AS220's Fairey mural in progress in Providence

The Art of the City
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  August 4, 2010

A BIG JOB Bjurman at work.

It's a muggy Wednesday and Johan Bjurman stands atop an 85-foot aerial lift along Aborn Street in downtown Providence, a paintbrush in his hand and a thermos of ice water at his side.

He has been working for almost a week straight now, as many as 10 or 12 hours per day. And no wonder.

Providence arts organization AS220's annual carnival of art and music, Foo Fest, is fast approaching — and so is the painter's deadline.

Bjurman's task: paint a 40-by-80-foot mural designed by famed street artist Shepard Fairey, who is scheduled to appear at Foo Fest on August 14 and collect AS220's first-ever Free Culture Award, bestowed upon artists who make significant contributions to "grassroots, participatory culture." (He'll also take part in an Action Speaks! forum on "Free Culture" at AS220 on August 13 at 5:15 pm.)

It's a big job. But Bjurman, 63, has done big jobs before.

A native of North Providence, he started as a billboard painter — cars, cigarettes, that kind of thing. He still remembers when photography revolutionized the business: first, he was painting from photographs; then, the photographs virtually supplanted paint.

But there was more work to do. He painted murals, some of his design and some by others. And there was plenty of trompe l'oeil, French for "deceive the eye," a hyper-realistic brand of painting that appears everywhere from church ceilings to the sides of commercial buildings.

There were local jobs. But much of Bjurman's career has been spent on the road. He's painted a Civil War mural at Gettysburg. Worked on Doris Duke's house in Hawaii. He even restored a portion of Vice President Dick Cheney's ceremonial offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington after a fire.

For one 10-year stretch Bjurman was on the road as many as seven and eight months at a time, he says, always looking forward to the winter, when he'd return home to hand paint the 27 billboards at the Pawtucket Red Sox' McCoy Stadium.

He still has the job. It takes three months, he says, and he's always brushing up against Opening Day. "It's a photo finish," he says.

But one advantage of working so many years, Bjurman says, is that he doesn't panic. He knows he can get the job done.

Down from the lift, Bjurman shows a visitor a rough rendering of the Fairey mural, sectioned off by planned date of completion. He figures he's slightly ahead of schedule already.

The design calls for a red, white, and black ode to Providence's architectural and industrial history. The work also references Fairey's own stint in the city when, as a RISD student, he launched a career with his "Andre the Giant Has a Posse" guerilla sticker campaign.

At the center of the image is the Art Deco-style Bank of America tower, better known as the Superman building. The words "Providence" and "Industrial" stretch out on either side. To the left: a train trestle, with an Andre the Giant image affixed, and a piece of the Atlantic Mills facility, where Fairey had a studio.

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  Topics: This Just In , Shepard Fairey, Mural, AS220,  More more >
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