Indiewalls artist J. Ryan Roberts discussed his process while creating a custom commission for the Renaissance St. Louis hotel. Read about his experience below.
"Some Assembly Required"
by: J. Ryan Roberts
When I was approached by my friends at Indiewalls to create a large-format installation for the front desk of the Marriott St. Louis Grand Hotel as part of its $30 million renovation, I knew I was in for one of the most difficult creative challenges I’d ever had. The artwork would ultimately be made up of 18 large-format, overlapping, acrylic prints and measure over 40 feet long.
Nervous, but at the same time knowing this project was the culmination of countless late nights spent creating while exploring my imagination, I accepted the challenge and immediately went into action mode. The piece had to be created from photographs of old and new St. Louis architecture. An added challenge was that it was the end of February and we had to deliver the final in April which might not sound bad until you consider the cold winter had left the city lifeless and grey. The budget allowed for 4 days on the ground in St. Louis for photography so I quickly booked my flights. As the trip approached I learned the forecast for those days was in the 20’s and raining which made the weight on my shoulders quickly increase.
When I arrived there was no time to feel sorry for myself and I knew I had to create something out of what was in front of me. As it turned out 2 of the days were rainy while the other 2 had scattered sunshine. Sounds like I lucked out right? Well those conditions added to the work load since all 18 pieces needed to be cohesive, meaning I couldn’t have some of them sunny with harsh shadows while others were softly lit from the clouds. Ultimately it meant I had to cover twice as much ground on foot and had to shoot everything in the city twice to ensure I had it with harsh and soft light. Needless to say my feet felt like they were going to fall off by the 3rd day but a combination of excitement and adrenaline quickly made me forget about the aches. On the 4th and final day I finished my 2nd pass of the city just in time to head to the airport.
Those days in St. Louis, while stressful, represent all I want to do for the rest of my life. I’ve been lucky to have had a few of these hotel commissions and the truth is I love exploring a city with my camera in hand and music in my ears. I learn so much about the cities in such a short period of time and love getting to know the locals whose paths I cross. On the first day of these projects I always strike up a conversation with a local or two and give them an idea of what I’m doing. Believe me, there is no better tour guide than someone who is proud of their city. They provide invaluable knowledge and backstories about the history of a city and architecture that you just can’t find in a map or travel guide.
When I arrived back in NYC I had over 2,500 pictures of St. Louis buildings and architectural details to sort through. They wanted the piece to be very abstract so I knew it was just going to take some time staring at a blank screen before the pieces started to merge in my imagination. Normally I’d give myself a few weeks to properly sift through and experiment but that wasn’t possible because it had been agreed we would present an initial draft 5 days after I got back. The pressure was on and that’s a challenging environment to generate creative inspiration. So I relied on my trusted method of staying up late into the nights when everyone else was asleep and all of my life’s distractions were at a minimum.
I pull a lot of inspiration from the music I listen to when I’m working on my creative projects. Music goes through a transformation from audio to visual as it passes through my mind. On this project music ended up allowing me to see how to make the panels cohesive while maintaining the abstractness everyone wanted. While I was working on the 3rd revision I was listening to some house/ electronic music and it dawned on me that I needed to use the layered visuals in this piece the same way the DJ’s were using the beats. As one song transitioned into another there were little teasers of the upcoming song being dropped before it launched fully into the next song. It was nothing short of an epiphany and as soon as I had it the entire composition started falling into place. I added architectural elements of buildings that would be introduced in the upcoming panels so that the entire piece was a slow visual merging of old and new St. Louis architecture.
Most projects these days have their impossible deadlines, budgetary limitations, creative direction changes at the last minute, and too many chefs in the kitchen so I won’t bore you with the details of all that. In the end a couple of things were reaffirmed to me. First, the importance of putting together a mock up of what you intend to deliver and perhaps more importantly an agreement that describes the matching budgetary parameters in detail. This agreement is very helpful in not only making sure everyone is on the same page in the beginning of a project but also a great memory refresher when you’re towards the end of a project and creative direction begins to shift significantly. Second, how important it is to love what you do. When you have to stay up night after night for a few weeks you better be able to tap into that passion to give you the energy needed to cross the finish line.
On a project like this that is so abstract and impossible to predict the visual composition within the physical framework you outlined, there will be some tough conversations along the way. When there is no clear cut finish line except everyone has to be happy with the installation (including yourself) it is important to communicate openly and honestly. In the end it’s in everyone’s interest to have a successful outcome. It’s also helpful to keep in mind success has a tremendous healing quality about it.
This piece is now installed although I haven’t had a chance to make it back to St. Louis to check it out in person. I was sent some installation shots (below) which will help give you a better idea of the size and scope of the installation.
On & Up!
This article was originally posted on JRyanRoberts.com.