When Room Itself Is Art

Hartford Courant by Hilary Waldman - 06/03/2005

montagano_ceiling.jpgFrom cave dwellers to urban graffiti scrawl and children scribbling with crayons on the forbidden living-room plaster, the art of wall painting holds a fascination across continents and civilizations. ``People have been painting on walls since pre-history,'' says Hartford mural artist Jeanne Manzelli. ``What do you have left from Pompeii? Wall painting.''

After a brief hiatus in the 20th century, when the minimalist white wall ruled, murals and other fancy painted finishes again are capturing the imagination of homeowners and designers.

While modern-day murals made their comeback as public art, mural artists lately are busy creating hand-painted scenes in guest bathrooms, children's bedrooms, dining rooms, foyers, home libraries and on many a residential ceiling.

``This is a new birth of murals and decorative painting,'' says Marc J. Potocsky, a house painter turned mural artist from Branford.

Potocsky and others credit home and garden television programs for reintroducing the idea that a wall or ceiling can be an important design element -- on equal footing with furniture and accessories -- in a well-decorated room.

The idea is not new.

``If you go back 500 or 600 years, people had a lot less furniture,'' says Yale University art historian Anne Dunlop, who studies secular European wall painting from the 1300s to the 1500s. ``It was important that something make an impression.''

Now, with furniture abundant, designers are using murals to personalize space, creating memories of favorite places or images that evoke a hobby or a time gone by.

Some murals define their space. A Guilford woman, for example, commissioned Hartford artist Tao LaBossiere to paint the door to her new home theater. He transformed it into an old-fashioned ticket booth, complete with a lifelike portrait of the homeowner inside the booth collecting tickets.

Others give life to spots that might otherwise be forgotten.

When Larissa and Carl Montagno hired designer Sharon McCormick to decorate their long, narrow master bedroom in Durham, they never envisioned that the ceiling would be part of the project. But the room's tray ceiling (a flat ceiling with the center portion raised) deserved a second look, and McCormick thought a mural might provide a new elevated focal point in a room that threatened to feel like a tunnel.

Using an ancient French technique called trompe l'oeil, which means ``deceive the eye,'' decorative artist Patrick Ganino surrounded the bedroom's ceiling fan with a bright medallion in tones of coral, gold-beige, cinnamon and splashes of vibrant blue. Smaller medallions create a border at the edge of the ceiling.

``It gives the illusion of depth where it's not there,'' Ganino says.

In another collaboration with McCormick, Ganino painted a map of the world in the study of a Madison home, whose owner collects globes. Ganino placed a star on the spot where Madison might be. The homeowner plans to add stars to commemorate family vacations. He has already placed a new star on Bermuda, Ganino says.

On a recent morning, Jeanne Manzelli, her clothes protected by a baggy, sunflower-yellow sweatshirt-smock, was dabbing creamy accents on a mural that, once complete, will surround a West Hartford foyer with scenes from the town's parks.

Mary Coons, the homeowner who says her Brooklyn, N.Y., upbringing is light years from the historic mansion where she now lives with her husband and three children, never dreamed of commissioning a mural until she saw one in a neighbor's foyer.

For inspiration, Manzelli photographed scenes and views at different parks, including the island in the reservoir on Farmington Avenue, a pond and a footpath at Wolcott Park and the woods and farm animals at Westmoor Park. Using artistic license, she will incorporate the scenes in a mural that will surround the grand entrance foyer and continue up the curved staircase to the second floor.

Coons says her husband came up with the idea of incorporating the park scenes. She likes it because the family has moved frequently, and it will help them establish a sense of roots in West Hartford. The theme might also give new homeowners a sense of place if the Coons ever decide to sell.

``Even if we move, it's what the town is,'' Coons said. ``It's not specific to us, because we liked a certain artist.''

As it has been through history, commissioning an original mural is a luxury pretty much restricted to the upper class. But it does not have to be out of reach. Ganino says he can create a mural around a child's bedroom starting at $500, with more elaborate adult designs averaging about $1,500.

Manzelli says her average full-room mural ranges from $2,000 to $5,000, but murals costing more than $10,000 are not uncommon.

For homeowners on a shoestring, there are many free-lance artists who will paint residential murals. One homeowner recently placed a classified ad in a local shopper seeking an artist to paint a mural in a child's room. She got at least eight responses. Free-lance artists can be a lower-cost option, but be sure to call references and look at completed murals to ensure the quality.

``Unfortunately,'' says Potocsky, who paints in a European style and creates most of his murals on muslin so they can be moved, ``there's not a lot of great work out there.'' He recommends looking for a decorative painter who can do marbleizing, wood graining, sky ceilings, patinas, painted floors and furniture, as well as murals. In short, he says, look for someone who can do everything.

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