In the fall of 2016, when mid-coast voters overwhelmingly approved a $25-million bond for a new 89,400 square-foot building for the Mid-Coast School of Technology (MCST), the school’s board of directors knew it wanted the new structure not only to be a state-of-the art facility for its career and technical education programs, but to also make a compelling visual statement about its mission. And the school’s executive director, Elizabeth Fisher, had just the person in mind to make that possible: St. George artist, Katharine Cartwright.
“Before the vote, my husband Dan Verrillo and I had been involved in discussing with executive director Fisher and others at MCST the possibility of setting up a scholarship fund because we really believe in the school’s mission,” Cartwright says. “I guess she looked me up on my website and saw my ‘Laws of Nature’ paintings, which are mostly mechanical, and really loved them.”
So Fisher asked Cartwright to serve as “Artist Consultant” on a project to create a mural for the exterior of the new building that would not only make the visual statement the MCST board hoped for, but would also involve students from the school’s graphic design program and MCST Design/Technology Instructor Brandon Soards, who would be responsible for the technology that would be involved.
“When they asked me to do this, of course I said ‘Yes!’ immediately, thinking, ‘Won’t this be fun?’” Cartwright says with a wry laugh. “I thought, too, creating a mural would also be a way of participating in the Rockland arts community. And I liked the idea of being somewhat behind the scenes, pushing the students forward.”
At first Cartwright’s hope was to use working groups of the design-oriented MCST students in designing the mural. “So I started working with the kids in 2017, batting around ideas about how to represent the 16 different programs offered at the school in the design,” she recounts. “But eventually I realized that it wouldn’t be possible to meld all the ideas into one, that we had to clearly focus on one idea.”
That idea, Cartwright determined, would be what had been the “heart and soul” of the school’s curriculum from the beginning and would continue being so into the future: marine technology, automobile technology, computer technology and carpentry.
“So I thought, okay, I have to make this work. I know what in my head I want it to be, but I also have to allow the students to have some control over the project so it’s not just me designing it, which was certainly not what the board wanted. So I identified a student, Matthew Shaw from Oceanside High School, who I felt from the beginning really understood the sort of design we needed and who could move somewhat in that direction without fully imitating me.”
Shaw worked on the project with Cartwright during the summer of 2018 until school started up again last September, when Cartwright asked him to assemble a group of students he wanted to work under him. Shaw was the lead designer, with Alexys Schaeffer from Camden Hills Regional High School the lead 3D modeler and Jette Keene from Medomak Valley High School the lead texture designer.
“It was wonderful working with Matthew,” Cartwright says. “Of course, when you are working with somebody what’s in their mind is going to be completely different from what’s in yours. So for a while it was like playing tennis. I would hit an idea his way and he would hit it back with a little change on it and I would hit back and we would go back and forth—it became a true collaboration.”
Cartwright says that the bulk of the time she and the MCST students worked on the mural’s design was taken up not so much with artistic issues as with associated technical challenges of one kind or another. Chief among these, she explains, was correcting for the inevitable distortions that arise when creating a work of art of a scale that dwarfs a human being.
“When a mural extends a distance above your head it affects how your eyes see it. So we had to deal with what we thought the distortions would be when it’s blown up to full size,” Cartwright says. “We were able to project the design on the building digitally and then look at it from many different angles. We hope we have it right.”
Related to this was creating a design with elements that are interesting in themselves but that also harmonize with each other—something which was complicated by the fact the mural was to turn a 90-degree corner. “So we worked hard on having a variety of shapes and sizes and orientations, on how these forms relate to each other and on what path the eye will take as it looks across the mural,” Cartwright says. “So we had to establish what I call ‘flow paths’ for the eye: when you’re driving past it looks a certain way, if you’re walking into the building it looks a certain way, if you’re walking by on the sidewalk it looks a certain way. So we had to consider all those different viewpoints, which is hugely difficult to do. And then the way the building is oriented to the road and the distance from the road are also factors. I had to really, really nitpick on this because when you blow a design up to the size needed you see every flaw.”
That the mural was created digitally, Cartwright notes, not only meant that the designers could anticipate problems that might arise when the mural was at its full size, but also that they could get visual effects that they wouldn’t have been able to get if they were painting this on the building’s walls. Instead, the mural will be digitally printed onto a vinyl that will be adhered to large metal sheets that are 4-feet by 8-feet in size.
Cartwright looks forward to the moment when the mural will be installed on the new building, possibly this coming May or June. And while the 13 months or so she spent on the project were an intense experience, she is pleased to have been part of it.
“I loved it. I loved the challenge. And I really enjoyed mentoring the students and seeing them grow. So I think that between the mentoring and participating in the Rockland art community in this way—afterall, this will be the largest mural in a town that has declared itself the ‘Art Capital of Maine’—and also doing something to help elevate MCST’s presence in the community has been very important to me.”—JW