A lobby in what was the former Lion Match factory in Long Island City, now operating as retail and office space, is being transformed by an artist inspired by the nearby Queensboro Bridge.
An expansive skyline mural 22 feet wide by 14 feet high is underway on the ground floor of the four-story building located at the corner of 43rd Avenue and 23rd Street. Commissioned artist Michael White is not only creating the artwork, but is also responsible for the imagery’s composition.
He answered an ad for an artist-to-hire posted by the property owners on Facebook, and was informed the building’s roof offered sweeping views of the cityscape for potential inspiration.
“I took maybe 40 or 50 photos from the rooftop,” White said. “I wanted the bridge to fill the picture.”
To ensure the artwork is exactly to scale once enlarged, White is using the grid method, initially drawing a grid over his reference photo and then drawing a grid of a comparable ratio on the lobby wall.
“The image is so precise and depends on these exact measurements, the repetitive rhythms throughout the cable work and high beams, it was wise to do it this way to start,” White said.
White is still in the drawing stage, using graphite to add contours and depth on the lobby wall. Once this step is complete, he’ll seal it with a fixative spray, eventually bringing in full color with paint.
“Everything is going to be intensified, clarified; all the details brought out across the whole surface,” he said.
Even with working on the mural six days a week, White’s taking his time with the intricate design. He’s hoping to finish in February.
The artist has been drawing since he was six years old, finding inspiration initially from his love of U.S. presidential portraits.
“When I was about 11, I saw a Leonardo da Vinci drawings exhibit at the Metropolitan [Museum of Art] and that really brought me to another level,” White said.
He has made a career as an artist for the last 20 years, more intensively as of late, while also teaching writing and art.
Until recently, White taught English through Queens Community House in Jackson Heights, where at times he was able to incorporate his passion for art with his pupils through student-portrait sessions.
“I brought pencils and paper; that was always a really fun thing to do,” he said.
Now, over a month into the lobby’s transformation, passersby are already welcoming the update, with many stopping to admire the skyline mural as it takes shape. This has made a lasting impression on White himself who’s used to working in solitude.
“The feedback from people who are really responding with so much gratitude, spirit and niceness; it’s been really beautiful,” he said.
Astoria resident Gigi Gonzalez checks on the progress during her weekly visits to the building. Even though the bridge is a familiar structure to her, she marvels at the mural’s perspective because she never sees it depicted from that point of view.
“It brings a little piece of the city inside,” Gonzalez said with a smile. “It’s going to give us a happy entrance.”
The undertaking of a project so highly detailed and vast has come with some challenges. This winter’s polar vortex brought plummeting temperatures so cold that White’s water for his paintbrush froze indoors.
“I tend to stick to drawing instead of painting when it’s that cold,” White said. He works dressed warmly in layers while wearing a hat and fingerless gloves.
He has also had to become adaptive to his surroundings in a high-traffic building. He keeps his earbuds in as he creates, to lessen distractions when the door opens or someone walks behind him. Though this isn’t his first commissioned mural, he’s never worked in a public setting like this.
“It’s a very busy place, from morning to night,” he said. “That as a physical presence is rare for me.”
Even through the challenges, White finds this project “exhilarating” and loves how an artwork such as this can immediately mean something to those looking at it.
“It’s instantly accessible to people besides myself,” White said. “It’s really rewarding that way.”