Creating Custom Rocknroll Capes for The DRAMASTICS

Last month marked the third installment of my creative collaboration with multimedia artist Nathan Carter.

This time Nathan brought his multimedia exhibition of The DRAMASTICS: A Punk Rock Victory Twister in Texas to the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. If you've been following along, you'll remember we first collaborated on a T-shirt and tote bag for his exhibition at the MOCA in Denver, then we made more tees & totes for the Casey Kaplan Gallery in NYC. 

For the tees & totes, Nathan sent me scans and cutouts of his individual motifs and figures, and I laid them out into designs and oversaw the production and printing.  It was a true design collaboration, a lot of fun, and they resulted in successful sales for the museum shops! 

For the exhibition at the Nasher, we printed up more tees & totes like before, but Nathan had a more ambitious idea for The DRAMASTICS' live performance.  Since the band would be playing live at the opening, he had a vision for making custom rocknroll capes for each member. And he wanted them in pink satin.


I started brainstorming what kind of pink satin cape silhouette could look cool and still function while people were singing and playing instruments. I wanted the capes to be lined, so that they looked punk but polished. I have a giant full length wool cape from the 1960s that has a front panel and two long slits for arms to come through. I sketched a shortened version of that and Nathan approved it. I traced off a pattern based on the wool cape and quickly stitched up a sample out of cheap satin that I could take on a trip to New York with me. I also created a little sampler to show how the applique and paint would look.  

Cape plans. We ended up nixing the collar.

Cape plans. We ended up nixing the collar.

Since Nathan's studio is in Brooklyn, we set aside a few hours to hash out the final cape design together in person.  Again, he had a collection of shapes, words & motifs that we could choose from, so I guided him through what was possible via paint and applique with satin, and together we chose what should go where. We worked quickly and decisively, and he had the resized and recut stencils ready for me before I left town. Easy & fun!

Figuring out yardage & yield

Figuring out yardage & yield

Once I got back to my studio, I needed to make 3 smaller capes and 3 larger capes. I revised the original cape pattern into a larger version based on measurements I took from Nathan's shoulders. I don't have any formal patternmaking education, so I was really winging it. Then I had to figure out how much yardage of pink and black satin I needed. You have to place pattern pieces in order to get the best yield, which basically means you're wasting the least amount of fabric. I gave it a good guess and when it was all done I only had a little left over.

After buying the fabrics, my next step was to determine which shapes got painted, and which got cut out and sewn down. Here are all the pieces I had to cut out:

  • 24 cape pieces out of pink satin
  • 24 cape pieces out of black satin
  • 36 silver glitter lightning bolts
  • 24 hearts
  • 6 guitars
  • 6 giant lips
  • 12 glitter eyeballs

Each cape was a little different (with custom names & guitar shapes on each "sleeve") so keeping track of all the pattern pieces was a huge challenge. I embellished each individual pattern piece first, whether it was appliqueing the motifs with my sewing machine, or painting letters or designs using the stencils Nathan gave me. I used an assembly line technique, and had to time everything correctly so that the paint could dry before I started constructing the capes. It was about 5 straight days of being immersed in capes. But it all came together!  For the cape closure, I decided buttons or snaps wouldn't hold up to a punk rock performance, so I used giant silver safety pins. Appropriate for the overall look and function.

I wasn't going to miss the opportunity to see our capes in action, so we took a road trip from Austin to Dallas for the opening event. This was the most fun I've had on a design collaboration yet. I'm still high from the experience and I can't wait for an excuse to make some more capes.

Here's a great video montage of the capes and the opening event by Native Process Films:

Manifesting Murals | PART 5: You Might Get Lucky

This week marks the one year anniversary of painting my first murals. Two murals in 10 days, in fact. Prior to painting these murals in Austin, I had zero mural experience & no reason to believe I could pull it off.  Following is the 6-part story of how I did it. [Read from the beginning.]

We were going to attempt the mural on the back wall of the Continental Club starting at 7am on Thursday, July 14th. It was due to hit 100 degrees that day so Dana and I wanted some time before the sun cooked us completely, and we had to be finished by around 1pm. 

I had paint, I had partners, I had a stencil that I hoped would suffice, but I was still scared as hell about those ladders. On Wednesday night I had plans to meet friends for drinks, but I was stewing and worrying about the ladders. Remembering my commitment not to doubt, I needed to clear my head. I said a prayer out loud, saying how scared I was and that I didn't think I could do it. I asked for help. I said I couldn't do it by myself. I didn't want to give up on the opportunity, but I also didn't want to be an inexperienced idiot and fall off a ladder and break my arm or split my head open (or Dana’s). I felt better after I spoke my fears and prayed for help. 

That night I met my friends met at the private bar of the Hotel Saint Cecilia. About eight of us sat outside in the darkness, sipped our cold margaritas and chatted. It was super hot out, so at one point my mind wandered. I was still worried about those ladders. For a moment I sat quietly and my eyes drifted to the window of the indoor bar where the lights were bright. A figure moved through my line of vision, and I recognized him. It was Evan Voyles of the Neon Jungle, a friend of a friend I'd met a few times, the guy who designs and hangs all the big neon signs in Austin. Hangs neon signs, I thought. Up high. This guy might know something about ladders!

I was nervous to bother him, but I needed help so I got up without telling my friends where I was headed and made a beeline inside to bug Evan. I'd barely said two sentences about my dilemma before he grabbed a paper napkin and took a pencil out of his pocket. "The trick is to triangulate," he explained, drawing a straight ladder on a wall and a diagram of how to tie a rope to secure it. He said he'd developed this method after falling off far too many ladders. 

He was literally the perfect person to ask about ladder safety methods, and he'd shown up right where I wasn't looking for him. And he was really gracious about it. "Here's my number in case you need help," he said. "But we're starting at 7am," I replied. I really didn't want to bother him. "I'm up early, busy day tomorrow.“ he said. Then my friends found me and told me they were leaving. I tucked my paper napkin ladder diagram into my purse and wondered at the perfect luck that I had to run in to him, and felt proud of myself for asking for help and keeping the faith.

The next morning I met Dana outside the club at 7am. Fabian pulled up in his truck with two straight ladders, and I showed them my cocktail napkin schematic. We had to move a wooden bench and dug out some dirt to place the first ladder. It felt pretty sturdy, and we tried the rope triangulation, but the angle where we had to set it was steep. We tested the second ladder and realized it was shaky, old and really too short. I was not confident at all with our setup. The last thing I wanted to do was bother Evan, but we were stuck.  I called him. "I can be there in about 20 minutes," he said. While we were waiting, Fabian used the good ladder to boldly climb up to the roof and help us hang the stencil.

A few minutes later Evan skidded up in his truck. In a seemingly effortless motion, he lifted a giant ladder off his truck, placed it on the ground, threw some rope around it in his triangulated pattern, re-tied the rope on on our first ladder, gave both ladders a quick test and then popped back in to his truck. "Call me later when you want to drop it off," he said, and drove away. It all happened in a blur. He was like the angel of ladder safety! 

We now had two very sturdy ladders so Dana and I were set to go. I was a bit nervous at first to be so high off the ground, but once I started painting I was able to focus on the task at hand. The black brick was textured and also had some deep furrows in it, so it sucked up a fair amount of paint. I had to go slowly to follow the stencil without destroying it, laying in enough paint to cover the thirsty brick without causing any drips. Dana and I each worked on a ladder; I set the outlines and she filled them in. 

One funny thing about that morning is that absolutely no one bothered us or asked us what we were up to. Granted, it is in an alley, but several cars and a construction crew passed us by without a blink. In theory, we could have executed the entire mural in broad daylight without anyone's permission. There's a wonderful tradition and history for guerilla art, but it's not my style. I’d be too scared of getting caught and I want my art to be an invited part of someone's property.

A little bit after noon, about five hours in, it looked like we were finishing up. I painted over several spots and could have kept painting for another hour, but we were getting overheated, sunburned and hungry and the bar employees were set to start arriving at 1pm. I quickly painted my signature and we cleaned up our materials. We took a bunch of photos, high fived, and then returned Evan's ladder to him at his studio. I bought lunch, and then we all departed. I got back to the house where I was staying, showered, then lay on the bed under the ceiling fan. My muscles ached and I was bone tired from the heat. But, again, I was totally high.

I had painted two murals in three days. It happened. It's real. They're still there.

Stay tuned for the final post.

Manifesting Murals | PART 3: You're Gonna Need Help

This week marks the one year anniversary of painting my first murals. Two murals in 10 days, in fact. Prior to painting these murals in Austin, I had zero mural experience & no reason to believe I could pull it off.  Following is the 6-part story of how I did it. [Read from the beginning.]

The next day, Sunday July 10th, Dana and I met Fabian at the auto garage to see the wall.  The wall was white so I knew I wanted to paint black arrows on it.  It was not unlike the very first mockup I had made.

Blank canvas

Blank canvas

I considered placement and proportion. It was a tall, wide expanse of blank wall so it needed to be pretty big in order to look good.  Fabian had ladders at the shop so that wasn't a problem. We decided the best bet would be to project the design on to the wall and "trace" over it. My friend Jeff said he had a projector at his house, it just needed an adapter to hook up to my computer. We all made a plan to meet the next night at sundown.

Dana and I headed to Home Depot for supplies. I bought one can of black paint and since I was so strapped for spending money, I bought maybe two or three of the cheapest brushes. Dana convinced me to buy a small plastic paint holder with a handle. I had to drive to Radio Shack to hunt down an adapter for the projector so I could plug it into my laptop. Each time I made a purchase, I had to ignore the doubtful voice that said You're wasting your time. You're wasting your money. Twenty-five dollars for an adaptor you'll use once??

The evening of Monday, July 11th, I gathered some pencils for tracing, grabbed some cold Topo Chicos and put on some clothes I didn't mind getting paint on. I picked up Jeff and his projector and drove to Fabian's garage. Dana met us there. We put my laptop on a ladder, rigged up extension cords out to it and the projector and adjusted it til the arrows were just right.  Jeff had to help me with a setting that stopped my laptop from going to "sleep" every 5 minutes. We used the pencils to do a light trace around the entire design, just in case we didn't get finished that night.  Then it was time to lay down the paint.

I had to ignore the fear that I was about to ruin Fabian's building.

One thing I hadn't thought about was the fact that the wall was corrugated metal. That means it's wavy, and varies in depth. We were painting straight arrows on a wavy wall. If I'd really thought about this beforehand, I wouldn't have gone through with it. But I literally didn't think about it until I started laying the paint on. I had a flash of panic, envisioning wavy, unintelligible arrows that looked like wiggly mush from far away. But again, here we all were and I had committed to not doubting.  I reminded myself an important lesson I'd learned when I used to do clothing alterations for people: trust what the materials are telling you, even if it doesn't make sense to your logical mind. As long as we painted what the projector was showing us, it should look right.

I took a deep breath and smeared some black paint on the white wall.  

We were going to make this work.  We had to.

I told Dana that I would do all of the tracing and outlining, and asked her to fill in my outlines with black paint.  We stepped up and down the ladders, dragged them as we made progress, reached around each other and checked each other's progress.  Fabian stayed with us and helped with moving the two A-frame ladders and reassuring us that it in fact looked right from far away. I'm no fan of ladders but once I started painting, the concentration took over and I didn't really think about how high up I was. 

To my surprise, Jeff also stayed with us and Dana's friend Candice stopped by for a little while.  I hadn't met her before, but she arrived with a smile and even helped out with painting inside my lines. I stepped back and took a breath, and couldn't believe that here I was, PAINTING A MURAL. And four other people chose to hang around and help. They were all participating in this mad idea that had popped in to my head. It was real. It was happening. 

Around midnight, we were finished. We turned off the projector and looked at it from five feet away, ten feet away, a little ways down the street. Straight arrows on a wavy wall. It looked right. I painted a little signature, then we folded ladders, wrapped extension cords, closed paint cans and everyone went home.

That night I lay in the bed where I was housesitting.  My body was exhausted from climbing up and down ladders, reaching, stretching and concentrating for five hours straight. But I was high. Totally high on having made something out of nothing, totally high because my experiment worked.

Manifesting Murals | PART 2: You're Gonna Need A Wall

This week marks the one year anniversary of painting my first murals. Two murals in 10 days, in fact. Prior to painting these murals in Austin, I had zero mural experience & no reason to believe I could pull it off.  Following is the 6-part story of how I did it. [Read from the beginning.]

To convince myself to pursue the mural goal while allowing zero doubts to enter the process, I told myself it was "an experiment". Logically I didn't really believe that I'd be able to do it, but as an experiment I decided to proceed with an open mind that it could happen. This is art after all, why not keep my mind open to the most outlandish ideas? 

Pretty quickly I realized I could paint my arrows motif on a wall and that it could look pretty cool. I’d been painting my arrows on jackets, suits, guitar straps and leather pouches. Right before I left for Austin I’d painted my arrows on a canvas backdrop I’d made as a stage banner. That was the largest scale painting I had done before, and I loved the way it looked. I decided my arrows would be the subject matter of the mural.

The next step was to imagine what kind of place might want my arrows on their wall.  I thought about a coffee shop I'd been to, and I googled a photo of it and did a crude mockup of the arrows on the interior and exterior walls.  I emailed the photo to the general email of the coffee shop, asking if they'd be interested. More importantly, mocking up the visual helped me "see" the idea of the mural as more real.  The people from the coffee shop never responded.

My digital mockup on the coffee shop wall

My digital mockup on the coffee shop wall

I started asking friends if they knew any muralists. Some close friends of mine told me they had a friend who had painted several murals. My friend gave the muralist a call, explained my situation and asked if he’d talk to me.  The muralist didn’t want to talk to me.

Another friend told me about a place called SPRATX that sold mural supplies.  I called them and told them I was an artist visiting from Oakland and did they know of any opportunities or available walls?  Nope, they said, competition is very stiff.  There aren't that many walls available. It's really hard these days and getting harder.  I thanked them and moved on.

All these dead ends were plenty of fodder to feed my doubt, but I’d made a commitment not to do that.  So I kept going.

While I was waiting to find a wall, I still needed to figure out how I’d proceed if I found one. My friend Dana Lenko ended up being a key part of the process. Turns out she used to work at a paint shop and she went with me to two shops while we were researching. She also embraced the idea and didn't put any doubt on it. This was crucial; one dreamkiller can kill an idea before it even starts. Dana spent time talking through the idea with me and generally adding momentum and belief.  

The night I found a wall (with Jeff, Fabian, Cathy, Amy)

The night I found a wall (with Jeff, Fabian, Cathy, Amy)

On Saturday, July 9th, I met some friends out at a club to see Folk Uke perform. My friends Jeff and Fabian asked what I'd been up to, and I told them I was looking for a place to paint my arrows as a mural. Saying it out loud to other people was part of the "having no doubts" aspect, because I usually don't share ideas before I've accomplished them.  

To my utter shock, Fabian said, "I just took over an auto garage on the east side. You can paint your arrows on the side of my building."

I couldn't believe my ears. I think I must have said "Really? Just like that? You'll let me paint the side of your building??" Yep. I heard him right. I was beside myself. I texted Dana and told her we were on.