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Making a Scene: Designers go wall-to-wall with murals and other decorative painting

Saturday, July 05, 2003

By Kevin Kirkland, Post-Gazette Homes Editor

Designer Rachel Farley spent a year redecorating every room in Paul and Nancy O'Neill's century-old home in Shadyside. Then the former U.S. Treasury secretary and Alcoa CEO showed her his basement.

"What fabulous thing can we do down here?" he asked.

Designer Rachel Farley painted a Tuscan-style mural when she turned Paul and Nancy O'Neill's basement into a wine cellar. (Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette)

Farley hesitated a moment, noting the narrow, steep stairs, block walls and 7-foot ceilings -- "a typical Pittsburgh basement."

Then she began to envision a Tuscan-themed wine cellar, with arches and Italian landscapes covering the walls. The only problem with her plan was the low ceiling, so Farley suggested digging the basement floor 2 feet deeper. O'Neill agreed, a decision that would earn the project the name "Paul's Folly."

But once that major hurdle was cleared, Farley and decorative painter Robert Robinson covered the walls with scenes of aqueducts, sun-washed villages and meandering streams beneath a ceiling of wispy clouds. A custom-made blue leather banquette runs along one wall, and the couple's 600-bottle wine collection rests on redwood racks in an arched alcove.

"Decorative painting isn't art. It's artfully done design," says Farley, the only designer interviewed who paints her own murals. "Murals are like a little present."

Murals, frescoes and trompe l'oeil paintings (French for "trick of the eye") surprise visitors, offer real or imagined views, and just plain call attention to themselves. They're most commonly found in powder rooms, dining rooms and foyers -- places where company can see them and the home's residents don't have to unless they want to.

"I tell people, 'I can leave. You're going to have to live with this,'" said decorative painter Mark M. Thomson di Vittorio.

Far from getting tired of them, local homeowners and their designers are increasingly asking for decorative painting. Such personal artwork doesn't come cheap, starting around $500 for a small figure or design on a wall and ranging to $50,000 or more for a scene filling one or more rooms.

The artists, who tend to be very protective of their pricing and client lists, often work through designers. Few local artists do it full time, supplementing their income with other work or more personal kinds of art. A few full-timers fly into Pittsburgh regularly to work with certain designers on projects for a week or more, with air fare, hotel and all other expenses paid by the client.

Murals and trompe l'oeil have found a niche in some of the area's finest homes, whether they immortalize a family pet, recall a favorite sight or vacation spot or solve a decorating problem area. Here's a look at a few of them and the artists who created them.

View inside an elevator
Elevators are still rare in private homes, but one with a 36th-floor view of Pittsburgh? That's got to be one of a kind. The Squirrel Hill home's owner, who, like many of the clients in this story, asked not to be identified, hired artist Jennifer Rempel to paint the scene. It was a wife's surprise for her husband. Because both are big sports fans, she wanted Heinz Field and PNC Park to be prominent in the mural, which also shows part of Downtown and coal barges on the Allegheny River.

Artist Jennifer Rempel paints the bulkhead and walls of a kitchen in a Squirrel Hill home. Her artwork included images of fruit, vegetables and words from the "Grace" prayer. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

So, was the recipient surprised?

"I called him and opened up the elevator," his wife said. "He said 'Whoa!' You feel like you're there waiting for the first pitch."

The couple's decorator, Barbara Wright of Wright Interiors, said she often works with Rempel, a decorative painter for 23 years. In the kitchen, Rempel painted images of fruit, vegetables and words from "Grace," the prayer said before meals.

"People are becoming more daring. They're tired of wallpaper. Decorative painting is much more individual-looking, and Jennifer is so good," she said.

Dining at the Point
Visitors to Susan and John Robinson Block's home in Shadyside can also appreciate a view of Downtown -- 150 years before it existed. Block, a history buff and publisher of the Post-Gazette, commissioned artist Barbara Charles to paint a mid-1700s scene of Fort Pitt and the wilderness that surrounded it on the walls of his dining room.

Patrick Denham of the design firm Denham Vitale Design Associates had originally pictured an English country scene for the 19-by-15-foot room with 10-foot ceilings. But Block, Denham and Charles, whose family has lived here since the 1700s, decided to honor local history instead.

"I usually give her an idea and let her run with it," Denham said.

Charles spent nine months on the mural, sometimes working 14 hours straight. To get the fort's details right, she made several trips to the Fort Pitt Museum. For bird's-eye views of the Monongahela and Ohio rivers, she went to a spot near the now-closed Paule's Lookout in West Mifflin and the West End Overlook. Ohiopyle State Park and other sites gave her the look of pristine Pennsylvania woods and rivers. And the mountains? That's artistic license. The painting also includes tiny Indians in canoes, keelboats and flatboats, and dozens of birds, animals and native plants.

"Every time I look at it, I see something different," said Susan Block. "If there is a showpiece to this house, this is it."

Drop-in muralist
Bob Christian lives in Savannah, Ga., but he does his best work in high-end homes up and down the East Coast and in California. On most jobs, he flies in with his paints and assistant, sketches and paints his design free-hand (no projectors or grids) and leaves a week or so later.


• Andrew Vernon, 724-251-9183
• Barbara Charles, 412-389-2497
• Binny Jolly Artwork, Palm Beach, Fla., 1-561-582-9255
• Bob Christian Decorative Art, Savannah, Ga., 1-912-234-6866
• Celeste Parrendo, 412-391-1796
• Frans Joseph - partners Frank Blazetic, Tom Zimmerman and Steve and Jason Korpa, 724-624-1241
• Holly Gessler, H. Gessler Studios, 724-969-1106 or hgessler@adelphia.net
• James Rohaley, Parke Interiors, 412-681-1313
• Kevin Cooklin, Cooklin Studios, 412-415-0921
• Jennifer Rempel, 412-708-2421
• Linda Bladen, 412-323-0293
• Lynn Smith, Interior Artistry, 412-344-1796 or www.interior-artistry.com
• Mark M. Thomson di Vittorio, 412-243-6827
• Nigel Grace, decorative artist, Salem, Mass., 1-978-745-7375
• Rachel Farley, interior designer, 412-361-2255
• Vince Beatty, 412-665-0437


"We don't take days for museums and the sights," he said. "Sometimes we get back on the plane with paint on us."

Christian has designers in each city who call him regularly. In Pittsburgh, it's Marigil M. Walsh, principal and senior vice president of interior design for Astorino. A 20-year veteran, Walsh says she increasingly calls in Christian or local painters to enhance her traditional interiors.

"Each artist has a different style of painting. I look at the style the client is looking for and try to match the design with the artist," she said.

For a couple in the eastern suburbs, Walsh used a French Savonnerie rug as the color key for a formal parlor. In keeping with the couple's desire for a Neoclassic Italian look, Christian painted arabesques, leaves, medallions and other Italianate motifs in what appear to be molded panels on the walls.

"What intrigued me was the colors he used -- light grays and blues. When I first looked at them, I didn't know," the homeowner said. "But I wasn't worried for a second. I loved everything he did. I could watch him all day long."

Master of many styles
Mark M. Thomson di Vittorio doesn't like being watched while he paints. He'd much rather talk with the client before he begins and find the style that fits the space.

"You don't tell the room what you want. The room tells you," he said.

A decorative painter for 20 years, he's mastered a variety of styles and regularly gets calls from designers or homeowners who have admired his work in friends' homes.

A McMurray couple with a new addition on their Williamsburg-style Colonial wanted an early American-style wall mural after seeing one at Daufuskie Island in Hilton Head, S.C. Di Vittorio created one for their family room in the style of Rufus Porter, an itinerant painter who left native farm scenes on walls throughout New England in the early 1800s. Di Vittorio's version, painted in his studio on canvas and applied to the walls later, shows a large country estate populated by people in period clothing, hunters, carriages and animals, including the family's two horses and two Boston terriers.

"Mark wrote a little story to go with it," said one of the clients. "It's wonderful; we really love it. Since we've bought another horse, we'd like him to come back and include that, too."

Homegrown talent
Linda Bladen studied art at three universities and painted murals in her home and a few others in Ohio. But she thought she was done painting when she and her husband, Christopher, began restoring a circa 1880s Victorian in the North Side's Allegheny West neighborhood.

"I thought I was going to sculpt and make dolls, but the house didn't have any place to sculpt. So it turned out I'm painting again."

She started on the walls of her dining room, re-creating the look of Victorian wallpaper with plants and birds modeled on the work of naturalist John Audubon. Before long, she was decorating children's bedrooms, powder rooms and walls in homes and businesses.

One job -- some landscapes at Esspa Kozmetika, the spa at Fox Chapel Yacht Club -- caught Kimberly DelPercio' eye. She and her husband Rich, owner of Window and Kitchen Specialists, North division, were designing the kitchen of their Hampton home with a Tuscan theme. Because/ Bladen painted directly on the plaster walls, they're technically frescoes rather than murals, which are painted on canvas.

"I just love it there," Kimberly said. "I wanted the feeling I get there of peaceful, beautiful tranquility. You actually feel like you're sitting in a vineyard."

Mural envy
Long before Leonardo da Vinci painted "The Last Supper" on the walls of an Italian monastery, Europeans loved frescoes and murals. But only within the past 10 or 15 years, with the rise of HGTV and home improvement television, have Americans become comfortable with art that is part of their walls.

Designers say it's much easier these days to persuade clients to opt for a mural over a solid paint color or wallpaper. Is it any wonder that designers want one, too?

"Two years ago, we were doing this for all these people, and I was very jealous," said Israeli-born designer Nachum Golan.

So, in the evenings after he had finished working on clients' homes, Golan had decorative painter Nigel Grace of Salem, Mass., transform the plaster walls and woodwork of his small office in East Liberty into some of his favorite exotic woods -- yew, ebony, anigre and olive burl.

Louis Talotta, owner of Parke Interiors, often includes murals and trompe l'oeil paintings in his lavish designs. Some are by James Rohaley, Parke's in-house artist for 20 years. His projects range from huge -- a sepia outdoor scene that reaches to the top of the 12-foot ceilings in the lower-level lobby of Laurel Valley Country Club -- to petite, a series of floral bouquets on the drawers of what should no longer be known as simply a file cabinet in Parke's office.

But when Talotta wanted murals for the foyer of his Palm Beach, Fla., home like the ones in his Pittsburgh house, he turned to Binny Jolly, a Palm Beach-based artist who often works here with him and with other designers all over the country. She perfectly copied the 19th-century Italian paintings showing Roman ruins in Tuscany, Talotta said.

"You can't tell them apart. I wanted it to be like home."

Off-the-wall art
Murals don't have to be romantic landscapes or high-brow classical motifs. More than any other artwork, wall painting is personal, a reflection of its owners and their interests. Sometimes, that's literally true; the clients are in the painting, golfing with friends, playing with their dog or cheering in the stands.

Several years ago, a North Hills man happened to drive by when artist Andrew Vernon was painting some famous jazz musicians on a wall advertising the Sewickley Speakeasy. He asked Vernon to paint his son, a gifted soccer player, on the walls of the family's home gymnasium. By the time he was done, Vernon and his wife, Susanne, had painted not only the boy playing alongside soccer great Pele but also more than a dozen other professional athletes including Western Pennsylvania quarterbacks Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino.

Hobbies and other interests are favorite subjects. Ken Watterson, a McMurray man with one of the country's largest private collections of Civil War artillery, asked artist Holly Gessler to paint a 30- by 8-foot mural in his mini-museum showing Union soldiers and a horse-drawn caisson, a two-wheeled rig used to transport heavy guns. For a Mt. Lebanon couple, Gessler painted the man's recipe for meatballs and sauce just above the stove.

Murals in children's rooms often reflect their interests. Anne Kaminski, 11, of Sewickley told artist Joani Summit she wanted a jungle in her bedroom. Summit brought over a bunch of books so Anne could pick the birds and animals she wanted.

Artists often paint on canvas so the owners can take them with them when they move. Painting a cherub in your home studio is also much easier than doing one on a ceiling while lying on a scaffold, as artist Celeste Parrendo can attest.

Some of the most moving murals capture one idyllic moment in time. Twenty-two-year veteran Lynn Smith was asked to create a trompe l'oeil window that reminded one couple of their vacation in Italy. Everything in the painting reminds them of one perfect picnic -- the town in the distance, slices of pear, cheese and two bottles of wine from a family vineyard.

"A mural has to mean something to you," Smith said. "Every single day you look at it, it should make you smile."

Kevin Kirkland can be reached at kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978.

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