Houston Lifestyles and Homes                

The following January 1999 article appears courtesy of Houston Lifestyles and Homes Magazine by Fort Bend Publishing.  Scroll down past the text for scans of the actual article.

 

This text excludes picture captions and contains minor corrections to the original article.

 

The Master of Murals

Russell Erwin perfects the commissioned art

By Linda Aber

 

It’s drizzling and the sun is staying snugly behind a bed of clouds. Thus it’s a rather gray morning as I make my way from our offices in Stafford to Dallas Street (not too far from the University of Houston) to peruse the work of the city’s most requested muralist -- Russell Erwin.

As I approach the warehouse district, the grays of a miserable morning just keep getting grayer. The reds, blues and occasional yellows of passing cars surging along the freeway have dwindled through the twisting streets of inner Houston.

Finally in a row of warehouses, the right address appears for Erwin’s workshop. I tap on the metal garage-style door, not knowing what to expect. It rumbles open and Erwin’s bearded face emerges from the interior’s darkness. He’s wearing black. "Let me give you a hand," he says as I scale the docking bay to the studio. It’s not a very lady-like climb so I’m concentrating heavily on my footing when I look up into the 15-foot garage and a world of color emerges. Vermilion, Ochre, Cerulean more than a rainbow could allow. Combined they form a rather ominous copy of the "Oath of Horattii," a work by Jacques Louis David, which depicts the pain that rips through a family when its sons are called to war. It has been remastered on, approximately, a 10 foot canvas, which has been stretched along the studio wall. Erwin, and his crew, are working on developing murals for a private museum. Nearby, Erwin's assistant Carl Rhodes is dutifully perfecting pinkish skin tones on what appears to be a Neo-classical ingenue. Overall the scene is rather dramatic. But that's what Erwin does adds a bit of melodrama to otherwise dreary walls. Many times his work is simply an altered version of an already popular work or a compilation of images borrowed from popular work or the ancient past. Other times, the piece is as original as Erwin's imagination. Such is the life of a commissioned artist, a post Erwin is quick to defend. "If you look back at the great works of all time, you'll see that they're commissioned works. That's how they did it back then. Someone paid them to create a portrait and they did it," he says. "I just want to paint like the masters.'

Some of Erwin’s more famous commissioned works are the murals at The Rice Lofts, which was renovated in 1997 into a luxury hi-rise. Erwin's task was to restore six 100-year-old murals in the Ballroom and Foyer. As a starting point, Erwin was given one unsigned original that had been exposed to high heat and humidity for decades. The work was in horrible condition, Erwin recalls. The canvas was full of holes and, in several places, rotten.

Thus, the original's condition decided its fate. The canvas would be discarded in favor of creating a bigger mural with more detail, more color and proportionate anatomy. In one instance, a delicate looking woman had an arm the size of a child's. For aesthetics, figures from the painting, "A Reading from Homer, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, were transplanted into the background of the mural along the ballroom's east wall. Lord Fredrick Leighton's "Fatitdica (A Sybil)", "The Garden of the Hesperides" and "Acme and Septimus" were the starting points for the mural, on the west and south sides of the foyer. Also, as an added touch, Erwin cast the faces of developer Randall Davis' daughters into one John William Waterhouse-inspired mural along the foyer's north side. Altogether, it would require an unspeakable amount of overtime and many sleepless nights, but Erwin, along with Rhodes and five other assistants, was up to the task. Eventually, the crew would finish each mural in an average of two days.

But that's just the kind of laborious art that Erwin enjoys most. "I don't like to see someone stick a toilet on the wall, call it art and make 100 grand, " he admits. "I like to see something labor intensive."

And it's no wonder. Demand for personalized pieces has kept Erwin at a rather hectic schedule for the past couple of years. In two weeks he crafted a portrait of Bill Murray's ‘family' to be used in the comedy film "Rushmore." "I remember staying up 48-hours to get that job done, " Erwin says as he plops down in one of the spare chairs in the studio. "I made his hair brown, like it is right now and then, at the last minute, they decided they wanted to make him look older. I had to add gray."

More recently he perched atop the stage in The Rice's ballroom to paint the crowd for the seventh Houston Grand Opera Wine Classic. While the guests mingled and dined by the light of chandeliers and candles, Erwin finished an easel sized oil painting of the scene. The work was then auctioned off for a hefty $3,200.

The demand is a result of the public's increasing desire to mold their atmosphere, Erwin says. "A mural can set the tone for the environment," he contends. "You can pick a painting that gives the emotional connection that you think is appropriate."

Take a prominent Houston lawyer's office, for instance. Erwin was commissioned to paint an equestrian warrior to be placed in the firm's lobby. "They wanted something that said we are strong, powerful, defenders," Erwin says.

So, the artist took inspiration from several ancient paintings and came up with a work that embodied the lawyers' image of who they were. In what used to be an ordinary room, power saturates the air, hopefully, filling clients with confidence.

This type of transformation is exactly what many Houstonians are clamoring for, whether its a foyer, stairwell or the company boardroom. Instead of hunting for years to find the right image, many art lovers are opting to create original works.

In Memorial, a couple commissioned Lucas-Eilers Interior Design to fill their Theater Room with the faces of the celebrities they loved, including their three daughters and each other. Erwin was quickly picked for the feat. The couple decided to be cast next to Burl Reynolds and Cher. They even opted to get their daughter's into the act, positioning their likenesses next to Mel Gibson and Princess Diana.

The finished work adds a fanciful touch to the room that will be appreciated more and more as the family matures.

The demand for, individualized art has kept Erwin so busy in 1998 that he'll finally leap over the poverty line with the IRS, he admits while adjusting his black beret.

"This is the first year I can ever remember doing that," he says. "People don't realize how expensive the canvas and oils, etc. are. They eat up most of the profit." But as a commissioned artist, at least there's profit to be made.

"Ninety-nine percent of the gallery artists I know don't make a living at it. They have to keep other jobs," Erwin explains. "Where everything I do is already paid for."

But the recent upswing in his workload and much aplomb by high society couldn't have been accomplished without the help of a support staff.

Erwin is quick to praise his assistant, a budding sculptor. "I could never have done this without Carl (Rhodes), he says. "He allows me to do more marketing-type things and concentrate on other work."

For it's the work that this classically trained artist loves. I realize. As I survey vibrant, partially painted canvases on the wall, it's easy to imagine Erwin - with his paint splattered jeans straining over form and structure in the middle of the night as he attempts to assimilate and improve brush strokes from the Greats -- David, Raphael, Waterhouse and Leighton.

After all, as Erwin stresses again and again, "I just want to paint like the masters."

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