Read the story behind Kettle Fire Creative’s mural design honoring Leonard Bernstein, now installed in Downtown Colorado Springs near Tejon Street and Vermijo Avenue.
A personal invitation
On August 3, 2017, we received an exciting email from the Downtown Ventures of Colorado Springs, the nonprofit arm of the Downtown Partnership. It said they were reaching out to a short list of local designers about an upcoming project and they hoped we’d be interested in submitting a proposal. We worked with Downtown Partnership, the organization responsible for making Downtown the economic, civic, and cultural heart of Colorado Springs, on the Intersection public art project in 2015. Naturally, we were more than a little pumped that we had a chance of working together on another installation in Downtown Colorado Springs.
The project details
The Colorado Springs Philharmonic, is celebrating Leonard Bernstein in their 2018 season. The late composer would’ve turned 100 in 2018, and the Philharmonic wants to make a big statement about his contributions to music and the arts. The request for proposals (RFP) asked us to design a 100-square-foot mural that included Bernstein’s likeness and a particular quotation. The design was to be largely typographic and evoke the feeling of symphonic music while using little to no musical symbols. Preference was given to designs that would engage pedestrians at street level.
Who is Leonard Bernstein?
Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990) was a composer, conductor, educator, and humanitarian. His career had great range. I’m most familiar with his musicals like West Side Story and On the Town, but he also composed complex, meaningful pieces including a Plato-inspired violin concerto and an arrangement of Hebrew psalms for chorus and orchestra. Bernstein at 100 is a world-wide celebration including more than 2,000 events on six continents.
A cement grid
The Colorado Springs Bernstein at 100 mural was destined for the east-facing side of the El Paso County sheriff’s building near Tejon Street and Vermijo Avenue. This is a massive cement wall imprinted with a grid of golden-ratio rectangles. Josh and I visited the proposed installation site and took photos from the sidewalk, the other side of the street, the opposite corner, etc. This led to two major conclusions: First, 100 square feet of vinyl was going to look tiny on the 5,200-square-foot wall unless we broke the design into pieces that visually activated more space. Second, the best way to make the piece look like permanent art instead of a temporary advertisement was to work with the grid.
Music without notes
There were several challenges in designing the mural. How do you represent music without notes and symbols? How do you capture the breadth and impact of Bernstein’s work? How do you do both with only 100 square feet?!
To address the symphonic element, we thought about the nature of a symphony: Many pieces, each with their own identity, each complementing and enhancing the other, coming together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The unity of melodies and harmonies into a cohesive composition. This is shown in the way many pieces, each with unique colors and patterns, are unified in our mural design.
Doing justice to Bernstein’s life and work took a good deal of thought. Like a symphony, he was an amalgamation. The color palette of our mural design demonstrates the diversity of his work: from bright and poppy to cool and contemplative. We also took an artistic approach to Bernstein’s likeness, allowing it to display the multidimensional nature of his music and life. Finally, the use of line represents the internal and external conflicts of Bernstein’s life and the beauty that emerged from them. The idea of conflict also comes through in the quote the Philharmonic chose to feature in the mural:
“This will be our response to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” ~ Leonard Bernstein
Triple the size
On September 26, we received a wonderful phone call. The committee chose our design for the Bernstein at 100 mural. In fact, they loved it so much that they increased their budget enough to produce the mural at triple the size! With 300 square feet to work with, we strategically updated the design, keeping it in line with the building grid and greatly increasing the overall impact. We worked with the printer, Sign Shop Illuminated, to maximize the design impact within the budget. At last, on October 25, we had the pleasure of seeing our work installed on the sheriff’s building, where it will remain for up to ten years.
Kettle Fire Creative would like to thank Claire Swinford, Laurel Prud’homme, Downtown Ventures, Downtown Partnership, the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, Dave Mitschler, and all others who helped make the Bernstein at 100 mural design project possible.
Beyond Bernstein at 100, Downtown Colorado Springs is full of stunning public art pieces and mural designs. Tell us about your favorites in the comments.