Five minutes in to rolling thin layers of turquoise paint along the edges of a leaf half the size of my body, my arm started to cramp. It was also burning despite the SPF 50 I’d slathered onto it. I stole a glance down from my perch on the lift to see if the artist whose mural I was helping with had noticed, but she was cross-legged on the ground, focused on filling in a pink petal with a small brush.
On Wednesday, I volunteered for POW! WOW! Long Beach, helping Tokyo-based artist Luise Ono with her wall in Downtown. The process as a whole was pretty meditative. Ono would paint the outlines of each leaf shape for me to fill each one with color, sort of like those coloring books for adults—as if you’d brought one outside and sat down in the blazing hot sun, crayons melting, sweat dripping off your chin and onto the page like teardrops.
The day before, I’d stopped by Ono’s wall late in the afternoon. Sandwiched in an alley between two multi-story buildings it seemed the sun couldn’t reach her or her mural. “Must be nice to have a wall in the shade,” I said in a lame attempt to break the ice before introducing myself. She nodded and smiled, too polite to correct me with the fact that, um, no, I’d just missed the brightest, blistering hours of the day.
It’s easy to make assumptions during POW! WOW! Long Beach if you’re not one of the artists, volunteers or organizers, I learned during my brief charade as a painter. One of those assumptions being that artists aren’t athletes. I’d go so far as to say that as much as POW! WOW! is a cultural celebration it could also be called Wallympics or Survivor. Ono and her husband/assistant/photographer Rio Yamamoto kept handing me waters and telling me to take breaks. They were the sweetest, but I think they were also worried about my general health.
Can you endure seven straight days painting in the sun, going up and down on a wobbling lift, while responding to the well-meaning demands of photographers and the public? Can you endure the hard labor while also graciously receiving the attention of so many people excited to see you, having to explain who you are and the meaning behind your work over and over again to reporters and fans alike? I can imagine it’s mostly a blessing, but can sometimes feel like a curse when it’s close to 100 degrees out.
I remember a couple of years ago when a certain local artist had been given his first wall. About four days in he’d taped up a little sign that read something along the lines of “Please do not disturb me, I’m overwhelmed, I need to finish this gigantic wall by Sunday,” etc. Based on my experience Wednesday, I can empathize with that decision to fend off the fans and set boundaries when you just need to get your mural done.
These artists are donating their time to put up their gorgeous artwork here in Long Beach. Of course, they’re well taken care of while they’re here, but if you plan on visiting any of their walls, an ice-cold bottle beverage goes a long way.
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