Academy Summer Residences 2016: Russia

Our third dispatch from Russia is from Alex Merritt MFA 2017, who describes his week-long experience painting a street mural in St. Petersburg. 

My time in Russia has been an experience which is hard to find words for. These two cities are filled with a long history that is amazing, beautiful, and tragic all at the same time. Some moments I will never forget will include staying in Dostoyevsky's neighborhood while reading The Idiot, drawing in the Rembrandt room at the Hermitage, and eating pelmeni and borscht in an old bar with a kalashnikov hanging over the kitchen door. Seven days away from leaving thanks to a series of chance occurrences including the wonderful Amina Kerimova visiting us for a day, and then herself running into some old friends, I was afforded the opportunity to paint a mural in Saint Petersburg. So here is what happened.

Day One
It is starting to rain and I have been painting for about seven hours now. It rains frequently here, which is a critical point I did not factor in when I began to paint this mural. Amazingly, spray paint actually still works in the rain here due to the fact that the humidity generally stays around 50 percent, even when it's pouring. When humidity starts hitting north of 60/70 percent spray paint tends to clot as it comes out of the nozzle, making it nearly impossible to work with. Still the rain is telling me it is time to step back and look at what is happening.

Wow, it is not good. It's not even bad. Actually it is outright terrible. At this point I suddenly become overly aware of my surroundings, like the man up on a tightrope who makes the mistake of looking down.

Down in the courtyard there are maybe fifteen to twenty guys standing around motorcycles looking up, at me. I cannot be sure, but the general reaction is clearly unimpressed. I even sense, at least in some, a touch of anger. I must get down from here, get home and regroup. When I bought the paint I wasn't thinking and my choices were bad. There was no cohesive strategy for how to deal with the space. I just jumped in, and tried to impose a poorly planned image on a rather gnarly wall -- and I failed.
As I walk home my thoughts frantically  jumped between somehow making this work, and never going back. 

Day 2
I wake up and decide to give it another shot. I make a run to the paint shop aka the graffiti market, and a local hardware store to get house paint, rollers, and some brushes. Now with proper materials, I am heading back to the Co-op Garage with a fresh batch of enthusiasm.

When I arrive I see that last night someone destroyed, or at least attempted to destroy the mural.They even took the trouble of smashing a few holes in it, and carving deep quarter inch gashes into the surface. I quickly discuss this new development with the owner who seems clearly upset by my being disrespected, and then I get back to it.

So here I am back up on the ledge, and I realize that maybe the universe is telling me something. Time to start over. I have less than four days left, so no time to dwell on things. I take a bucket of blue house paint and just start pouring it on the wall. Next I start drawing into it with a paint roller. Just as things get moving the sky turns dark, and it begins pouring.

Day 3
When I arrive, I instantly realize that this new direction I have taken is far better than the previous.  Also, I notice the owner is up on a scaffolding changing the sign over the parking lot. The new sign reads "When you have nothing left to burn, you must set yourself on fire." When he finishes, he looks up at me and gives a nod and a smile. After a cappuccino, and the best pancakes I have ever tasted, I get back to work.

Day 4
Things are moving fast. Quick trip to graffiti market, and the hardware store to pick up some more paint. I get to the wall and set up, then it starts pouring buckets.

I try to wait out the rain for about two hours. I start sketching out ideas for how I can really get this to where I want it. Finally, I give up and decide to head home, because it feels like the day is lost. I spend a few hours hanging our with Anders Fernbach back at home. At around 8:30 it stops raining and I head back.

Now I am losing daylight fast so I block in the second figure with a paint roller and a giant brush, and throw giant streaks across the entire composition to keep things moving.

Day 5
I get to the mural and start painting fast. The weather is nice at the moment, but I can feel it in my bones that rain is coming soon. I start thinking about how I can unite the composition as a whole, and get it to a place where I can live with it- because in less than two days I am flying out of Saint Petersburg to Amsterdam. I start working on correcting obvious problems and change the entire background completely. As the day is winding down it hits me like a ton of bricks, I've overworked it. Now the whole thing has busted flat. I walk home flipping through the pictures on my phone realizing that the entire composition has stopped moving and turned static. I need to get back asap and fix this.

Day 6
As soon as I arrive I start throwing paint from a bucket all over the wall, to just mess it up and create some action again. There is a large party happening down below, with groups riding in and on loud motorcycles that set off all the car alarms in the parking lot. About every ten minutes different people climb up to talk and pose for pictures with me. I have to keep focusing on the task, and not get sucked into the party that is looking more tempting with every passing minute. At about six o'clock it hits me -- the thing is done.

Of course, if I had 3 more weeks, I would not finish now. If I could I would try to make this place into my own Sistine Chapel. But that's never how it works. If I have learned anything, it is that in a situation like this if you can leave something in a place where you are happy with it, that is a huge success. When I came to Russia my main goal was to see as much art as I could, and do a lot of drawing. The idea of painting and leaving behind a mural never entered my mind for a second (OK, maybe a second) but I brushed it off as wild fantasy. Yet somehow, mostly by dumb luck it happened. And this mural that began as a complete disaster, became one of the best experiences of my life.

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