Award-winning artist creates ethereal new mural in Saint John

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Award-winning artist creates ethereal new mural in Saint John

A massive new work by award-winning artist Deanna Musgrave is taking shape in one of Saint John's best-travelled public spaces. 

Musgrave, whose work is part of the collection of the the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the New Brunswick Art Bank, and the City of Fredericton, has collaborated with the Hardman Group and North Wharf Cultural Association to transform the pedway connecting City Hall with Market Square.

"Everyone from all walks of life walks through the pedway: politicians, lay people, students, intellectuals, artists — everyone, all of them with different values," said Musgrave. "This is almost a visual representation of the communication that goes on between all of those individuals in Saint John."

Musgrave is one of a series of artist residents whose work is being hosted by the North Market Wharf Cultural Association to mark Canada 150.

Her new, acrylic work incorporates intense blues, cerulean and mauves. Sharp images of birds and buildings intertwine with abstract coils and rays of light.

"I feel like it's going to be like walking into a cloud, with lots of imagery floating within the cloud," she said.

 It will also includes a visual homage to significant heritage buildings in Saint John, which Musgrave said was inspired by watching the demolition of the Jellybean buildings the day before she began painting.

"I wanted to have different references to heritage buildings that are at-risk and ones we've saved," she said. "I'll be putting in features of the Imperial Theatre, of the dome of the Saint John [General] Hospital, and the Jellybean buildings — just honouring that they were in Saint John and acknowledging how citizens may be grieving the loss of those buildings."

"Like this is a work of art, our heritage buildings are also works of art. Without it being a value judgment, or trying to promote one idea over another, I hope people contemplate that."

The mural, like Musgrave's other large-format works, is specifically designed to appear differently depending on where the viewer is standing — either up close, or at a distance. 

"My work is very much about the macro and the micro," said Musgrave, "and how things look when you zoom in, and when you zoom out. It's like when you go into the particles in the body, and it's almost a universe in itself."

She envisions the as-yet-untitled new work as a sister piece to her major mural, Cloud, unveiled at UNB Saint John's Hans W. Klohn Commons in 2015.

"Like Cloud," she said, "it looks like an abstract mural from a distance, but when you get closer, you see more."

Unique challenges 

While the new mural riffs on Musgrave's previous work, the unique features of the space have required some creative thinking. The ramp-like incline of the pedway required adjusting the wheels on her scaffolding to ensure it doesn't roll away — and also rethinking her usual painting techniques.

"My normal process is a watermarking technique, where I lay the painting on the ground and connect with water, allowing it to flow around objects to create images," she said. "I obviously can't do that on the wall. So I'm returning to some older techniques I used to use where I paint directly."

Compared with canvas, she said, is also takes "several layer of paint [on the wall] to get it flowing in the right way. My shoulders get quite a workout."

When complete, she said, a "huge section" of the ceiling will be solid blue, the same as the Cloud mural. "Then I will allow my arm to rest. It will be easier to return and do the details, which require less physical movement."

Working in such a busy pedestrian hub is also a new experience for Musgrave.

"To have any period alone with the mural, I have to work from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m.," she said. "I'm going to have to change my sleeping patterns a little bit."

But undertaking such a demanding piece is well worth it, so she can share her work with such a broad spectrum of the public.

"I really believe that physical spaces affect us," said Musgrave. "And that art helps create mindfulness. I hope people of different backgrounds and values will walk through and contemplate how that space has been transformed through a work of art.

"I hope the work brings people out of their daily routine and causes them to look up — a sort of escape, for a moment."