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On the blog: Q&A with Badlands mural artist Aaron Pearcy

May 1, 2015
By Anna Seaton Huntington

Rapid City artist Aaron Pearcy (whose tag is "AMP") created a large mural inspired by Passage of Wind and Water that overlooks Main Street Square this spring. The 960-square-foot Badlands scene is painted on the upper two stories of the original fly of the Elks Theatre, an independently owned downtown theater built in 1912.

A giant thank you to Curt Small, owner of the Elks, for providing the "canvas" for the mural; the Rapid City Journal for providing free parking for the boom lift Aaron used to reach the wall; and to Destination Rapid City who supported the project through funding from its Bush Foundation Prize for Community Innovation.

ASH: How much paint does it take to cover a 960-square-foot wall?
AMP: I used 15 gallons of primer and I ordered almost 200 cans of spray paint in 15 different colors. They're 500 milliliters each. It's oil based and won't chip, fade peel or bubble up.

ASH: How many hours of work have you put in on this project?
AMP: Approximately 65 to 70 so far. It'll probably be close to 100 hours by the time I'm finished. I have a full-time job, too. I'm a phlebotomist with United Blood Services.

ASH: Is there any overlap between your work as an artist and your day job?
AMP: Problem solving. I'm always picking up new problem solving techniques and using them in other ways. My job requires almost too much interaction with people for me. I like keeping to myself, but you can't just be a silent artist. You can't convey your messages very well that way. So my job has helped me become more of a people person.

ASH: Where do you get your images and inspiration?
AMP: I use Pinterest a lot. It has the best images.

ASH: What are you hearing from people about the mural?
AMP: Early on, one guy told me it looked like a guy with a mustache.
I walk over to Main Street Square to get a better scope of vision on the piece overall from time to time. At one point a lady complemented me and said she couldn't wait to see what it looks like when I finish. That's always good to hear, especially when you're questioning yourself. When I'm up in the lift, I see people looking up instead of watching the road and I see people taking pictures and watching me work in Main Street Square. It's cool to see people taking time out of their day to admire a piece of artwork.

ASH: Can you talk about the challenges this work has presented?
AMP: This is the biggest mural I've ever had the opportunity to paint. First off, getting used to operating and working in a 60-foot boom lift took some time. The first few weeks working on the wall I was getting used to the new equipment and being that high up in the air. I can get a little scared of heights. Plus, it was surprising how much movement there is to the lift, especially in the wind.
Rain has been a factor, too. It doesn't affect the paint, but it affects the slipperiness of the control panel, the footing and my grip on the cans. And it makes me cold!

ASH: You always have headphones in. What have you been listening to up there?
AMP: Depends on the day. Some Country. Ed Sheran radio. John Legend Radio.

ASH: You work from a tiny image on your phone. How do you transfer that small-scale image to the wall and keep the proportions?
AMP: It's all about having reference points. You lay out the initial colors and the major lines. I used the darkest parts of the Badlands and their relationship to the rocks to establish a horizon line. I use points and reference marks in the piece itself to get a sense of where the highlights and shadows should go... Not everyone knows where you messed up, but you always know.
Every project, I'm always learning a new technique that I bring to the next one. In a mural I just finished for Big Brothers, Big Sisters I used a technique called "stippling" for the first time. That's a series of dots to get shading and shadows and I used that technique on the rocks in this mural. It works especially well in this piece because you look at it from far away. It's blurry when I'm up close to it, but when you're far away, it appears super detailed.

ASH: Have you ever had any formal art training?
AMP: I wish. I had art in high school and a little in college, but mostly I learn by experience. My art teacher in high school, David Horan, told me, "Paint what you see, not what you know." I learned that freshman year and I've tried to separate the two more and more with every project. I think I paint 80 percent what I see and 20 percent what I know.
When I'm working, I break everything down by shapes. Once I get the basic shape down then I go in and make it 3D.

ASH: You call Derrick "Focus" Smith your painting partner and you two have done some incredible community building work together your nonprofit, About This Life. Derrick is in jail right now, are you two in touch?
AMP: We talk every other day or so, keeping the friendship alive. He has really helped me with this project. He tells me all the time, "If you think you can do it, then you can do it." We worked under very challenging, windy conditions together on a project in Boston. He'd always say, "God is always testing us for bigger and better things." I try to keep that in the back of my mind when it's rainy and windy and there are all these other challenges. For me, it works.



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