Mural adds art about art to Arena Players


Artist: Gary Mullen's style -- with its flat colors and simplified shapes -- adapted well to painting on walls. Getting used to working on a scaffold was another matter.

November 29, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

There's a new production at Arena Players, but it's not a show, it's a painting.

Earlier this month, Maryland artist Gary A. Mullen completed a 36-by-36-foot mural on the north exterior wall of the theater, facing Martin Luther King Boulevard.

The mural, which depicts dance, music and the visual arts, as well as theater, is the largest painting Mullen has ever attempted. "I was kind of intimidated at first when I first saw the wall size," the artist, 33, said from his home in Northwood.

His task was complicated by the fact that the three-story wall includes a door and three windows. These divisions, Mullen said, helped him choose his subject matter since they offered a built-in way to divide the mural into sections dealing with different facets of the arts.

According to Rodney A. Orange Jr., managing director of Arena Players, the mural came about through the cooperative efforts of Arena board member Deborah Ramsey and the Seton Hill community. He is especially pleased with the broad subject matter of the finished painting.

"As we move into the new millennium, we're going to have to look at being full service as far as the arts are concerned," Orange said, pointing out that Arena's Youtheatre program already introduces children to music and dance along with theater.

An Annapolis native who grew up in the small town of Lothian, Mullen became interested in art as a small child. "When I was about 4 years old, I would go to church and after church I would get The Sunday Sun and I would look at the comic strips, the colorful comic strips, and I would get out my pad and my magic markers and copy the characters [from] `Beetle Bailey' and `Peanuts,' " he said.

His art career was temporarily sidetracked at Southern High School in Harwood, where the 6-foot, 6-inch student played varsity basketball. "We won two state championships, my freshman and junior years," he explained.

"After junior year I figured maybe I should become a professional basketball player. I was still doing art on the side. I figured people would laugh at me cause I was so tall, a tall person doing art."

Mullen entered Towson University on a basketball scholarship, "but," he said, "as time went on I felt this wasn't what I wanted to do." Leaving Towson, he enrolled in the former Professional Institute of Commercial Art in Pikesville, while working construction with his father, John H. Mullen, in Anne Arundel County.

In 1989 he returned to school, enrolling in Morgan State University, where he earned a degree in fine arts in 1994, after several years of long commutes from Anne Arundel, where he continued to work with his father. At Morgan, Mullen came up with his distinctive style, which he calls neo-cubism or Africubism and which is showcased in the mural.

"It's a combination of African sculpture, particularly West African sculpture from places like Ghana in which the forms are very simplistic and very abstract, and also cubism because it uses rectangles and multiple perspectives," he explained.

With its flat colors and simplified shapes, Mullen's painting style proved especially well-suited to mural painting, allowing him to make ready use of rollers. Becoming comfortable on a scaffold was another matter. "I started at the bottom part and decided to work my way to the top, so I could get used to it," he said. "About a week and half into it I got used to working on the scaffolding."

And, though the weather was generally good for being outdoors, he said, "several times I went out there and I was on the top part of the scaffold and it was about 40 degrees outside and the wind was blowing. I stayed out about an hour and said this wind is too much for me and I went home."

Arena Players' mural was funded through the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture, which administers the city's mural project in conjunction with the Department of Housing and Community Development. Mullen, who had slides of his work on file with MACAC, received a $3,000 commission, plus supplies.

Describing the completed project as "fabulous," Gary Kachadourian, Visual Arts Coordinator at MACAC, said he is especially pleased that the commission went to "a new artist who's doing good work as a muralist. One of the better parts of the project is that you get to find new people occasionally."

Arena Players' holiday Youtheatre production, "The Nativity: A Soulful Celebration," will be presented Dec. 10-19. Show times at the theater, 801 McCulloh St., are 8: 30 p.m. Fridays, 7: 30 p.m. Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $6-$8. Call 410-728-6500.

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