Bonnie Norling Wakeman’s foray into mural painting happened as most big breaks do — in an unplanned, roundabout way. When she moved to Summit County in 1985, she was determined to make a living from her art, in whatever way possible.
“One of the things that was really important to me was that I completely committed to art,” she said. “I was going to do anything, so long as it had to do with art.”
This led to a lot of work with what she refers to as “tourist art,” such as pins and T-shirt designs. She worked in galleries, did some framing — whatever she could that related to art.
Her husband, Joe, also an artist, was painting and applying wallpaper at the time, experimenting with various finishes and textures, such as glazing, marbleizing and faux wood grain. One day, he came home with a request from a designer — would his wife be interested in painting a mural?
Wakeman immediately agreed, and soon the mural painting became a job in itself.
“I put all the … tourist art aside, fell in love with the big walls and started doing a lot of that,” she said.
She enjoyed the painting, but eventually, she decided she wanted to try something new. Inspiration struck during a trip to Europe. Everywhere she looked, she saw art — in the architecture, on the walls, on the ceiling — never a bare space.
“Every square inch is art,” she said. “They make it a part of their existence, they breathe it, they’re constantly immersed in art.”
When she returned, Wakeman began experimenting with bas-relief sculpture on walls. Instead of simply painting the flat space, she developed her own plaster mix and began carving, creating eye-popping new landscapes.
She started with Aspen trees, a common sight in the mountains, and those have remained one of her most popular requests. Now her sculptures range from various types of trees and plants to mountain ranges and animals of all sizes — elk, bear, horses, foxes and birds, to name a few.
It took a little while to get the plaster recipe just right, as well as some experimenting with texture techniques, but Wakeman persevered, and now her work is in high demand, not only in the mountains but around the country. She estimates that 90 percent of her design work is wall sculpture, with the occasional mural painting from time to time. Fortunately, she’s happy with the situation.
“It’s very fun, I love it,” she said.
Connecting with the customer
While some artists cultivate reputations of aloofness and unwillingness to connect with the public, not so with Wakeman. In fact, she prefers direct contact with the recipients of her artwork.
“I get very excited. … You’re being of service to that person; you’re getting them excited and inspired. To me, that is half the business, how much fun that is,” she said. When she’s sold pieces through galleries in the past, she said she was always curious about the buyers. “Who bought it? Why did they buy it? Where is it going? What inspired them to buy that painting that is mine?” she asked herself. In the end, she decided her focus would turn from galleries to the artwork she was doing in people’s homes, “just because I missed that one element that, to me, is the connection, so that’s why I like walls.”
The very first thing Wakeman does when taking on a new customer is to take a look at the space and discuss ideas with the owner. She’ll also make note of the interior design style, which will influence the type of glaze or coloring she’ll suggest.
Wakeman snaps a photo of the space and then uploads it onto her computer and uses a special program to sketch the sculpture right onto the picture, which she will print out or email to the customer. This helps them to visualize the project and get an idea of what the finished product will look like.
Once that’s decided, Wakeman goes in and creates the relief, a process that generally takes four to six days, depending on the size of the wall space.
“I let the wall speak to me,” she said. She often uses photographs of trees and animals as references, though once the sculpture gets going, it becomes its own entity, so she pays special attention to getting the perspective and proportions just right.
Molds are not part of Wakeman’s repertoire, which means every sculpture is unique, done entirely by hand.
“It’s very particular and custom for the client,” she said. “They’re not going to say, ‘I saw that exact same thing (somewhere else).’ It’s going to have a different feel, a different look.”
Sometimes, Wakeman will paint a finished sculpture, or apply a glaze, and other times, the sculpture remains the same neutral color as the wall — it all depends on the client’s preference and the interior design style.
Her wall sculptures are best for the odd-shaped nooks, corners and niches that don’t have other decorative options. Some staircase walls are too high and wide for any framed painting or photo, while other niches aren’t shaped right for frames at all. Even a nook that might display a sculpture or piece of art can look bare. The versatility of the wall sculptures, and the murals, as well, lends itself to any space.
Fortunately, Wakeman enjoys a challenge, and she’s certainly taken on more than a few, some of which represent her best work. In the end, however, it always comes back to the homeowner.
“It’s so exciting, interior design, to walk in and make (an area) beautiful,” she said. “And when (clients) get excited, they’re into it, they’re brainstorming with me, there’s a satisfaction that I can’t get in my studio painting on the canvas.”