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All in a Day’s Work: The Creative Crosswalk Project

December 18, 2019 | Features

By Matthew Donaldson, Creative Crosswalk Artist

Public art exists in many forms, and it plays a vital role in cities across the world. It can be used to beautify seemingly mundane areas, add a level of uniqueness to cities, and promote a sense of community amongst the locals. Public art exists in the form of sculpture, the architecture of a building, a mural within a public space, or any other number of art forms.

The downtown Spartanburg area has been designated as a cultural district, an area in which a collaboration is established between art and the local community. The downtown cultural district area is often bustling with events and pedestrians, and the pedestrians rely heavily on a multitude of crosswalks to safely traverse the downtown Spartanburg area. The problem is that crosswalks are incredibly easy to overlook, they are rarely visually appealing, and they can even be quite dangerous. In an effort to remedy these issues, Chapman Cultural Center, the City of Spartanburg, and the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce came together to organize the Creative Crosswalk Project. The Creative Crosswalk Project is a public art initiative in which local artists and designers design and paint a series of crosswalk murals, transforming the crosswalks into works of art, on Main Street in Spartanburg, SC.

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Michael Webster, Frankie Zombie, Adrian Meadows, and I were tasked with designing and painting eight crosswalks on Main Street. In order to secure funding for my participation in the Creative Crosswalk Project, I was awarded a Research Initiative for Summer Engagement (RISE) grant via the University of South Carolina. The grant funding covered the cost of paint and supplies, as well as the assistance of three of my top graphic design students at USC Upstate (Taylor Anderson, Shane Gilmore, and Michael Vanhorn). My students and I were assigned the four crosswalks at the intersection of Main Street and Spring Street.

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Four designers taking on four crosswalks should be a piece of cake, right? Wrong! Little did we know just how challenging the Creative Crosswalk Project would be.

As a graphic designer, and more specifically, a web designer and developer, drawing, painting, and the fine arts are definitely outside of my wheelhouse. In fact, when it comes to the fine arts, I rarely do anything more than quickly sketch design concepts or website wireframes on any given day. Although that would indicate that painting crosswalk murals would be a challenge for me, it was also an opportunity for me to remove myself from the digital realm of graphic design and into the physical realm of public art.

In preparation for the project, I took at trip to the crosswalks to measure their overall dimensions. Now I’ve walked past those very crosswalks numerous times, but to say that I underestimated the size of the crosswalks would be putting it lightly. In my mind, the crosswalks were maybe 10–15 feet long and around five to six feet tall. In reality, the crosswalks measured 25–45 feet long and 10–11 feet tall. To put it into perspective, that’s longer than your average school bus and taller than the rim of a basketball goal. 

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That is a significant amount of space to cover. However, even after discovering the actual size of the crosswalks, I was optimistic that we would be able to cover the area with paint relatively quickly. That is…until the crosswalk mural stipulations were put into place.

Each crosswalk consisted of two horizontal white lines along the top and bottom, as well as numerous vertical white lines running the length of the crosswalks. Each of the vertical white lines was about two feet wide with a two foot gap before the next white line. I thought nothing of this, as I planned to completely paint atop all of the white lines. Imagine my surprise when I was informed that the vertical white lines had to remain in the crosswalks due to the crosswalks being designated as “high-traffic areas.” My original creative thought process went right out of the window, and I had to rethink the entire design process while working around the vertical white lines. Suddenly, the Creative Crosswalk Project became much more challenging.

In typical designer fashion, my students and I began the new creative thought process by sketching numerous design concepts before moving to digital renderings. In order to create the digital renderings, I first created a digital mockup of the crosswalks in Adobe Illustrator. The digital mockup accurately reflected the measurements of the actual crosswalks. We then used the mockup to create a multitude of design concepts for the crosswalks.

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After thoroughly analyzing all of my ideas, I finally settled on a design. The design contained vibrant colors, incorporated pattern-based elements, and even subtly modified the vertical white lines such that they became a part of the design.

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Although we weren’t allowed to paint over the vertical white lines, we were allowed to paint over the horizontal white lines. I strategically painted over the horizontal white lines in such a way that the vertical white lines took on more of a “staggered” look.

My three design students followed the same process for creating digital design concepts, and once all four crosswalk designs were established, it was time to order paint and supplies. The supplies list was quite extensive as we needed tape, buckets, rollers, roller handles, paint brushes, paint trays, gloves, rags, etc.

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As for the actual painting process, it required four components: adhesion promoter, StreetBond 150 pavement coating (a two-part epoxy-modified acrylic paint that is made for pedestrian and vehicular paved surfaces), colorants, and sealer concentrate.

In order to establish consistency throughout all four crosswalk murals, we decided to use consistent colors in all four crosswalks. However, our budget, combined with being relegated to only using StreetBond paints, which came in five gallon buckets, limited our color options. We ultimately decided on four of the most vibrant colors that were available: Pumpkin Spice, Marigold, Shamrock Green, and Safety Blue. Despite the colors being quite bright, we were concerned that the gray color of the pavement would somewhat neutralize the vibrancy of the colors once they were combined. It was then that we decided to use black as a base for all four crosswalk murals in order to enhance the vibrancy of the colors used in the designs. The idea was that the combination of light and dark colors would give us the contrast that we needed to really make the colors “pop.”

With the crosswalk mural design concepts digitally created and the paint and supplies purchased, we were ready to go to work. It was determined that Sunday, July 21st would be the day for all of the artists and designers to complete the crosswalk murals. The plan was to have the city block off Main Street from around 2:00 a.m. on July 21st until 7 a.m. on Monday, July 22nd. That gave us a full day to allow the crosswalks to be painted and fully dried before vehicles and pedestrians began to cross again.

As the 21st rolled around, I loaded all of the paint and supplies onto my truck around 4:30 a.m. Who knew four crosswalk murals would require an entire truck bed full of paint and supplies?

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That should have been a sign that we were in for one busy day. Once the paint and supplies were loaded up, I drove out to the crosswalks to meet my design students at 5:30 a.m. Since we were completing the crosswalk murals in the middle of the blazing hot South Carolina summer, we thought it might be pertinent to get an early start and take advantage of the cool, early-morning weather.

As we unloaded the paint and supplies from my truck, we talked about the process of painting the murals and how long it might take to complete the paintings. As none of us are painters, we were quite clueless as to what we were in for. We simply knew that a minimum of four coats of paint and two coats of sealer concentrate had to be applied to the pavement. In our minds, using paint rollers to lay down four coats of paint would be no problem. After all, we’ve all painted rooms in a house before, and the paint rollers quickly cover a large area. We mused at the thought of being finished by mid-afternoon and home for dinner. However, we weren’t painting the walls of a house…we were painting pavement. Not only were we in for a rude awakening, but I can assure you, no one made it home in time for dinner, not even close.

We quickly discovered that the bumpy texture of the pavement means that paint can’t be applied smoothly in a single pass. Each coat of paint actually required multiple passes and heavy downward force on the paint rollers to get the paint to fill in all of the cracks and crevices of the pavement. In addition to the texture of the pavement being a hurdle, StreetBond paint is much, much thicker than your average paint. The StreetBond paint was quite heavy and required constant trips back to the paint try to reload on paint. Finally, we couldn’t simply paint freely on the crosswalks. Why, you may ask? Well, if you’ll recall earlier, I mentioned that we were not allowed to paint atop the vertical white lines. That meant we had to use tape to mask off every single white line on the crosswalks before applying a single drop of paint. The process of masking the white lines with tape took nearly three hours.

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Once the white lines were masked, we mixed the black paint and the painting process was underway. We applied multiple coats of black paint to each crosswalk, which took hours, and once the paint was dry, the tape was removed. With our base layer of paint established, we were finally ready to get to the fun part, the actual design and color. Not so fast, though. Again, the process wasn’t as simple as it may seem. Rather than grabbing a paint brush and getting to work, the designs required a template first. The design templates were the sole reason that we created digital designs for all four crosswalks prior to the actual painting process. Unlike a traditional wall mural, which often involves the use of a projector to display a design on the wall as a template for painting, we had no such luxury. We had no way of placing a projector overhead and casting design templates onto the pavement. Instead, we printed our digital crosswalk mural designs and used the prints as visual templates as we manually applied tape to the pavement to mask off our designs. Once again, the taping process took hours, but it was a step that could not be eliminated if we were to ensure precision in our designs. 

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By using tape to mask off blocks of color for the designs, it was much easier and quicker to use paint rollers to apply paint, as opposed to painting the colored elements by hand with a paint brush. A minimum of two to three coats of each color were applied, which combined with the multiple coats of black paint, to give us a minimum of four coats of paint per color. 

After hours of applying paint, all of the colors were applied, and the tape was removed.

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The texture of the pavement caused some of the straight edges of color to have minor inconsistencies, but it was nothing that a quick touch-up with a paint brush couldn’t fix. By the time all of the paint was applied, nearly 18 hours had gone by. We were exhausted and ready to go home, but we still had to clean up and apply two coats of sealer concentrate to finalize the murals. The two sealers coats were applied, and the crosswalk murals were finally completed. 

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The process of painting the crosswalk murals took more than 20 hours, a far cry from our original estimates at the start of the project. The day was long, and the sun was intense, but we stayed hard at work and put down coat-after-coat of paint onto the pavement. At the end of the day, we left drained and exhausted, yet proud of what we had accomplished. Not only had we made the streets safer for the Spartanburg community, but we also left our mark on the growing public art scene and beautification of the city.

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