Location: Austin, TX, United States
Completion date: 2019
Artwork budget: $21,000
Co-lead workshop artist
The Mosaic Workshop
Community Initiatives grant coordinator
City of Austin - Cultural Arts Division
The Grey Ghost mosaic mural shown here is comprised of more than 10,000 individually hand-placed vitreous glass tiles, recycled ceramic and porcelain, hand-fired custom shapes, stained glass and repurposed mirror. The entire mural stands glistening at an impressive 12-feet tall by 16-feet wide.
Roosevelt “Grey Ghost” Williams was a blues pianist originally from Bastrop who played barrel house blues and jazz piano in Austin for 70 years. This mural based on a 1991 photograph taken by Wyatt McSpadden at the Continental Club before Williams’ happy hour gig, is the first in an East Austin Legends series.
This community mural was made as part of the inaugural Mosaic Workshop, a community initiatives grant-funded city of Austin Cultural Arts Division program, with our workshop mission being to teach basic mosaic art making techniques as well as give project-based hands-on experience and education about community and public art processes in an accessible and professional way.
Activating this wall space which previously was often vandalized with community-engaged historic portraiture of a local music legend achieved the goal of graffiti abatement in a number of ways.
For one, the community, neighborhood residents and business owners and their clients began to take more stock and care in the space as the mosaic mural added activation during installation and perceived value due to the high-quality craftsmanship of the artwork.
The permanence of mosaic and the fact that the represented image content are relevant and speak to the local community, taggers and vandals are much less likely to frequent this space for spray painting. That said, even if a destructive vandal were to tag this piece, it can easily be cleaned and removed.
Receiving positive press in the local Austin Chronicle as well as numerous blogs including one art blog based in Italy, The Grey Ghost is hands down one of the most unique public artworks in the city. The building owners were also very pleased with the outcome as ultimately it adds value to their property and reduces maintenance needs, while granting them credibility amongst the neighbors.
Over twelve weeks this project came to life. Starting our inaugural Mosaic Workshop as a free, open studio space where community members, artists and non-artists could come to learn basic art and mosaic skills and express themselves through this meditative and therapeutic process.
We led the regular workshop participants in ideation sessions and brainstorming what our mural should be. I personally had never even heard of Roosevelt Williams, however some older workshop participants had, were familiar with his music and proceeded to find the 1991 photograph by Wyatt McSpadden which we would eventually use as reference for this mural.
We received the photographer's permission to recreate the image likeness, and also the property owner's blessing to move forward with fabrication and installation.
Using my process of pixelated "Digital Impressionism" workshop participants helped place the 3/4-inch glass tiles for the face and hands, the focal point of the mural with the sharpest detail. Anyone could help with this, kids up to seniors.
Then over four weeks we installed with volunteer teams up to 12 people, the freeform mosaic elements such as the stained glass in the red jacket, the broken ceramic pieces in the hat and piano, and the repurposed mirror in the background.
I would like to mention that this monumental project in terms of logistics and scale, both in regards to the technical aspects of the detailed, pixelated mosaic face, but also in terms of managing and inspiring people to get involved, was groundbreaking for me as a public artist on many levels. Using city funding by way of grants for the arts, we were able to circumvent the property owners lack of willingness to invest in the space. Thus taking it upon ourselves to organize and receive all the necessary permissions, we found ourselves in a grassroots movement with significant momentum for the project's eventual completion. I believe that this creative energy from within the community is most powerful in its ability to galvanize members of the team as well as anyone who interacts with the artwork, in a way that resonates perhaps differently than corporate funded or otherwise censored/predetermined works that are inaccessible to average citizens. Organizing to create professional quality artwork with non-artists involvement each step of the way is in no way innovative or new, however takes a very unique artist with an outgoing, friendly and communicative nature to achieve resoundingly successful results such as we did with The Grey Ghost project.