Mt. Lebanon native paints one-of-a-kind mural in S.C.
August Vernon believes in the domino effect.
Vernon, a Mt. Lebanon native whose legal name is Andrew Vernon Mays, has been an artist for 27 years, and he believes every painting, every portrait and every mural are intertwined.
He recently painted a 7,500-square-foot mural on a rooftop in South Carolina, which he said is the largest mural of its type in the world. With the accomplishment of the most difficult artwork of his career, Vernon remembers where it all started.
“I can trace all of my work in the last 27 years to one job,” he said.
In 1990, only a few years after he graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School, Vernon painted a portrait of Steve “Froggy” Morris, who has since died, for his restaurant Froggy’s in downtown Pittsburgh. At 21 years old, it was Vernon’s first commissioned portrait.
“That got put up on his wall, and that got a lot of exposure and a lot of attention,” he said. “I started meeting a lot of business owners in Pittsburgh from that one piece.”
From there, Vernon painted for Alla Famiglia, a restaurant in Pittsburgh, which led to a gig to paint an outdoor mural in 1999 on a cement wall outside of a restaurant in Sewickley called Sewickley Speakeasy. The mural is seen by more than 50,000 people a day, he said, and led to media coverage, which led him to more commissions along the East Coast. He has artwork in NOLA on the Square, Pirata, Poros and other Pittsburgh restaurants; he was nominated in 2004 for The Governor’s Award for the Arts for a 4,000-square-foot mural in McKeesport; and more recently, Vernon, who now lives in Florida, has performed live portrait paintings and done working all across the United States, leading to his most recent work: the rooftop mural in South Carolina.
Vernon, who used to live and have a studio in Greenville, was approached last November by the owner of Windsor-Aughtry, the company that owns the Embassy Suites RiverPlace Downtown hotel in Greenville, S.C., about the idea of the mural. He had done work for Windsor-Aughtry hotels in Baton Rouge, La., and Greenville, but none of them like this past mural.
On top of the seven-story hotel is a restaurant and most of the hotel rooms and the restaurant-goers could look down on the rooftop of hotel’s main lobby. Rather than looking down on a white rooftop collecting dirt, the owner approached Vernon with the rooftop mural idea.
The mural is a collage of the city of Greenville, mixing different elements of the city, tourist attractions, businesses and influential people. Vernon included a BMW with Michelin tires, as both companies have factories in Greenville, towers from Clemson University and Furman University, the Liberty Bridge and many other Greenville-specific aspect.
Vernon worked with his design partner, Dan DiOrio, whom he met at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in the late 1990s and has been working with ever since, to create the design for the large mural. After starting in June, the mural took three months to complete.
“This one was by far the most challenging piece of my career,” he said.
Firstly, he was on a rooftop in South Carolina in the summer, which means it was “brutally” hot. He sweat so much he had to change his clothes four times a day, and he lost 15 pounds over the three months.
Also, because of the size and surface of the mural, the system of painting was very physically demanding, as he wore knee pads to brace from the pain of constantly kneeling on the roof.
“You look more like a construction worker than an artist,” he said.
Also, the type of paint Vernon used was much different than normal paint. Due to the surface of the rooftop and to prevent the mural from fading, Vernon painted with a specific, nontraditional type of coating, which he described like using “rubber glue.”
“I’ve never used anything like that...to use this whole new product was a whole different animal,” he said.
Because of the type of paint, Vernon was only able to use 12 different colors for the large mural.
“With the traditional mural I’d be using 50 to 60 different pigments,” he said. “This one to create something with only 12 different colors of this kind of glue-like substance was a huge challenge across that large of a square footage surface.”
While all of those aspects were challenging, none were as challenging as the mere size of the mural.
After only a few weeks on the job, Vernon almost quit because he couldn’t figure out how to paint the rooftop to scale.
“When you’re drawing on a wall mural you can always step back, look at it, scale it, size it and that’s easy to do when you learn how. To do it on the ground, it was seemingly impossible to me,” Vernon said.
“It was terribly challenging, and I almost gave up. There was this point that I didn’t think I could do it. After 27 years, I was pretty certain I had met my match and that I overstepped in thinking I could do it.”
One night, though, Vernon spent some time praying and decided to work through the issues at night. Rather than sleep that night, he went out at 1 a.m. and worked until sunrise, and that’s when he figured out how to scale the mural.
“I pulled it off, and it was tremendously rewarding,” Vernon said.
Vernon’s favorite part of the mural is the way he incorporated the protruding mechanicals on the rooftop, which disappear to the human eye when looking at the mural.
Every spring, Vernon will go to Greenville and spend a couple of weeks restoring the unique mural. When he does, he won’t forget the challenges of the project or how he got the opportunity in the first place.
“It all kind of stems back to my connection with ‘Froggy’ and that piece I had in Pittsburgh,” Vernon said. “I always attribute my career to Steve ‘Froggy’ Morris for giving me my first big commission.”