Muralist tackles Mt. Lebanon office building bathrooms in 13-month project
How can you not smile at a bevy of fanciful ladies hats floating on the walls of a powder room? Or the marvelously entertaining sight of bicycles and unicycles tooling above the stalls and tile surrounds of a men's room? In a commercial office building, yet.
Specializing in site-specific art, Jennifer Rempel's corporate and residential commissions have included works on large-scale canvases, furniture, tile, fabric, trompe l'oeil … even a painting at the bottom of an indoor pool. Murals are her tours de force.
In her line of work, there's always a first. This commission was to create murals for 10 staid, his-and-her restrooms, two to a floor, plus a powder room and one for special needs, in a five-story business building in Mt. Lebanon. A building whose art-lined hallways, cheery lunchroom and meticulous public spaces, as one tenant confided, never show “either a speck of dust or chip of paint.”
It took 13 months to complete this crash course in creativity, with Rempel spending two to three weeks in each bathroom. In addition to pencils and pastels, she used water-based paints, latex and acrylics known for their quick drying and minimal odor. Then the murals were coated with a water-based polyurethane for posterity.
“I created and perfected my designs, knowing that people would be enjoying them for a long time,” Rempel says. “The client gave me creative carte blanche. I was able to design a variety of images that I love.”
Images in ladies' loos of Monet's water lilies. And, in a nod to Andy Warhol, his stylized illustrations of milady's shoes tiptoe in and out of stalls and even dance on the ceiling, in one setting.
Blue skies shimmer above sand castles and the shore in a beach scene. Another opens to an array of brilliantly colored tulips that are reflected in the mirror above the sinks. In fact, the artist designed all of the murals to achieve a continuous reflection in the mirrors, as well.
The gents' rooms are not without their own gee-whiz features.
“I like the surprise of the unexpected,” says Rempel, smiling.
Reminiscent of the French cave art paintings of Lascaux, bison and horses gallop across terra cotta-stained walls in one, while, on the next floor, pages from Leonardo Da Vinci's sketchbook open to a drawing of his famous Vitruvian Man to mesmerize the viewer.
Cubism comes to the fore in a mural of Pittsburgh's iconic buildings, stadiums, the Duquesne Incline and the sphinx from the former Syria Mosque. And the images in the special-needs bathroom are a pastel version of Japanese artist Hiroshige's famous woodblock prints of the whirlpools and Mt. Fuji.
The two loos in the building owner's executive suite achieve pure helium. Inspired by Vogue magazine covers from the Roaring Twenties, a gleaming Rolls Royce is the focal point of the guys' mural in luscious colors that sports sassy flappers and swells in top hats and tails out for a night on the town. The ladies are treated to Art Deco femmes fatale in arch poses on a chaise, applying lipstick and one demurely walking her white poodle.
When the last paintbrush had been cleaned, the building owner was so pleased with the murals that she staged a posh cocktail party on-site. Flowered to a fare-thee-well, the premiere had 200 guests touring Rempel's artful “necessary rooms” to rave reviews. A few even joked about applying for a job in the building. A smashing evening, really, for some really smashing water closets with a view.
Jean Horne is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.