Friday, March 12, 2010

Coppi, Bartali: the Chris Carmichael Mural

Chris Carmichael is the well-known personal coach for seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. Carmichael commissioned artist, and cyclist, Kathleen King, to captute the entire 106-year history of the Tour de France on a 13' by 7' 11" canvas. It's an interesting story (originally appearing in and written by "Lenny B".

"It is often said that art imitates life. If that is the case, then artists need not look any further than the sport of cycling for their inspiration as it encapsulates the full spectrum of life’s travails and emotions (and sometimes in less than an hour).

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with artist, accomplished muralist, and cyclist, Kathleen King, who recently completed a piece commissioned by Chris Carmichael for his new Colorado Springs, Colorado Carmichael Training Systems Center. With over 23 years of “designing, coordinating and executing over 50 murals for public, commercial and private spaces,” Kathleen undertook the daunting challenge of capturing the entire 106-year history of the Tour de France on a 13' by 7' 11" canvas stretched on a custom built folding frame.

Lenny B (LB): What is your greatest challenge as a muralist and working with canvases that could potentially be of enormous proportions?

Kathleen King (KK): I love working big! I prefer it. I used to say that painting large public murals was like "visual shouting". It's really not a problem at all. Peripheral vision allows humans to see approximately 4 feet square comfortably - that's 2 feet out from your eyeballs in every direction. You just place a grid over your design and plot point to point. I painted a 6,000 square ft. mural that way. If it's exterior the hard part is being on a swing stage 6 stories above the street. Sometimes there are walk by weirdos and drive by hecklers but for every one of those there are 20 drive-by cheers and walk-by compliments, the occasional soda or beer, sometimes even flowers! I suppose the big challenge is not just being faithful to the drawing but to render it the way you saw it in your mind's eye - what is in your heart. But, when you hit that mark, there is nothing sweeter.

LB: It was never brought out in a prior interview about your Tour de France piece, but which 8 climbs did you choose to depict, and was the number purely chosen to provide some symmetry to the 8 riders chosen?

KK: The two categories developed side by side. I identified 8 climbs whose names kept coming up over and over again; mountains and passes that riders spoke of almost as a living entity with a soul and a will that lived only to test them. They are Mont Ventoux, Col du Tourmalet, Col d'Aubisque, Col du Galibier, Hautacam, Croix de Fer, Col d'Izoard and Alpe d'Huez, which is the central peak above the head of Lance Armstrong. There were also 8 historic champions that stood head and shoulders above the rest so I matched the men to the mountains. It seemed a fitting metaphor.

LB: Of the thousands of riders who have participated during the long history of the Tour de France, why did you choose those 8 riders to depict?

KK: For the original design I had naturally selected the one rider who has won seven times: Lance Armstrong, the four riders who won 5 times: Jacques Anquetil; Eddy Merckx; Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain, and the 3 who won the Tour three times: Philippe Thys; Louison Bobet; and Greg Lemond. My client, Chris Carmichael preferred a different approach. I knew that there was some conflict between Lemond and the Carmichael /Armstrong camp based on Lemond's very public verbal attacks of Armstrong during several press conferences but I wasn't aware of how intense the feelings were surrounding those events.

Instead we chose to honor Tour icons and legendary rivals Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali who both won two Tours each and the winner of the first Tour in 1903, Maurice Garin; all worthy subjects certainly. It was hard to leave Louison Bobet, out of the group - he was an absolute rock star in his day.

Before I knew anything about professional cycling other than the fact that there was a big race called "le Tour de France" I knew the name "Lemond". I actually watched the final stage in Paris among the throngs of people many years ago while attending Le Sorbonne and had no clue why they rode up and down Les Champs Elysées so many times...! The Tour seemed like a worthy excuse to drink more peach beer and dance down the wide sidewalks chanting cheers. As my love and understanding of pro cycling grew he became a hero. He was, after all, the American rider who broke through the Euro barrier for American cyclists in the Tour. While I think the way Lemond has chosen to air his beliefs is counterproductive and reflects poorly on him it saddened me that personal animosities ran so deep that it would affect the composition in a way that diminished Lemond's importance in the Tour's history. But people are human and ultimately the mural hangs in Chris' office where he comes to work every day. So I can't say I blame him. All three of these men, Lemond, Carmichael and Armstrong are legends of our sport. I sincerely hope that one day before they are all buried in their graves they will remember that once upon a time they served a common purpose: to win American professional cycling its rightful place on the world stage - and if for no other reason, make peace amongst themselves.

LB: You chose to depict one of the most grizzled and cantankerous champions, Bernard Hinault, with a smile, why?

KK: I must have looked at a gazillion pictures of riders on and off the course and the one thing that stood out about Hinault is that he was always showing his teeth! Even if he was gnashing them, there were his pearly whites. I began calling him "Pearly Bernie" while I was painting his portrait. I got the impression that Bernie is the kind of "hardman" that would keep smiling even if it killed him. If "the grill" wasn't showing it wouldn't have done him justice.

LB: So Lemond is depicted in the piece, just not as you had originally envisioned. Where is he, and what characteristics did you focus on so that your viewers would say that's Lemond?

KK: Greg Lemond is in profile in the peloton below the profile (and large figure) of Miguel Indurain, above Stephen Roche, ahead of Pedro Delgado and Bernard Hinault, behind Bjarne Riis, Jan Ulrich and Lance Armstrong. I exaggerated Greg's fluffy blond curls and wide eyes and rather 'boyish' appearance. Even more than other riders, his thighs looked enormous compared to the rest of him so they are exaggerated as well. He is wearing the Mondrian colors of the team La Vie Clare. Like "Pearly Bernie" and his teeth, "Lemonster" always looked like a teenager having a good time on his bike!

LB: For the uninitiated Tour de France fan, could you please touch on the significance of the flowers and their range of colors?

KK: Yes they are the ubiquitous Tournesols - literally "turn with the sun" in French - that are a universal symbol of the Tour. The peloton is a beautiful image riding just above the, sometimes, 8ft stalks, which is why I placed the peloton in the piece riding just above the flowers.

The flowers make up a time line. There is a flower for each year since the Tour began in 1903. The blue flowers represent the war years during WWI and WWII. All other flowers represent the Tour winner of that year. The colored petals are of the national flag of the winner's home country. The center of the flower contains the winners name, nickname, year of birth and death (if applicable), number of stage wins, other jerseys won and individual achievement in that same year such as winning the Giro d'Italia or Vuelta d'España. For instance, Miguel Indurain won the Tour 5 times so he has 5 flowers with his information in the center and the colors of the Spanish flag on alternating petals. There are also four "falling petals" on the flowers representing the years in which a rider died during the Tour.

LB: For some art pieces, it is often what is left out rather than what is put in. What were some of the other significant Tour de France milestones, centerpieces, or riders that you chose to leave out?

KK: One Tour alone is an epic saga woven of 200 individual stories. The Tour over its entire 106 year history is incomprehensibly vast in scope. One must pick and choose. I focused on historical, geographical and biographical highlights. Would that the canvas were of infinite size but I only had 13' x 7' 11" to work with - and yes the fact that it is 7-11 high and not a full 8 ft is intentional. The hardest to leave out were the incredible climbers and sprinters, flamboyant personalities like Mario Cipollini, for instance, who make the race so exciting with their fireworks but are not in it to win the top spot on the podium. There are also hundreds of anecdotal stories like the time the entire peloton took a spontaneous detour to go swimming in the Mediterranean on a terribly hot day. Organizers were furious but by gentleman's agreement they all got back on their bikes and resumed the race when all were ready to go. What makes the Tour unique is that by its long duration and relentless difficulty it stretches people to their absolute limit and beyond. Humanity is stripped bare and all the raw emotion comes pouring out. The physical demands of the tour leave no place to hide. Add to that the randomness of weather, crashes and equipment failures and it naturally creates great drama! You simply can't even dream of covering it all. I had to include certain crucial elements. Had I only been trying to depict the drama I would have painted one rider crossing the line, eyes to heaven, arms in the air, tears mingling with sweat and blood while the riders, in 2nd 3rd and 4th accepted defeat and crazed fans cheered.

LB: In the second layer of scribble riders, there are various profiles/silhouettes of other riders. Are those meant to signify some of the other great champions as one is very reminiscent of the professor, Laurent Fignon?

KK: Absolutely. Each Scribble cyclist represents a Tour winner. Each is a portrait of the rider in profile and depicts his riding posture on the bike. The body of the rider is embellished with colors representative of the team kit(s) he wore in the year(s) that he won. The "Grand All-Winner Peloton" as Chris dubbed it rides for the most part in chronological order. The one exception is that Maurice Garin is depicted riding up front with Alberto Contador which is underneath Garin's photo-real portrait a symbolic reminder that the ghosts of past champions always ride alongside all riders who brave the Tour.

LB: As you stated in a prior interview, painting "taps you on the shoulder" and is never far from your art, who were your influences?

KK: The ultimate influence for me will always be Michaelangelo and not because of his frescoes but rather his sculpture. I've seen them in person and they all but breathe. I've actually cried while looking at them. I strive to make my portraits, come to life like that, to give you a real feeling of that person not just a likeness. For the modern and abstract I love the Cubists, the Fauves. Personal favorites: Jasper Johns, Kandinsky, Leger, Miro, Duchamp, Chuck Close, Basquiat...the original Action Painter: Jackson Pollack, The Scribbles are a form of Action Painting which is figurative instead of abstract. Two paintings that I would love to own are John's "0 through 9" and Joseph Stella's "Old Brooklyn Bridge". My palette however is influenced more by my love of Native American, African, South American and Indonesian folk textiles and beading.

LB: Cyclist, artist,’s quite the bohemian lifestyle. If you had your druthers, where would you like to set up shop or does that lifestyle lend more to a nomadic existence?

KK: Once upon a time I was researching the native tribes of Southern California for a mural about a gambling game popular among the Kumeyaay Nation. I met with an anthropologist who smiled as she asked me: "If you were introduced today to someone who had three homes in different regions and traveled between them depending on the season, would you call that person a nomad or simply a wise and affluent person?" In an instant she changed my perspective of the "nomadic" peoples of the American Southwest. While I don't (yet) own 3 residences I prefer to keep a home base, usually near the ocean where cycling opportunities are abundant and travel to where I'm needed returning on my invisible tether as it were to familiar surroundings. I'm quite fond of Italy, I have family in Manhattan and Northern New Mexico is a favorite spiritual retreat. After the mural was complete I got to explore the Four Corners area of Southwestern Colorado and fell in love with it. I'll take any excuse to see more of Africa... Of course, I'm always up for a trip to wherever there's a bike race!

LB: It looks as if some extensive research went into the piece before you actually put brush to canvas. What did that entail? Were your references mainly books and magazines, or did you have an opportunity to speak with any of those personalities you depicted in the piece?

KK: The research for this project was not the greatest amount that I've had to do but it's close. Fortunately I was a cycling fanatic to begin with. Half the battle with research is knowing where to start. Chris Carmichael himself was of course a great source having trained the only seven-time Tour winner. I read a great deal about the history of the Tour, all the tales of intrigue and lore, and scoured every bio of every winner with the help of Wikipedia. The hardest part was finding accurate nicknames for each rider as some had several nicknames and others seemed to have none at all. (All the nicknames are listed in the sunflowers as well). I read about every major climb and at one point made a list of ALL the towns that hosted a start or finish of a stage. I researched all the regions of France. My favorite part was following the Tour of California for 6 of the 9 stages this past spring which gave me a feel for following a grand tour on the long slog from town to town. For some of it I got to assist a certain photographer from Triplecrankset, Mr. Basobas which was great fun. I had a great excuse to chat with Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwin, Bob Roll, Dave Towle and Johan Bruyneel. My media pass gave me access to get up close to all the stars of the teams and that was exciting. My favorite references were Inside the Tour de France by Eric Delanzy, Bob Roll's books and articles and A Dog in a Hat by Joe Parkin which is an excellent account of what it's like for an American to live and race in Europe. Michael Engleman has given me great insight into the sport as a whole. I watched A LOT of YouTube! Collecting all the photographic references was the most daunting task because you can't use just any photo of a rider; it has to be shot from the right angle. In all I researched for 2 months prior to starting the mural itself and continued to hunt for details all through the process. I must ask forgiveness of the forest I consumed making a mountain of color copies. For everything that I put in the mural there are 20 things I had to leave out. What is the Tour de France? The Tour de France is a beautiful prism of shared experience.

LB: Speaking to the history of art and its patronage, is it as simple as the patron getting what he/she paid for or do you have some creative license/room to play with? Have you ever had to defend your decisions in order to protect your vision of a piece? Is there pressure, both external and internal, to work within the context of it being your piece while also conforming to the wishes of the patron?

KK: A commissioned work of art is different from any other kind of 'work for hire'. Sometimes you start from scratch as is the case with a residential mural where a client says 'this room needs something but I don't know what.' In the case of commercial murals such as in a restaurant or an exterior public mural there is usually a subject the client wants depicted as was the case with the Tour de France mural. There is always an initial design drawing that the client approves and any changes the client may want are discussed in context of the original design. Sometimes an artist gets the dream client who says 'I trust you! Just do what you feel!' On rare occasions there is a conflict between certain changes a client may want and the overall balance of the piece. American culture really doesn't educate our youth adequately regarding the nature of art and the roll of the artist. The skill set is not simply the facility with paint to render an approximation of reality. An artist's real skill has far more to do with an eye for balance, flow and context. I can change how you feel about a room and everything that happens in that room by the type of paintings I display on the walls. Often an artist has been accused of arrogance, disrespect or egotism while defending a piece because a patron wants to make changes that would throw the piece and the room out of balance, make it look garish or kitsch. It is not the artist's reputation they are defending it is the integrity of the piece itself. At the end of the day It has to be good art as opposed to crap. If the piece is solid you can sleep at night because you know you did good work. If you bend to the will of the client until the piece breaks it will haunt you. Long ago I painted a piece for a client exactly as the client dictated, as if I was just a hand with a brush painting what the client would paint if he had the brush skills. It wasn't hideous but it was not what I would call art. He literally unveiled it with a curtain at a big party. Most of the people attending struggled to hide their distaste. One woman laughed openly. My abilities were well known by that time so it didn't reflect poorly on me. It took me a long time to forgive myself for not having the courage to at least attempt to save the client from his lack of understanding. Every piece of art is not merely a personal expression but a contribution to human culture as a whole. An artist's ultimate responsibility is to Art.

LB: Aesthetically, is beauty truly in the eye of the beholder?

KK: Ahhh! That's where it it gets tricky! Beauty is absolutely in the eye of the beholder and it is everywhere. Even a fly crawling on garbage has gloriously iridescent wings that flash in pink and turquoise if the sun hits them just right. The dirty, anguished, blood-stained face of a Tour rider post crash is beautiful in its humanity, sometimes even more so than the grace of the peloton streaming perfectly through a curve. Art on the other hand is an act of expression. Art attempts to capture that humanity, that grace. In order for it to be "good art" someone has to be able to feel its impact besides the artist who made it. "Feeling" the art and understanding what the artist was expressing when he/she painted it aren't necessarily the same. The important thing is that it touches you and that touch makes you want to keep looking at it. Just like listening to a "good" piece of music, it causes you to experience different emotions and ideas within yourself. Just as a piece of music can be out of balance and not quite 'hit the mark' so can a painting. Rarely do you have to tell someone which are the hit songs on an album, you just know - because you can't stop humming them. A good piece of art can evoke positive or negative emotions, or even better, emotions you can't really describe. It just hits you in the chest. "Great art" (music sculpture, photography, film, dance...) is art that hits a lot of people in the chest and continues to do so long after the artist is gone."

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