Frame It!

This past year I became enamored? Infatuated? Engrossed? In online estate auctions. I know, it seems counter intuitive to be buying things we likely don’t need when our goal these past several years has been to declutter and downsize. But really, who can’t use another hall tree or hat rack, and maybe a beautiful Panama hat to go with it? But I digress. 

What I have found to be a lot of fun is bidding on vintage and antique furniture in need of some repair or refinishing. There might be an opportunity for resale at a later date, but that isn’t why I’ve been buying Victorian walnut washstands (original marble top!) or mahogany side tables. Or antique shaving mirrors.

Growing up, I remember Dad had a tool shop in our garage where he would occasionally turn out small projects. It was on his Shopsmith lathe that I first learned how to turn wood for candlesticks, and his table saw is what I used to make the frames for stretching canvas for my paintings during college.

For many years I was employed in the exhibit industry and the woodworkers who created the custom exhibits and cabinetry were always very supportive of my small “homey” projects. So I’m not unfamiliar with wood and the growing community of DIYers and refinishing/repurposing trends. 

Antique mahogany frame

But these Victorian frames that I’ve been buying have me a bit confused. What to do with a 22”x24” frame composed of three separate moldings, that framed a portrait of  someone long deceased? The two companion frames that I bought at the same time came from an estate sale in Culpeper. Other than cleaning, they are in great shape and all I need to do is find a more suitable image to place in each before they go on the wall.

But this one has been a challenge. I repaired some of the missing molding by taking an impression with DAX modeling clay of a matching section of frame, then glued on the new pieces. Rather than take the entire frame apart to “resquare” it, I left it as I had found it, somewhat warped at a jaunty angle, but showing the passage of time. The Victorians seem to have placed more emphasis on the size of the frame than what went in it. Very peculiar to our modern preference for pencil-thin frames and large scale artwork.

After doing what I could do refinish the frame and repair the missing moldings, I decided to paint it. I took design inspiration from the wildly over-the-top decor of The Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs WVA. Nearly 80 years after Dorothy Draper redesigned the interiors of the resort, I’m amazed at the effect bold colors and large patterns can achieve. I cringe when I see things painted white (so many colors and you chose…white?) so I settled on a bright blue. It’s a statement piece, for sure. But I’m still at a bit of a crossroads; what to put in the frame? 

Upcycled

Upcycled, recycled, DIY makeover, finished, refinished, trash-to-treasure— call it what you will, the “don’t throw that away” movement is definitely here to stay. With the cost of new furniture, and shipping problems continuing to be an issue, it only makes sense to repurpose what you have rather than buying more. But what if what you have isn’t quite right or isn’t working for you anymore?

I’ve seen and read a crush of articles recently extolling the virtues of shopping the second hand market for furniture, or salvaging a piece from someone else’s trash before it becomes landfill; but most of those projects end up all looking alike. The paint-it-grey urban farmhouse style has a firm grip on today’s design world. Much like the all-beige world of the early 90s, trends can really take ahold of our consciousness.

I am aware that no one wants OUR stuff, especially the kids! And that includes our collectibles, knickknacks, souvenirs, and other space wasters and shelf hogs. However, we all want YOUR stuff if it is vintage, antique, or can be painted and made to look like new.

Many online sources have chronicled our obsession with old=new again. 

In an article from early in the pandemic (Oct 2020) Vox noted how people’s choices to buy used furniture created new opportunities for some, yet at the same time previewed hard times ahead for some retailers. It could be an early indicator of a market shift, or just a temporary reaction to supply shortages and high prices at a time when folks were reticent about going out. Time will tell. 

Online articles will tell you how to clean second hand furniture, how to detects pests (bedbugs in the sofa?), what not to buy second hand (mattresses, again…bedbugs), where to score great mid-century modern furniture (estate sales and auctions, especially in MCM neighborhoods such as Mantua in Fairfax), and of course there is Pinterest for how-to ideas once you have your new/old piece. 

Lately I have become a bit obsessed with online estate sales. Well, auctions, rather than sales, and that is an important point to remember. While you might rejoice over the initial low bids on a particular piece of furniture, the bidding can quickly ratchet up past your limit in the final hours of a sale. No one wants to get caught paying more for a piece than it’s worth!

On the other hand, I’ve bought a beautiful Victorian walnut washstand for $23; a mahogany sidetable for $10 (I kept the legs and threw away the damaged top); and a nifty dresser shaving mirror in mahogany for $40 which I will be refinishing soon. The mirror, along with a couple of very old picture frames, came out of the Hill mansion in Culpeper. Just getting the opportunity to walk through the mansion to pickup my treasures was worth the trip!

I’m having a lot of fun trying out a few new techniques. The two Victorian-era picture frames that I bought are in need of some repair. One of them is missing the cast plaster molding in a corner. I’ve cast a new corner piece from a mold I made out of DAS modeling clay. Fingers crossed that the finished project turns out!

The kids may not want our stuff, that’s true. But I’m still looking for projects to refinish!

A Wonderful Life

The holidays bring no end of opportunities for musical and dramatic presentations. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol seems to never run out of venues, whether performed at community theaters or touring companies. So it is also with The Nutcracker, or holiday sing-alongs to Hansel’s Messiah

If, like many families, you have your collection of DVDs, then by now you may have already watched White Christmas or A Christmas Story. Or you may be more partial to new favorites such as Elf; How the Grinch Stole Christmas; or Home Alone. The Hallmark Channel serves up an endless supply of 25 Days of Christmas movies to get us all into the spirit!

It’s a Wonderful Life premiered in December 1946. It was not a commercial success by today’s standards (initial box office release places it near $3.5 million) and doesn’t fall anywhere near the top 50 highest-grossing Christmas films. (Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch (2018), at $512 Million takes first place, followed by 1990’s Home Alone $496 million. https://screenrant.com/christmas-movies-highest-grossing-box-office-mojo/

Yet it has taken its place on many Christmas movie lists as one of the most-loved holiday movies. Due to an oversight by the copyright holder Republic Pictures, It’s A Wonderful Life came into the public domain in 1974 and was shown repeatedly on television for many years. For many of us “boomers” White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life are the definitive holiday movies.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play (full-length version)
It’s a Wonderful Life is based on the story, The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern and was adapted by Joe Landry in 1996. This past week we saw a wonderful performance of this charming holiday favorite by the Four County Players in Barboursville VA. The building is a beautiful historic school building from the 1930s filled with character. The stage of the auditorium of the Barboursville Community Center (formerly Barboursville High School) was transformed into the Manhattan radio station WBFR and side wings served as a “green room” during the play’s intermission.

The Players have been putting on a wide range of shows for over 40 years now. Looking through their website, musicals, comedy, and dramas abound and titles such as God of Carnage, The Laramie Project, and Chicago emphasize the wide variety and challenging pieces they have taken on.

It’s A Wonderful Life performed as a live radio play adds an extra depth to a story that has become very familiar over the years. The idea of watching actors, who are themselves portraying actors, who are telling a story set in the postwar 1940s makes this show both familiar and fresh. It’s as if we were being treated to a contemporary podcast, yet here the actions and expressions of the people on stage carry even more emotional weight than would a sound-only podcast.

Frank Kapra directed the movie, based on the 1943 short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern, at the end of WWII. James Stewart had just gotten out of the Army Air Corps and the themes of faith and family, along with deep emotional trauma, surely resonated in his performance. It is a strange coincidence that this play takes the stage again 75 years after the movie’s premier, also at a time when the US has returned home from war.

Yet just as moving was the poigancy that Ken Wayne brought to his portrayal of the drama’s character Jake Laurents, voicing the play’s character of George Bailey. John Holdren’s portrayal of the radio show host was very impressive, switching from host to numerous characters seemingly at ease. Using only their stage scripts as props, or perhaps fussing with the fit of a garment, the cast brought multiple characters to life on stage. Very impressed by Sara Conklin and Katie Hutchins! A great delight was the onstage presence of two Foley artists producing an array of sound effects–from the sound of shoes crossing the floor; broken glass; wind effects; doors being slammed; to the swoooooshing sound of deep waters rushing under the bridge our main character finds himself standing upon.

I had expected the drama to be a bit more “staged,” the actors perhaps just sitting around their microphones in a sound booth. Director and scenic designer Kerry Moran has laid out a beautiful set with the actors front and center. The actors were on their feet at the microphones most of the time, true, but the camaraderie and playful banter exhibited by their onstage characters brought a great deal of additional life to the drama. The action moves along at a quite lively pace. Our director knows there is an audience watching these performances: subtle yet at times dramatic lighting effects coupled with musical backgrounds fill in what could have been a staid production. And those costumes! Welcome to the 1940s.

This was our first time attending a Four County Players’ performance; what a great introduction to theater in Central Virginia and a start to the holiday season.

George Bailey returns a changed man. “Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings. Love, Clarence.”

Book illustration by Scott McKowen from The Greatest Gift, published 1996 by Viking Penguin

Changed My Mind

First, an apology to all of my woodworking friends, craftsmen, and fabricators and finishers who create extraordinary pieces of furniture from walnut, mahogany, cherry and other woods. The rich gleam and subtle play of light accenting texture and grain  in your pieces are unmistakable.  The deep colors of walnut or an ebonized finish are striking. 

But I’m afraid, most older pieces of furniture (vintage, antique?) leave me wanting to grab my paint brushes and get started. Painting. Covering up those wood grains with a bright coat of gloss white enamel or lacquer, or maybe even a distressed crackle finish with a rubbed-in patina. 

Lately I’ve been partial to painting furniture with a whimsical collage of colors and patterns —think of Mackenzie-Childs, though with a more muted color palette than their hot pinks and spring greens or black and gold patterns.

Estate sale side table.

When I found an antique table available on a recent estate sale, I knew it would look great as a table base for one of my hand painted faux finish table tops.

A few years ago, Deb and I drove over to The Greebrier in WVA for lunch and to have a look around at their world-renowned interiors. The main rooms were especially colorful over the Christmas holiday and I remember how striking the decor seemed. Originally designed by Dorothy Draper and now maintained and refreshed by Carlton Varney, the bold use of color and over-sized patterned wallpaper really caught my eye. Not to everyone’s taste, I’m sure, but I loved those huge black and white checks, striped wallpaper, and painted tables. 

A settee in bold pattern, flanked by gloss black side tables.
Grey, blue, or citrine yellow for the table base?

It was in the spirit of the over-the-top Greenbrier decor that I expected to paint the legs for my blue marble table. Not black. The legs already looked black from aged varnish. Maybe bright white or a pewter gray to complement the greys and blues of the painted top. Or perhaps a vivid citrine yellow. But definitely color. 

While sanding through that almost-black finish, I discovered that the table base was red mahogany. Surprisingly I’m rather partial to mahogany. I’m not a big fan of the lighter finishes of woods such as ash or maple; definitely not a fan of the current gray-washed everything. But I love walnut and mahogany, especially with a satin finish or a hand rubbed look. 

So, my apologies to my woodworking friends for all the shade I’ve thrown your way over the years. This past week I bought a can of tung oil with my sandpaper. 

You can see the results below.

What Its Worth

We have found one of our favorite past-times during traveling is to stop in at antique and vintage shops and browse around. We seldom buy anything, and very often I’ll hear others comment, “Who would buy that?” Or more likely, “who would pay THAT MUCH?!” for a certain item. My wife will always give me a look, or a shush! but I’m sure it’s a common observation over what often seems to be random pricing in the second-hand retail market.

This fall we finally stopped in at a shop we have literally driven past for years. Finders Keepers is located on Main Street in Orange, Virginia and we see it nearly every time we head down to one of our favorite vineyards in Barboursville. Their website indicates they have been in business for over twenty-five years so I am surprised to see how long it took us to stop in. Needless to say, it was worth the visit.

Finders Keepers building in Orange Virginia

While we browsed their extensive assortment of items, everything from furniture to lamps, prints and paintings, and home decor, I struck up a conversation with owner Bradley Toombs. We talked about how Covid has rapidly changed the face of retail, especially small businesses. During our conversation he mentioned that they also run an estate sale business and gave us his card to check it out later. Acorn Estate Liquidators offers online and in-person estate sales providing their clients with options to liquidate their personal possessions. It turns out, as many people are contemplating downsizing or moving away from the area, one of their greatest concerns is what to do with all of our stuff.

More out of curiosity than a need for anything, I checked out one of their online auctions.

WHAT A SURPRISE!

Here’s a brief list of some of the things that were available to bid on:

  • Antique furniture and lighting
  • Clocks, collectibles, paintings and prints
  • China and crystal, silver, pottery 
  • Linens, quilts, and rugs

There were hundreds of items to bid on, most of which listed had an initial bid of $2. In some cases they increased by as little as $1 per bid. I’m struck by how little some of these items eventually sold for. There was a vintage Leica camera complete with additional lenses and a gorgeous leather camera bag that topped the bidding at $3,500. But that seemed to be the exception. Most of the lots closed at prices under $50.

So I jumped right in and started bidding! I lost the auction on most of listings I bid on, in some cases by as little as that $2 increment. But a couple of things that I bid on, I won.

While I’m quite pleased with having won the bidding on this sofa for $10, I think I might have gotten carried away bidding on this vintage children’s wagon. It looks great in the garden, I plan on filling it with potted plants in the spring, but the $27 that I paid for it was probably a little high. I am surprised at how many winning bids came in under $10. I suppose with an opening bid of only $2, it can take some time to reach a respectable bid offer. Yet there are always a few items that fetch commanding prices such as estate jewelry, fine art, or some of the antique furniture. Right now I have my eye on a beautiful wingback chair in great condition ($10) and an antique Victorian walnut marble-top washstand (my bid so far: $5).

But much of what’s offered looks like will bring in far less to the family than perhaps what they were anticipating. And that’s what really has me intrigued. When I look around our own living room, for instance, and contemplate what we paid for things like sofas, side tables and lamps, and all the decorative pieces that fill our rooms, and start adding up what I think they will get at auction, I begin to get a sense of real value versus cost.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:19-20

True Colors

It’s been reported that the human eye can detect anywhere between 1 million and 10 million colors. Today’s LCD computer monitors can render 16 million colors. On the rainbow spectrum (ROYGBIV), green sits in the center of that array. 

Many studies, scientific or casual observation, pretty much confirm what many of us know, or at least suspect. Among men, their favorite color is blue, followed by green. And among women, their reported favorite color is blue followed by purple. https://www.livescience.com/34105-favorite-colors.html

Color Chart with men and women’s preferences

Color wheel credit: A sample of 1,974 men and women were asked whether they preferred purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, or pink. (Image credit: Phillip Cohen Family Inequality)

All of this interest arises from a tour we had taken this summer at Henry F. duPont’s magnificent home and now museum, Winterthur, in Delaware. Apart from the extravagantly decorated rooms, it wasn’t hard to notice that duPont had a fascination for color and the color green specifically. According to the current exhibit “Outside In, Nature-Inspired Design at Winterthur;” duPont identified 48 shades of green in the garden. As to how many translated to inside the museum nobody knows, but as in his gardens, the many shades of green used indoors were intended as backdrops for color, whether from the flowers displayed in each room, or the assembled decorative pieces: furniture, carpets, paintings, ceramics and porcelain, a profusion of small and large knickknacks. The overall effect is quite overwhelming to the modern eye, yet harmonious and often inspirational. 

Outside In: Nature-inspired Design at Winterthur

So it strikes me as a bit of a disconnect when we consider how we modernists have such a timid relationship with color. Gray: the most popular indoor paint color today is gray. “Agreeable Gray, by Sherwin Williams, is our most popular gray paint color because it’s the perfect hue for any living space, whether it be a family room or bedroom,” says Sue Wadden, director of color marketing at Sherwin-Williams. (Jun 30, 2020)

What happened to blue? Or green? A quick web search revealed nearly 497 million entries for the terms “psychology of color”. While we often think of the color red, for instance, as being associated with passion; the color blue with tranquility, peace, and often sadness; the colors yellow and orange with confidence, optimism, and happiness, I wasn’t surprised to see that green is often thought of as the color of growth (of course!) renewal and awakening. But Gray? Well, gray is described as secure and reliable or conversely, as sad, depressing, or unsettling. (Thealignedlife.com). I want color! More color! I want True Colors.

But I see your true colors
Shining through

I see your true colors
And that’s why I love you
So don’t be afraid to let them show
Your true colors
True colors are beautiful
Like a rainbow

Cyndi Lauper, True Colors 1986

We have strong feelings about certain colors so it isn’t surprising to find many songs named after colors, or with a color in their title. Below is my effort at a color-coded playlist in order on the spectrum. Do you have a favorite color or perhaps a song associated with a color? Comment below!

RED, Taylor Swift

(link)

ORANGE CRUSH, REM

(link)

YELLOW, Coldplay

(link)

THE COLOR GREEN, Rich Mullins

(link)

BLUE, LeAnn Rimes

(link)

MOOD INDIGO, Duke Ellington

(link)

PURPLE RAIN, Prince

(link)

Big Real Big

I first learned silkscreen printing when I went to work for a sign company printing billboards back in the 1970s. It was a part time job while I attended the University of Nevada. Today billboards come in a lot of varying sizes and the technology has changed dramatically over the past 40 plus years. Many billboards are now printed digitally (think of a gigantic HP plotter), or even comprised of small LED units to create vivid moving graphic displays. But back in the day, we printed on sheets of paper, 42” x 60”, 12 sheets to a sign. The screens were huge compared to the little screens we had used in art class. The squeegees were big. We mixed up the ink up in 5 gallon buckets. Everything was big.

Checking the registration between the screen and the printing substrate.

When I moved to San Diego after college, I found a job in another screen printing company doing the same thing as before. We still used hand cut paper stencils, adhered to the bottom of the screen, to make our impressions. But this company had an industrial-sized copy camera and a dark room, so we produced a lot of signs using film and photosensitive emulsion coated onto the screens for the stencil. 

I left them and helped to start another printing company (a competitor with several former employees from our previous company—not sure how I feel about that now). 

But those positions and experiences all prepared me for the move to the Really Big  Show. Robert Keith and Company, San Diego was a design and fabrication company specializing in custom made Giant Inflatable Product Replicas, along with inflatable college mascots, logos, scenic props, and advertising. Everything we made was BIG.

When they received an order for multiple copies of twenty foot tall Budweiser cans, the decision was made to create an in-house screen printing department which would augment their hand-painted graphic capabilities.

We created twelve foot long screens to print labels directly on the fabric pieces which would then be sewn together to create the product replicas. We printed for Budweiser, Miller Beer, Corona and Dos Equis, San Miguel and Tecate,  Strohs and Pabst beers, and Pepsi. Bottles and cans, even a giant six-pack created as an inflatable building, were some of the many oversized projects I helped to create.

The company changed hands and names a couple of times thru the years. I got back in touch with them several years ago. I was surprised and more than a little impressed to see they are still in business, making things BIG as http://www.biggerthanlife.com

Oh! Side note here. For years one of my unofficial nicknames has been Hon Real Big. I like it! I think I might have preferred “Slim” or “Speedy,” but none of those quite seem to fit now.

Catching Up

One of the most exciting aspects of reconnecting with friends has been to discover what they are doing now. While Facebook has been a great resource to find and reestablish friendships from years ago, I’ve discovered it’s not the only way to do that.

Recently I found an old college roommate (old as in the sense, from years ago!) while searching online for someone else. Google returned a vast array of individuals with the same name as my search; when I cross-referenced a few of them through LinkedIn I was surprised at who I had found. I wrote about reconnecting and catching up with John last week (here). Since then we’ve done a deeper dive and spoken on the phone, he refreshing my fading memory and sketching in more details of his life now.

Another friend from my time in the service, US Army 83-86, moved back to the Pacific Northwest upon retiring from the Army. I follow him on Instagram and was encouraged to see that he and his wife have started a podcast primarily focused on travel and the adventures of a blended family. More power to them! Just as the internet has allowed for a wider audience for writers, it has also opened up the broadcast medium to more voices speaking from their own experiences. Take a listen here https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/lifetrek/id1553717951

Last year I had plans to join my fellow high school graduates to celebrate our 50th Reunion. While those plans were cancelled due to Covid-19, I was able to reconnect with a number of friends thru the Facebook Group one of them had set up for a previous reunion. Catching up online, looking at pictures of children ( and grandchildren!) was itself a small consolation for missing out. And truthfully, we didn’t get fingerprints all over the photo albums that inevitably get passed around. 

Last year I spent some time searching online for information about a Nevada artist, one of whose paintings my parents used to own. When I came across a photo of his painting on a website devoted to Western artists, I was intrigued. It had been used to illustrate an article, a review of a new book comparing the lives of two prominent Nevada artists, one an author, the other a painter. I found the book on Amazon and ordered it; read it; loved it. The book’s author had moved to Reno, my hometown, so I tracked him down and shot off a letter to him. I was agreeably surprised to receive a reply. Anthony noted that he has a new book to be published this spring on another Western artist from the same time period and that he would alert me as to the date. A nice touchstone with an important part of my distant past.

Filing box with old cards
Paper filing card system.

Last year we had a mobile shredding service come out and destroy dozens of boxes of old business records, files and notes on people, some of whom I know have passed on. But what of the rest? What has become of some of these names in files from decades ago? What of their families, their children? Where are they all now? And what about us, have you gotten in touch with someone from your past? No guarantees but it is nice to see how some stories have turned out years later, when perhaps we had only seen the first chapter.

Long Ago

Last week I went for a walk in the woods behind our house. It had snowed most of the day before but now people were out walking their dogs, sledding down the hill, enjoying the cold air and the opportunity to be outdoors. Much of the trail had already been traveled by the neighbors, deep ruts where sets of footprints overlapped others. I stepped aside from the path in order to walk through the undisturbed snow. After some time I turned around and set back home and was startled to see rather large shoe prints in the snow where I had expected there would be none. Strange. And then it occurred to me that what I was seeing were the familiar waffle patterns made by my own shoes. I was retreading the familiar and seeing it from a new perspective.


Long ago, a very long time ago, I thought I had my future planned out. Through junior high, high school, and on into college I had taken art classes in preparation for a career in “Art.” Still life drawing, life drawing, color wheels and painting, printmaking and sculpture were all classes I loved and excelled in. My fabric sculpture class? Not so much, I dropped out after a week. 

Art history classes each semester, trips to local and regional art museums, and then membership in a co-op art gallery where I was privileged to exhibit my drawings and small watercolors along with other members of the gallery on a monthly basis all helped to confirm my strong desire to make a living in the art world.

Three years after graduating with a degree in fine arts (painting) I moved to San Diego and took what I thought would be a temporary job in a silkscreen production company. And for the next 43 years I created…no art. A variety of jobs ensued, a lifelong career in graphic production, trade show and museum exhibits. But no art.

Retired now, I am slowly returning to my first-avowed vocation. I’ve been greatly encouraged lately by the artwork of a young friend, a businessman actually who really shouldn’t have time to pursue his art, but does. Managing to find time to paint, raise a family, and lead a business, Tyler’s efforts have inspired me to take up again what I thought I had lost years ago. View some of his art online here https://www.tylergeel.com/

Last week while searching online for friends from “the good old days,” I came across a former roommate from college. John had taken a turn in his career too, after college. While I had assumed he would end up in politics or perhaps with a law degree, he eventually ended up as an artist and gallery owner. You can see his work here https://studiojomac.com/

I mention this because at one point in time we each worked for the same company, went to the same university; though at that time we pursued vastly different career goals, yet only one of us ended up with the life I thought I had wanted. Looking back now with the benefit of age, I wonder—was it many small decisions that resulted in such different outcomes? Or was there one defining moment, a fork in the road as it were, and here we are today? Can we retrace our steps, perhaps even find our way back and walk for awhile down the untrod path? Proverbs 16:9 says “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.”

Robert Frost has a lovely poem along these lines. 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Big Picture

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about outdoor murals and the Big Box Data Centers out here in Loudoun County. You can read that post here. The data centers have been here for years and no doubt more of them are on the way. While the discussion was enlightening, it had me thinking back to other examples of very large scale art projects.

Raphael’s fresco, “The School of Athens” is huge: painted in 1511, it measures 16′ 5″ x 25′ 3”. Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” painted in 1642, is 11′ 11″ x 14′ 4”. And one of my favorite images, Pablo Picasso’s moving “Guernica” is 11′ 6″ x 25′ 6″. Clearly, overly-large works of art are hardly new to us.

Recently a new outdoor mural was installed in Springfield in conjunction with a refresh of a local neighborhood shopping plaza. Undoubtedly intentional, the cardinal in the graphic brings to mind the name of the plaza, Cardinal Forest.

Bank of America mural in Springfield VA, by Refract Studio.

In 1974, as a senior in the Fine Arts Department at the University of Nevada Reno, I had the opportunity to paint one of several billboards around town that spring. The billboard locations had been donated by Donrey for a month to advertise that year’s Spring Arts Festival at UNR. 

Billboard art, UNR Arts Festival

I had been working part time at a local billboard company. Outdoor Posters, (now Midtown Art and Photo) was a silkscreen printer specializing in the large billboards one can see through out many of the cities and towns across the US..

The Billboard Marketing Industry https://www.bmediagroup.com/news/which-state-has-the-most-billboards/ notes that there are now almost 400,000 billboards in America. Four states have no billboards (Maine, Vermont, Alaska, and Hawaii). The federal government tracks the number of billboards through each state as part of the Highway Beautification Act (HBA) of 1965. 

Florida, Georgia, California, and New Jersey are the top four states with billboards. According to Statista.com, there are approximately 343 thousand displays in the U.S. in 2020 with nearly  9.6 thousand were digital billboards. Considering that digital billboards were introduced in 2005, I would have thought that there would be far more of them by now.

What has happened is the proliferation of digital media in places like cinemas, shopping malls, airports, bus shelters, and of course stadiums. Digital media have virtually popped up everywhere, in all the obvious spaces. But we have also seen a proliferation of large-scale digital images in many unlikely places.

Video screen at Christian Fellowship Church, Ashburn VA

Churches, for instance, have really embraced the large format LED video walls. With their brilliant saturated colors and use of text, the modern video walls in today’s churches seemingly replicate the function of gothic stained glass windows, both as decorative elements and as tools of instruction. In the best cases, their use can enhance the mood and lyrics of a song or a speaker’s message. In the worst case, they can become expensive screen savers and a distraction to the message.

One of my favorite movies begins with a scene that was prescient for it’s time. Ridley Scott’s classic film, “Blade Runner” opens with a view of building-sized video screens. Startling at the time, they are now commonplace in many cities, for instance New York’s Times Square. And home TVs and video screens? Always bigger because, well, we just love the Big Picture.

Blade Runner, 1982