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River Tattoo: Jim Cogswell’s Entry to ArtPrize 2015

A set stamps

River Tattoo, an eighty-five foot long adhesive vinyl window mural celebrating the Grand River, is Jim Cogswell’s entry in this year’s ArtPrize.

River Tattoo is my entry to ArtPrize 2014. The eighty-five foot long adhesive vinyl window mural celebrates the Grand River, which flows through the heart of Grand Rapids beside the Eberhard Center where it is installed. I am enchanted by the river’s power and its sparkling patterned surface, constantly shifting in response to the forms of the ripples, the light, and the reflected environment, much like the colored vinyl on the windows. I love the Blue Bridge over the river, its rhythmic diagonal patterns of steel beams, its beautiful color, and its rare and generous invitation to experience the river on foot.

The river flows through my mural in a pattern of rhythmic lines rising and falling around the bend in the building, with the bridge reflected in it. The mural’s clouds, its flora, its teeming bestiary of creatures both sinister and benign seem to inhabit the world reflected in the glass, suggesting that the space around us is full of possibilities we have not yet begun to imagine. A striped portal welcomes you as you exit the bridge. Bugs buzz in its lacework. Birds fly through its tunnels of space. Can you find the Hiss Brothers? The Nut Crunching Toucan? The Guardians? Chief Noahquageshik’s Four-Armed Shield? The Green Turtle, the Hat Mollusk, the Thunder Shoes? Here the familiar is made strange: dark dreams assembled from houseplants, heads within heads, faces in the foliage. 

River Tattoo is made from thousands of pieces of adhesive vinyl, each separate shape applied directly to the glass in a mosaic of colored fragments. The vinyl color is cast, not printed, so that it permeates the material, making it equally vibrant on both sides. Negative spaces within and between design elements frame reflections of the landscape in the windows, including ourselves, the viewers. Rhythmic sequences respond to our movements; the design itself seems to change as we move by. The vinyl colors respond to the incidence and intensity of light influenced by weather and time of day. At night the spotlighted silhouettes enliven the exterior of the building, suggesting an oversize cabinet of wonders within the deep niches. 

The mural’s design is based on hand made drawings and photographs that were later translated into a digital format to be fabricated and assembled for installation. The multicolored foreground figures are based on collages that use hundreds of shapes assembled from hand cut adhesive shelf paper from the hardware store. The line patterns began as ink drawings on paper of zoomorphic characters that I mirrored, recombined, and multiplied. I used photography to create silhouettes of houseplants, which I digitally hybridized to create mutant species with specifically targeted visual shapes and emotional resonances. If you look closely you can identify the forms of potted palms, orchid stems, night blooming cereus, angel wing begonias, jasmine, wisteria, agave, and a jade plant.

ArtPrize 2014 officially runs September 24 to October 12. Be sure to visit and vote for your favorite entries. River Tattoo is already installed and will remain up for a minimum of three years. 

Vinyl fabrication by Dave Michalak of Imagecrafters, Inc., Ann Arbor

Fabrication funded with support from the Stamps School of Art & Design, the University of Michigan Office of the Vice-President for Research, and Grand Valley State University.