Bigger Than Life
Fine Artist Finds New Inspiration Creating Outdoor Murals
By Daniel Barnes
As recently as two years ago, widely acclaimed local artist Maren Conrad had no interest whatsoever in painting outdoor murals. Conrad had painted interior murals before, and she was comfortable working on large-scale projects, usually in her trademark medium of metal leaf and layered resin, but she never considered herself a street artist. “I was a little bit daunted about painting a large exterior mural,” says Conrad. “I was concerned about being able to bring the quality of fine art into a street-art application.”
The Wide Open Walls outdoor mural festival in summer 2017 changed everything for Conrad, and now she envisions outdoor murals as her dominant art form for the foreseeable future. Conrad’s first outdoor mural, the enormous koi fish gracing the block-long back wall of the MARRS building on 20th Street, only came about because she objected to another artist’s vision for that space. “At that point, I realized I had an opinion and an interest in it,” she says.
When the original artist backed out, Conrad signed on for the MARRS mural, even though she knew the $2,500 stipend would cover only a fraction of the materials required to execute her vision. “I wanted it to feel consistent with the rest of my artwork, and something that felt like a giant piece of fine art in the middle of the city,” she explains.
Conrad blew through the stipend almost immediately, as the expensive metallic paint she used rapidly evaporated in the hot August sun. A few donors came to the rescue, and a volunteer army of assistant painters mobilized via social media. “I ended up building an amazing mural crew,” says Conrad. “I couldn’t believe how many different people walked up and offered to pick up a paintbrush.”
Since the MARRS building borders the original rail line that helped California achieve prosperity, Conrad wanted to create a tribute to the Chinese workers who built the railroads. “I really wanted to do something that gave a nod to prosperity, referencing Chinese immigrants specifically, without doing something overly colorful, overly complicated or portraiture,” she says. The giant koi reference an ancient Chinese legend about a determined fish that swam up a waterfall into a cave and flew out a dragon.
“It’s about being a fighter, and the message isn’t luck. It’s not like winning a lottery ticket,” she says. “The message is prosperity through perseverance.”
Perseverance has defined her career. Outside Sacramento, Conrad is best known for her controversial Politically Vulnerable show in 2013. She created a dozen portraits of the wives, girlfriends and mistresses of California governors to hang at Vanguard, a nightclub across the street from the Capitol. The exhibit included images of Linda Ronstadt, Maria Shriver and actresses Piper Laurie, Brigitte Nielsen and Gigi Goyette. “Every single woman that was featured in those portraits publicly spoke about their sexual relationships with men in leadership, and the men in leadership took active roles to silence them,” says Conrad.
An offended female lobbyist insisted Vanguard remove the exhibit, and the story went viral when The Associated Press picked it up. “It was Me Too before Me Too—that was the whole point,” says Conrad when asked why the story became national news five years ago. “I think at the time there was this bend to people starting to see that it was something that needed to be talked about.”
Conrad probably would have continued creating art for indoor spaces if not for an outpouring of community support for her MARRS mural. “It really changed my view of what I wanted to do with my art career for probably the rest of forever,” she says. “When you do public art, you open a conversation with everybody to talk about, which is new to me.”
After approaching the MARRS mural like a painting, she wanted to incorporate the frame-within-a-frame optics of Instagram into her next major outdoor work. “I wanted to do something that invites the viewer, that makes you want to be in it,” she notes.
That ambition became “The Wishing Well,” the ethereal dandelion mural in an alley at I and 19th streets. “It invites you to stand underneath this magnificent, golden-stemmed, larger-than-life dandelion,” she says. “It’s not behind a gate. It’s not only for certain people. It’s in the dank tunnels and alleyways of Midtown.”
Conrad’s other outdoor projects include an enormous sneaker mural on the side of Urban Roots Brewery & Smokehouse on V Street and a mural depicting the title character of “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated love song to Sacramento, at 16th and I streets. Conrad first met Gerwig six years ago when the filmmaker and actress stopped by her studio with mutual friends. “She made something magical through something ordinary, and my art career is just like that,” says Conrad.
“I take all this unremarkable stuff and make something remarkable and edited and refined that people can understand.”
To learn more about Maren Conrad, visit marenconrad.com.
Daniel Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org