Aaron Noble's blog about comics, collage, and culture

Quetzalcoatl Step-by-Step

I was invited to do a mural on Clarion Alley in San Francisco for the 20th anniversary of the Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP), which I co-founded back in late 1991. I proposed a collaboration with an old master of Mission Muralismo, Ray Patlán, on the topic of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent of Meso-American mythology. Ray asked me to start, so I sent him this:

Most of the pieces are not meant to be one thing specifically but to suggest images related to birds, serpents, conquistadors, mexican revolutionaries, etc., to make a cubist portrait of the feathered serpent myth, from pre-conquest times to the Mexican revolution. That’s more interpretation than I usually indulge, but I wanted to approach Ray’s practice at least halfway.

On October 7th, 2012 I drove from LA  to San Francisco with a pickup full of paint and ladders. CAMP is a shoestring operation so I planned to be as self-sufficient as possible. I met with Ray in his classroom at Laney College in Oakland. He had put together a few sketches in which significant myth elements (like the hummingbird) were subtly combined with my drawing. His additions were artful, but I felt that it tended to dissipate the impact of my design without making a strong representation of Ray’s artistic personality either. We weren’t quite sure where to go until I noticed a copy of an old drawing of Coatlique, the freaky Aztec mother goddess, in the pile of Ray’s drawings, an idea he had not developed. On impulse I sandwiched the two designs and held them up to the light. Bingo. They meshed like siblings.

I was ready to go celebrate but Ray said “OK, lets go over and prime the wall.” This is a lesson in muralism that I should have learned long ago. The job is huge: get started immediately. Or as another good painter, John Fadeff, would say: “Get some paint on the wall.”

We primed the wall, a hallowed Clarion spot which was originally occupied by Scott Williams and more recently by CUBA, both legendary Mission district street artists. Then we used chalkline to grid the wall and put up both designs in sketch form. This took a day and a half, and then Ray started painting:

My design is in grey, Ray’s in yellow. Blue tape indicates overlap areas in which Ray will either not paint or paint grey instead of brown.

Usually we ate breakfast in Oakland and drove in to San Francisco around 10:30, after rush hour traffic subsided a bit. Working with Ray was an education. I heard stories about his early days in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, running with a gang called the Latin Counts, painting an antiwar mural in Vietnam while serving in the US Army, early struggles and turf wars of the mural movement in Chicago, and later in the Bay Area. Romance, controversy, and gossip.

When my basic color was finished, and Ray’s Coatlique figure was almost completely finished, it was time for the dripping- a technique of pouring streams of color glaze in semi-random combinations over the whole image. I’ve been using it in my work lately, and Ray consented to let me try it over his as well, though he arranged to be gone on the day I did it. It’s a bit nervewrackingly unpredictable, and when its done it sort of looks like the whole mural is running down the wall.

A Chinese guy in a windbreaker watched me pouring paint over the mural for some time with an appalled expression. Finally he came up to me and said “What is WRONG with you?!?”

With background and black line started the mural begins to take its final shape

Now I have two days left to execute all the black line drawing that makes my work look the way it looks. Ray comes back on the last day to put some final touches on his part– he doesn’t seem too upset about the dripping. In fact he’s been much more relaxed than me throughout the process. We decide to call the mural “Renacimiento” –Rebirth.

Patlán and Noble discuss final points. Photo by Jim Prigoff

Not quite finished on the last day before the epic block party celebrating twenty years of murals on Clarion, I show up at dawn on the day of, and manage to complete the black and slap a coat of varnish on before the music starts.

The finished mural. Calligraphy by Jet Martinez

For larger images, details, and other murals by me, go here.