At 11 a.m. on Wednesday Sarah Emerson's mural looked like 2,000 square feet of empty gray, striped with red doodles.
The previous evening, after being stopped and questioned twice by the police, she had traced the red outlines onto the 17-foot-tall walls with the help of an overhead projector, creating the curved countours of a subterranean landscape she would call "Underworld.'
Within a week she planned to transform this skeleton of a painting on a Reynoldstown railroad underpass into waterfalls, trees, birds, mushrooms and insects. The job ahead looked daunting. "I've never done anything this big," she sighed, wiping a strand of blonde hair off her forehead with the back of her wrist, her brush loaded with dark green.
Then she got to work.
All around the city this week other artists are facing the same Big Empty, and rolling up their sleeves. They are part of the third annual Living Walls conference, Aug. 15-19, a gathering of 28 street artists from around the world who will paint 18 monumental murals in locations around the city.
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Artists working with the non-profit Living Walls have transformed many areas of the city already. Downtowners are familiar with its huge alligator mural on Mitchell Street and the surreal sleeping figure on North Candler in Decatur. The murals will go mostly on private businesses, including the walls of Center Stage Theater. The conference also offers a gallery show, lectures, movies and a bike tour of Living Walls murals.
This is the third Living Walls conference, the biggest so far and the first one to feature only female artists.
Some high-powered allies are helping this year, including the Museum of Design Atlanta, which will host several lectures. While the artists visiting during the 2010 conference slept on inflatable mattresses on the floor of a borrowed warehouse, this year the W Hotel has donated rooms for the visitors. "It made me so happy to hear my artists would have actual beds and bathrooms," said Monica Campana, executive director of Living Walls.
Many of the muralists who will participate in the conference come from the world of graffiti, including a 41-year-old Atlanta woman who prefers to be called by her tag, Olive47.
A dark-haired native of Chattanooga who is fascinated with gems and spirit animals, Olive47 creates legitimate, commissioned work but also paints abandoned buildings and other sites that are "extra-legal."
She recently showed off a block of buildings on Jonesboro Road that she was hired to decorate, buildings she covered in bright colors and fanciful creatures. The difference between vandalism and art? "From the artist's standpoint, it's intention," she said. "My interest is to enhance. When people see my work, I want them to be elevated."
Embracing graffitists places Living Walls on both sides of a vexing issue. The city of Atlanta has dedicated resources to fighting graffiti, assembling an anti-graffiti task force, hiring a full-time officer to coordinate eradication efforts, bringing cases against grafffiti vandals in municipal court.
At the same time, the city has fostered legitimate public art, commissioning murals and working with Living Walls and the Art on the Beltline project to support muralists.
Campana said Living Walls is trying to offer graffitists a legal outlet for their work, and perhaps to change the attitude of people who hate graffiti. "At the end of the day, I'm getting people to talk more about their public space, which is what I want to do," she said.
It is unlikley that she will change Joe Boris' attitude. The commercial photographer has been plagued by taggers, who have defaced his DeKalb Avenue studio dozens of times over the years. Boris said artists connected to Living Walls offered to paint a mural on one side of his building, with the idea that their colleagues wouldn't mar it. It worked, for a while. But the taggers just moved around to the front of the building he said.
In the end, Boris characterized the effort to work with graffiti writers as "herding cats." He applauds the effort to get art on the street, but says the personality of the tagger is one that isn't likely to respect boundaries.
Emerson, who has shown most of her work in galleries, likes the exposure to an audience that would offer a very different critique than the reserved commentary she is accustomed to. "Not everybody will like it," she said, marking areas on her walls to be filled with yellow lettuce, birdhouse brown, citrus punch and gumball red.
But at least one critic offered a thumbs up. "Looking good!" hollered a pedestrian in a white T-shirt, sweating in Wednesday's relentless sun. Emerson smiled and kept painting.
Living Walls the City Speaks Conference. Aug. 15-19. Free. Vandalog Movie Night 9-11 p.m. Aug. 15 at Wren's Nest, 1050 Ralph David Abernathy. Art House opening 5-8 p.m. Aug. 16 at 170 Chester St., Reynoldstown. Block party 8 p.m.-2 a.m. Aug. 16 on Edgewood Avenue. Lectures and panel discussions 5-9 p.m. Aug. 17 at the Museum of Design Atlanta, 1315 Peachtree St. , and noon-4 p.m. Aug. 18 at The Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave., Atlanta. Bike Tour of Walls 3-5 p.m. Aug. 19, location TBA. livingwallsconference.com/