I took a deep breath. I took another. The abandoned garden surrounding me still showed hints of its former beauty. An ornate clover-shaped fountain was dry and rusting, towering evergreens brought here from southern Morocco swayed in the breeze, the scent from the orange trees laden with fruit lingered as stinging nettle continued its silent conquest from the far corner, unchecked by a human hand in years.
“Stay loose, stay loose, stay loose…” was my inner mantra. I found Menomena’s 2007 masterpiece Friend or Foe on my phone and pushed play. The drums began to kick my senses into gear and my painting hand started to twitch with anticipation. As the Moroccan flag fluttered in the gentle wind from a rooftop behind me, I muttered a simple prayer for strength and courage, took another breath, and dipped a three-inch brush into a rich yellow ochre. My first outdoor mural had begun.
We arrived in Tétouan, Morocco nearly six weeks ago, fresh off the ferry from Spain and ready for the main event to begin after a relaxing week of being tourists in Madrid and Sevilla. The jetlag had been endured, the stomach bugs had cleared, the North African sun was shining, and the Spanish dialect formerly surrounding us was replaced by the more noticeably gutteral Moroccan Arabic. It was clear from the outset that we were in a very different place, which is exactly what we were searching for.
Shortly after our arrival on Moroccan shores, my residency at Green Olive Arts began. Green Olive Arts is an arts center and collaborative space that began only five years ago by a trio of Americans looking to facilitate art adventures for others while continuing their own creative explorations. In their sun-drenched studios, they’ve housed artists from all over the world who come to Morocco to further their craft and gain inspiration from the unique city of Tétouan. Ashley found their residency online and I applied for it, excitedly accepting their invitation over a year ago.
And now here I was, in Tétouan, prepared to study the local workers and create art to honor their unique stories. Ashley and I wandered the labyrinth-like streets of the medina (old walled-in part of the city) with our kids in tow where we stumbled upon some of the craftsmen living and working there. From a seemingly tiny doorway, we witnessed carpets being woven on rickety looms by two cheerful men. We walked through a stone arch into a lip-curling odor of the tannery, where hundred of hides soaked in stone vats of cow urine and pigeon excrement. Everywhere we turned, there were workers turning wood, engraving marble, turning raw materials into beautifully unique creations. The medina was a hive of old-world craftsmanship and we quickly realized that we had come to the perfect place to celebrate workers.
As my time in the studio began, the inspiration evolved into art and I quickly amassed several paintings on paper that captured these workers and their surroundings. I had decided to add more color to my palette, as depicting these workers in the more historic, muted tones of my previous work didn’t feel right. These workers were far from a thing of the past and there’s so much color in Morocco, I just couldn’t help it.
All the while, the mural loomed in the distance, a metaphorical and physical obstacle to be conquered. A wall had been located on the outside of a high school and I met with officials and students from the school to share in the excitement for the project. The necessary paperwork was submitted on my behalf to the local government as I continued to plan out what exactly I wanted to paint there.
Many workers had caught my eye as possible subjects for the large-scale mural and my first idea for the wall was to amass a collection of their stories, piecing together a smattering of the workers in Tétouan in a visual collage. After much experimentation and gentle guidance from my favorite straight-talking no-nonsense art editor, Ashley, I realized that one image was much more powerful than a conglomerate of many small scenes. Thus, I began to stroll down the path that would lead to the subject and title of the completed mural: The Weaver.
When I first visited the weavers of Morocco, I was astonished at their deft command of the rickety looms they employ. Weaving a blanket basically involved two components: warp and weft. The warp threads are those held in place by the loom and remain stationary as the weft is passed over and under them. This is done quickly by the weavers with the use of foot pedals which split the warp, allowing them to quickly pass a wooden shuttle back and forth to weave the fabric. This wooden shuttle houses a small bobbin with the yarn they’re weaving with and the weavers use a makeshift spinning wheel to load the yarn onto these bobbins by the hundreds before the weaving begins. This spinning wheel is the inspiration behind my final design for the mural.
Once I had decided upon the subject matter, it was time to hone in on the exact look of the mural. I knew that I wanted to use color and I knew that a large mural is a chance to really push the boundaries of my style and technique. As the approval for the wall was delayed time and time again by the local governing bodies, it was actually a blessing in disguise as it allowed me to explore some far-out concepts and color schemes. I poured over muralists that I admired and tried my hand at combining their techniques with my design. Some of it worked, much of it didn’t, but each effort was a step in getting closer to the final scheme. Finally, after a couple weeks of toil, I tried a loose application of a color palette full of pastels balanced with a deep navy, a vibrant red, and yellow ochre. This was inspired by a mural by my favorite big-wall artist, Aryz. When I showed it to the boss, her reaction was perfect: “I didn’t know you could paint like that.” The design was set.
All that was left was the approval of the wall. “Insha’Allah” is a popular saying in Morocco and it means “God-willing”. This captures much of the pace of life here in Morocco, which is refreshing on a day-to-day basis but this lack of urgency can be frustrating if you’re working with a limited timeframe. And as I continued to “X” out days on my residency calendar, I realized that we needed to put a backup plan in place. The school had mentioned other walls within their courtyard that wouldn’t need government approval so we went to the school to figure out a second option.
The school is laid out in a giant square with the inner courtyard housing soccer fields, a covered promenade, the remnants of a pool, and a formerly beautiful garden area complete with a massive white wall. When I first saw it, I knew that it was the one. And as the days continued to tick by with no approval from the local government, we knew that this is where the mural would live.
So it was on the following Monday that Jeff McRobbie from Green Olive Arts and I loaded up my supplies into a taxi in the wee hours of the morning and headed across town to the school. We wanted to use early morning darkness to project my drawing on the wall, saving precious time that would have been spent gridding the design and redrawing it to scale. As the sun came up in its full splendor and the students arrived to find some American guy eyeing their neglected wall, I finally put a brush full of paint on the newly primed wall and The Weaver began to come to life.
The entire experience of painting a mural was such a delight: from the students checking in on me between classes, to the security guards bringing me mint tea in the afternoon, to having Ivan and Orin come and add their brushwork to the mix. My heart was brimming with joy as I watched this massive worker come to life on the wall. Up close, his head is the size of a large beach ball and it felt as if I was dancing with a giant when up on the ladder shading in his marvelous mustache. The loose style I’d been practicing worked wonderfully on the wall and the painting came out with little trouble, the awesome physicality of painting that big leaving me gratefully exhausted by the end of each day. By Thursday, barely four days later, I was painting the string that ran from the spinning wheel to a spool some 150’ around the perimeter of the courtyard. Thursday evening found the family and I with some celebratory rooftop beers, my heart absolutely bursting with gratitude and awe of the whole operation. My first outdoor mural was complete.
Looking back, I see God’s guiding hand in all of this and am reminded of the joy to be found in simply trusting in His plan. I see the people that were put in my path to help me get to this point in my journey (you are all a BIG part of that!). And I can’t help but smile when thinking of all that is surely to come in this crazy art adventure we call life. But for now, I’m content gleefully wrapping up my last days in Tétouan, drinking in its welcoming atmosphere and just being in plain awe of it all. Thank you for coming along with us on this journey and may you find the courage and strength to tackle your big wall. Insha’Allah.