by Diana Leigh Surma; on right, S. 11th St. mural by Chelsea O’Sullivan

Never fear: today the corner of Market and South 11th is ablaze with fresh new scenes by Chelsea O’Sullivan and Diana Leigh Surma. These artists, assisted by community volunteers, withstood the worst weather March could throw at them to create two very large, very different wall-size paintings. And the results are so vibrant, all memories of freezing fingers and endless rain have washed away.

Artist Chelsea O'Sullivan paints an octopus portrait. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Artist Chelsea O’Sullivan at work on an octopus portrait. Photo courtesy of the artist.

O’Sullivan’s mural, “Turn On Spring”, sweeps down South 11th with a scene of colorful rain pipes bursting with huge flowers under a deeply hued, stormy sky.

“I wanted to bring a playful, bright piece to Tacoma. It’s usually so rainy and gray right before spring, I really wanted to bring out some color,” says O’Sullivan. Surprisingly, it is spraypaint over exterior wall paint that gives the panels their rich depth and vivid detail. The mural is animated by gusty winds that blow hot pink blossoms all the way down the block to a recessed corner where they stop.

Six friends helped O’Sullivan prime the wall, but the painting was mostly a solo project taking 40 hours over four weeks, she says. The artist has worked with the Tacoma Murals Project since 2011 and has participated in the design and completion of several large-scale pieces, including a stunning nighttime scene on the back of the Tacoma Buddhist Temple involving a giant octopus, a young girl, flying lotus candles, and a luminous, swaying cherry tree. That project took 180 hours of design and paint time.

    Buddhists Temple mural by Chelsea O'Sullivan. Photo courtesy of the artist
Buddhist Temple mural by Chelsea O’Sullivan. Photo courtesy of the artist

How does it feel to know that such a beautiful work as “Turn On Spring” must in six months disappear? “I hope that it will inspire the next [artist] to create a piece that lifts people out of their bubbles to look around….I try not to get too attached to a lot of my art. I really enjoy doing it but if I held onto everything, I don’t think I would be as motivated to keep creating.”

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Community volunteers (L to R): Jennifer English, Elysa Saito and Sur Holland fill in color on Surma's mural.
Volunteers (L to R): Jennifer English, Elysa Saito and Sue Holland work on Surma’s mural. Photo: Diana Leigh Surma

Diana Leigh Surma was a newcomer to outdoor mural painting when she faced the blank, 80ft. wall on Market St. that would become “Show Your Stripes”.

“At first it was very overwhelming,” she says. “Believe it or not, the painting was one of the easiest tasks to accomplish.” But first she had to create a full-size template, and a process that would allow volunteers with little or no experience to transfer it onto the wall. And then there was the rain. “It was a tremendous learning opportunity for me in terms of managing time and resources efficiently to get the job done.”

"Overlap Series I" by Diana Leigh Surma
“Overlap Series I”, a painting by Diana Leigh Surma. Photo courtesy of the artist

A mesmerizing abstract mural with folded origami-like strips floating over black-and-white lines, “Show Your Stripes” reflects Surma’s experience in color field painting, which she practiced as a student at Hunter College, in New York. The artwork “intends to celebrate the revitalization of Tacoma’s bustling downtown corridor and encourage youth participation in the arts. Like the networks of shapes that shift before the viewer’s eyes, Tacoma is a city constantly transforming and reinventing itself. However, the roots of its history and traditions, its stripes, stand to remind us of what came before.” Surma employed over 40 students and community volunteers to complete the project.

Surma studied architecture at Cooper Union, in New York, and earned her Bachelor’s Degree in painting from Hunter College, in 2010. The experience of creating a supersize painting changed her relationship to Tacoma. “The mural made me feel much more connected to the city, and by extension, the Tacoma arts community. It was a great learning experience to interact with passersby and share information with other artists about how to get involved with Spaceworks.”

The Surma and O’Sullivan murals will be on display for six months, at which time Spaceworks will be choosing two new artists to bring their visions to the walls. An application will be coming soon. Keep in touch by signing up for the Spaceworks Monthly Newsletter. ~Lisa Kinoshita