The drab slab covering the downtown Reno train trench looks like a prison exercise yard, but muralist Brad Carney saw a colorful story hidden beneath the concrete.
“I always say the mural has to be there before I even plan it,” said Carney, an artist who also teaches mural design. “We’re actually erasing the wall away from the mural, which was there the entire time. It’s always been there, we are just washing off the dirt.”
He said “that’s kind of a joke,” but that’s the way Michelangelo described the massive chunks of marble he selected for his Renaissance sculptures. The beauty exists, under the surface, just waiting to be revealed.
On June 7, Carney and 150 local volunteers are scheduled to begin the process of painting the 15-year-old, 15,000-square-foot lid covering the ReTRAC train trench. After several days’ application of elbow grease and 200 gallons of paint, Reno’s tale will emerge in a setting to be bordered by 18 trees, shrubs and grasses, Carney said.
From a distance
His artwork was selected from a field of 25 artists’ proposals. Carney is based in the Philadelphia area and designed the mural, which is aimed at capturing the spirit of the Biggest Little City, from 2,000 miles away. But he did his homework.
“I asked people to send me photos from every angle, not just the concrete pad, but everything nearby,” Carney said. “I saw it from all vantage points.” He logged on to Google Earth and pretended to stand at different locations downtown. He closely examined the pad’s surroundings.
“I look at what’s around (the trench) and think, ‘OK, I need the curve from that building, the color of that shadow, and the light from that refection is going to be the orange I need,’” he said. “I’m thinking ‘I like the shades from that hotel tower and the deep blues from another source.’ To me, the mural has to involve the colors and the feelings, and the lines, the shapes and the compositions (around it), so it doesn’t feel out of place.”
Inspiration from the city
The mural design tells Reno’s story: A river runs through it; snowflake-like stars are borrowed from the nearby Reno Arch; sagebrush, the state flower, is depicted in two areas; mountain ranges are shown at sunrise and sunset; ovals represent railroad ties; and the city’s flag provided inspiration for a section of the work.
The unadorned ReTRAC slab wasn’t supposed to remain blank for so long. There were previous proposals to beautify the pad, including creating a park, or hanging gardens, or building an events’ space akin to a bazaar in Barcelona, Spain. But the Great Recession and the city’s budget woes got in the way of developing those suggestions.
Now, the dead space will come to life thanks to collaborations among local companies, the City of Reno, the Downtown Reno Partnership and an injection of cash from the Partnership and from state and national grants.
Reno was selected as one of 16 city projects in the first year of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Asphalt Art Initiative. Bloomberg’s $25,000 award, coupled with an additional $50,000 Nevada Main Street grant and $80,000 from the Downtown Reno Partnership, will pay for the project. The Nevada Landscaping Association and Stantec donated $25,000 worth of landscape architecture designs.
“This has been in the making for over two years,” said Alex Stettinski, executive director of the Downtown Reno Partnership. “We are proud this is coming to fruition in partnership with the City of Reno at a time when place-making is crucial to help ignite traffic and vibrancy in our downtowns.”
Volunteers and students also have been involved in painting other large-scale ground murals, which include The Oval in Philadelphia. In Reno, the city sent out a call for volunteer painters and scores of people responded.
“Local people wanted to get involved, not just from downtown, but from all over Reno,” said Megan Berner, Reno’s acting manager of arts, culture and events. “This is a comprehensive re-do of an area that has been somewhat of a dead space for awhile. Since (the trench) has been covered, we’ve used it for some special events, but now it will be a much livelier and a more welcoming space. It will brighten up downtown a lot.”
There are about 300 time slots for painters over a period of five days, she said, but many volunteers signed up for more than one slot. The painters will work with long-handled rollers and use brushes for detailed work. The paint is made for concrete and durable enough to withstand the desert heat and the footsteps of crowds for years and yet remain vibrant.
A gathering place
Eric Lerude, a Reno small business owner who lives at The Montage next to the ReTRAC project, has been lamenting the trench’s drab cover for years. He and his wife, Stephanie, plan to be among the volunteers painting the design that Carney will outline on June 6.
“When we heard volunteers were wanted, it was kind of ano-brainer for us to get involved,” Lerude said. “This is a very positive thing for our community. The design incorporates a lot of different local elements. I think locals and visitors will be drawn to it just as they are drawn to the Reno Arch.”
A stroll through history
Throughout the design, participants will be able to walk along the abstract rail path, or stroll the perimeter on a striped pattern that encircles the mural. The front entrance area begins with the rail path and images of local sagebrush. Mountain ranges give way to a raging river of blue beneath the stars, before funneling through the rear section to form an oval that then gives way to a representation of the sun.
“The design was intended to be played with, staged and transformed into whatever large-scale event or intimate setting,” said Carney, who worked to make the space appropriate for a range of events.
“I wanted it to be both playful and sophisticated, so it can host anything from a kids’ romper room to an upscale, evening gala. I wanted people ages 5 through 95 to appreciate it through all the levels” –– Brad Carney, muralist.
A fluid space
There are no permanent tables, booths or benches planned for the space. “I wanted to make a place where you can figure it out and change it every time,” he said. “It’s designed to be fluid. People can figure out what they want to do with it; it’s not a one-trick pony.”
The work, Carney said, is meant to reflect the city’s history, discuss its present and help people re-imagine a future together.
The city’s Public Works department began creating the landscape design at the end of April. The project is slated to be complete by July 1.
“It will be ready for summer events,” Stettinski said. “The mural will activate that space. It was a long process to get the stars aligned. There was a lot of thought, a lot of meetings, a lot of work involved for two years… It’s going to happen and it’s going to be beautiful.”