Hamilton mural gets ‘tweak’ from famous illustrator’s family

A four-person crew, led by artist Stephen Smith, has been painting a large mural that's an homage to the beloved children's book illustrations of Hamilton native Robert McCloskey.

But before the painting started on the side of Hamilton’s former municipal building, at 20 High St., Smith had the pleasure of speaking over the phone with McCloskey’s daughter, Sally. Those familiar with McCloskey’s award-winning children’s books already know Sally, in a way. McCloskey’s 1949 book, “Blueberries for Sal,” was inspired by her.

The family suggested that Smith “tweak” some of his more modern color choices, to better reflect some of the hues favored by McCloskey, who died 13 years ago last week at age 88.

“It was really interesting, because we were going to them for permission to use the imagery,” Smith said, “and they just requested that a few of the colors be changed, and they sent us some images that Robert McCloskey created. They were more oil paintings, and I guess you would say ‘fine art works,” and requested a few of the colors be tweaked a little bit.”

“The pink in the sky turned out to be more of a rose hue,” Smith said. “I think in the original (version), you would consider it more of a pinkish-orange.”

The family also suggested the purples on the ground on the mural’s left side be more muted.

“And then, to balance that out, we also muted the sweater that Homer Price is wearing on the right side, and made the bears more of a brownish tone, when they were originally orange,” he said.

“I’m used to doing commission work, so I’m fully willing to take on advice or make changes along the way,” Smith said. “And since they were the daughters of Robert McCloskey himself, we were very open to that.”

The mural contains images from McCloskey books “Blueberries for Sal,” “Make Way for Ducklings” and “Homer Price.”

“Sally is the Sal in “Blueberries for Sal,” so it was very interesting talking to her,” Smith said. Daughter Jane also gave input.

Smith’s crew has been working nearly three weeks on the mural, and is in the touch-up phase before putting varnish on it.

Jenni Hubbard, owner of The Almond Sisters Bakery not far from the mural on High Street, enthusiastically calls the work “groovy.” She herself is an artist: Her media are charcoal, oils and baked goods.

“I love it so much,” Hubbard said. “If I wasn’t so busy I would want to be painting it myself. But I love that we have things like that. I think it is so attractive to see that kind of art just blown up like that as people are driving by, and walking by.”

“I’m always so jealous when I see other cities, and they have murals,” Hubbard added. “I love that we have something in Hamilton like that — it’s about time, there are so many creatives here, so many artists here.”

A modern portrait of Alexander Hamilton is being painted at 15 S. D St., based on a 1806 portrait by John Trumbull. Both murals are created by the StreetSpark public-art program, a partnership between the Fitton Center for Creative Arts and Hamilton's city government. Each mural will cost about $10,000. Artists whose designs were chosen received $500 and the chance to paint the murals with a crew.

The McCloskey mural is a bit over 1,800 square feet, and “to take a small painting I did and blow it up to that scale was a little bit intimidating at first, but we’ve got a very talented crew of artists,” Smith said. “We tackled that wall and it looks great.”

They used chalk snap-lines and created 3-by-3-foot grid lines as guides, before drawing images on the wall in chalk.

There will be a dedication ceremony, and a plaque attached to the wall that describes which McCloskey books the images came from.

“It’s kind of crazy that there’s this huge wall now that has a mural of an image that I designed on it,” Smith said. “The original goal was to keep McCloskey’s images and books in mind for Hamilton, since he was born and raised here, and update it a little bit, bring some fun colors into it, a little bit of whimsy.”

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