A Lesson in Murality
Artists can express their creativity in a myriad of ways. Whether they choose poetry, song, painting, sculpting, or writing, the options are virtually endless. Regardless of the art form favored by the artist, we often hear a couple adages repeated again and again, "Less is more" and "Good things come in small packages," implying that subtleness and delicacy can have more impact than a barrage of images or words.
However, when murals are the form of expression, the motto may abruptly turn 180 degrees. "The bigger the better" or "Size matters" may seem more fitting.
This is evident in the artwork of mural artist Michael Allison, whose work is on display throughout the state of Pennsylvania and beyond.
"Mural painting is a lot like translating a sketch to a canvas except that the canvas is usually huge and made of brick or cinder blocks," explains Allison.
You can examine a sample of Allison's work in New Enterprise at the NERE Co-op office building as you enter the lobby. Be prepared to step back, though. You may find your view of the mural to be daunting in size and scope. Within seconds of observing the work, it becomes evident that his research into the history of the local co-op pops out to the audience in a captivating way.
The display is well worth the stiff neck you may acquire as your attention is drawn toward the massiveness of the creation. The centerpiece consists of a light bulb and human hand. The peripheral walls portray some past history of the co-op mixed in with contemporary members of the local board of directors as subjects.
Allison, former curator for nine years for the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, was born in Hollidaysburg and grew up in Altoona.
"I started painting when I was a child and always had a fascination with making things," he explains.
"One of my first commercial projects was a mural of a local store, and this continued until the present. I was lucky enough to be selected to create some of the murals for the Lincoln Highway Corridor Project, of which my favorites are in Gettysburg and around Lincoln Lanes in Chambersburg." That project has been highlighted in a PBS documentary on the Lincoln Highway as it winds through central Pennsylvania. He has also completed a number of murals in private residences throughout Pennsylvania and northeastern United States.
Allison's toil in murality is not an easy endeavor. "Any outdoor work is fraught with problems water penetration and the bleaching effects of sunlight and pollutants are issues that an indoor artist rarely deals with. Add to this the fact that I'm frightened by heights and well, you can see what I mean."
"Another problem deals with scale. While there are many ways to enlarge an image, something odd takes place with massive shifts in scale. Things just start to look wrong. It's hard to explain, but you just have to do it to understand how it works, step back, and continue on."
"At times too, even the mural artist has a tendency to do too much. When you're working up close, it's easy to get carried away with detail. A lot of the detail gets lost from a distance, so I find it best to follow the lead of the impressionists and to suggest the details rather than paint them."
Allison explains another frustration at times that being his audience, both admirers and critics. True in dealing with the public on any front, the row to hoe is not always easy. "Occasionally, my frustrations revolve around the public (and the commission they feel is adequate). They sometimes lack a certain familiarity with the possibilities available to them. When commissioning work, they will impose their own limitations on a project and on the artist."
Allison has practiced and found value in another art form, too meditation. "For years I've practiced meditation, and I've found that it has several beneficial effects. One, it strengthens the ability of the mind to visualize an image and to hold that image for a prolonged period of time. Secondly, it calms the mind down this comes in handy when a panic attack comes along when you're working sixty feet in the air."
It's obvious that Allison loves his work as much as his audience loves his completed artifacts. "Murals like the ones on the Lincoln Highway or in New Enterprise are fun, because they usually involve research and some form of storytelling. The history of the Rural Electric Company mural was largely derived from a couple of books [I located] on the subject. The difficulty was placing all of this information in some kind of context and working around the shape of the wall and the [lobby] shelf."
"Once the image of the hand and the light bulb was decided upon and placed in the center, the rest just fell together."
For those of us not blessed with much talent or creativity, we may wonder how artists come up with their ideas in the first place.
"Concepts arrive out of the blue. I think they bubble up from the subconscious mind unbidden," Allison elaborates. "I always have been what you might call an idea man,' but I find that the ideas come most easily when you're not trying to force them."
Allowing modern technology to take its place in the field of mural art, he admits, "The computer has become a great friend for the spontaneous exploration of my visual ideas. What used to take hours with a pencil and paper now takes minutes. Plus not every image I generate is a keeper.' I love the delete button."
If you would like to see Allison's work locally, you can view it in full scale in the lobby at the New Enterprise Rural Electric Co-op building at any time during regular business hours. His work can also
be found online at www.studioefx.org where his contact information is also available.
Considering Allison's interest in painting murals and his passion for his artwork, I'm sure he wouldn't mind continuing this "lesson in murality" with anyone who might find the topic interesting.
*Written for and published by "Penn Lines" a Rural Electric Co-Op Magazine in central Pennsylvania