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The Big Cheese 

A new muralist climbs the scaffolds

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"I want people to think of Lucas Thornton when they think of murals in 20 years," says Lucas Thornton. Confident and proud after completing his latest large-scale achievements both at home and internationally, the local artist and up-an-coming muralist spares no syllables when discussing his long-range plans. "If I could have a mural lined up every three months I would," Thornton says with a grin. "It's just what I want to do. I want to paint murals for people."

At his home studio in Eureka, Thornton is taking a break from shaping a new surfboard dedicated to his dear, departed cat. Leaning into an old, squeaky, wooden chair, his eyes flicker above high cheekbones and a dimpled chin. An easel to his right holds an in-progress oil painting, and sketches, frames, rulers and clippings are hung from every available surface. Thornton pulls a triangular contour line drawing off the wall and uses it as a reference to talk about the mural he's recently completed at the Cypress Grove creamery in the Arcata Bottoms.

Located at 1330 Q St. a few blocks off 11th Street, the nearly 600-square-foot painting fills the front of a newly renovated 100-year-old barn. The scene is idyllic, reflecting the pastures of the Arcata Bottoms. Rolling hills are dwarfed by huge curling clouds, a country road meanders past a canary yellow house and, of course, goats bask in a sunny field, munching on grass and gazing at passers-by.

In 1988, a store filled the barn and the married owners commissioned Ken Jarvela to paint a pastoral scene that included cows and such personal touches as the couple's favorite horse and a portrait of the husband. Created with conventional house paint in just six days, time had reduced Jarvela's painting to flecks of color and bare redwood planks. Cypress Grove put out a call to artists to restore the faded image, selecting Thornton's proposal over 10 other competitors.

It's no small feat to design, plan and complete a mural of this size, but Thornton is no stranger to the process. At 15, he began painting murals with Duane Flatmo's Rural Burl Mural Bureau and was immediately hooked by the sheer scale of the images they created. While other young students came and went, Thornton stuck to it, eventually apprenticing under Flatmo and assisting in the repainting of numerous murals throughout the county (including the newly-finished Bucksport mural in Eureka).

However, the time comes when fledglings need to spread their wings and Thornton jumped at the chance to begin building his own mural reputation with the Cypress Grove barn. Besides, he says, "I personally love goats." He frequents the Sequoia Park petting zoo, where he's got a hairy-chinned buddy "with a harelip and half an ear missing ... we're like this (putting his fist to his chest), butting our heads together."

After some research at Cypress Grove's dairy in Dow's Prairie, Thornton got to work drawing out the image, loosely basing it on Jarvela's original. It wasn't until he had the 30-foot scaffolding up and started prepping the surface that he realized exactly what he'd gotten himself into. Wood fibers sloughed off at the slightest touch. The entire thing had to be scraped and coated with a flexible sealant to fend off the sun, rain, bird poop and acidic redwood tannins. Eventually, Thornton was staring at massive blank canvas.

He gridded it out to match his 1-inch to 1-foot scale drawing, then stunned everyone by painting the entire first layer in strictly sienna and magenta tones. This style of underpainting comes from Thornton's studio experience. Rather than drawing the initial image with graphite or charcoal, painting it in with a neutral color allows him to establish the values and evaluate the overall composition more accurately. It also "keeps people guessing" as they watch the image unfold monochromatically before he fills it in with vibrant color.

As Thornton talks about the mural painting process, it's clear that he's in love with the entire aesthetic experience. Unlike the solitary painter toiling away in a lonely studio, a muralist is "surrounded by the birds chirping and the sun beating down and the wind blowing and people coming by and talking." There's also an historical connection, walking in the footsteps of eons of painters who've decorated walls before him. Thornton describes the "nostalgic feeling" of climbing up the scaffolding, hoisting up his bucket of paint hand over hand with a pulley and rope, and moving methodically over the surface again and again. "Not that I'm comparing myself to Michelangelo, but he had to do the same thing!" he says.

Immediately after finishing the Cypress Grove mural, Thornton hightailed it to Costa Rica to complete another mural commissioned by a surf photographer who saw him working on the Bucksport wall. Now, he's in between, waiting for that next opportunity to scale a wall and fill it with color. He sees all of his murals as his "little babies." He says, "You kind of fall in love with that little place that you were at for a month. It's great to experience that place you would have otherwise never gone to."

With the light and warmth lasting well into the Arts Arcata evenings now, Ken Weiderman encourages everyone to walk or drive over to Q Street to see this marvel. A link to the time-lapse video of the in-progress mural can also be found here.


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Ken Weiderman

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