Ancient Sgraffito breathes new life into Vail Village
If you happen to spy a sprightly lady about to take her two dogs into a door you didn’t know exists at the Village Center in Vail do take a double take. This eye-catching lady and her active pets are not alive, but the art form used recently to create the trio certainly fills them with delightful life.This is Sgraffito, an unusual art form, which calls for superb mastery and dedication to complete. That is why artist Horst Essl is one of the few artists in the United States practicing this demanding, but lovely and extraordinary discipline.You have undoubtedly seen his work in Vail. His beautiful, life-like murals can be found inside and outside of the Tyrolean, and his Sgraffito medallions grace the outside of Pepi’s. The new logos on either side of the Village Center are also examples of Essl’s Sgraffito work.Although Sgraffito may be new to most Americans, it is actually an ancient art form, used for 4,000 years in Europe and elsewhere. Sgraffito, which literally translated means "scratched," is found in ancient Egypt, in the Pompeiian remains of catacombs, as well as on ancient Greek vases and even in some cliff dwellings. More recently, it was a popular style for decorating Renaissance architecture.Sgraffito is created by cutting layers, one on top of the other, into designs in still-setting stucco. Each color in a scene or decoration is a separate layer.The scene on the Village Center has eight colors and eight layers. A work frequently takes 20-25 hours or more to complete nonstop. Essl can’t pause, or the stucco will dry and become unworkable."It’s very demanding," says Essl, who frequently goes without sleep to complete a project. Fortunately, his wife, Jean Richmond, has learned to help mix the stucco and assist with the cutting process."I cut and she takes the layers out," explains Essl.Richmond, a former rocket scientist with Martin Marietta, has spent the past few years learning a new trade as Essl’s assistant."It’s nice to have somebody else. We can console each other," on all-night projects,” Essl says.The art is so painstaking and exacting that few artists, even in Europe, perform it today, although it was once common. Outstanding examples can still be found in Northern Italy, Austria and Bavaria."I just like it because it is so unusual," says Essl, who apprenticed in his native Austria, studying under a master before coming to the United States in 1967. "It’s important to find the right master. My master was very good."Essl has been using Sgraffito in his work for four decades now, yet at the same time, he has developed new techniques and ideas to create beautiful, unique designs for his clients whether their homes are modern, traditional or country. Essl uses Sgraffito around windows and doors, as belly bands, for logos, medallions and coat-of-arms designs. It can be framed like a painting on a wall, or scrolled to accentuate the corners of windows. Essl even creates charming sundials with the technique such as the sundial on the clock tower at the top of a Sun Valley lift.Sgraffito can be built into a new project, so it is recessed into a wall, or applied to an existing building by adding raised layers of stucco, like the "patch" of two Austrian dancers he added to one building.Although much of Essl’s work must be completed within 24 hours, it takes months in preparation. First, Essl must create sketches of the design he will cut out, which he presents to the owner. After the owner chooses a design, Essl must translate the sketch to scale, and then create a life-size pattern on paper to copy onto plastic for the final cutting pattern. There is no time to draw a pattern onto the stucco before it dries and must be cut."In the old days, we would have to outline the design with lots of small holes," Essl explains.Essl and his wife have lived in the Vail Valley for years, teaching skiing seven days a week in the winter. In the summer, they relocate to their home in Lake Tahoe. Still, they find time for Essl’s artwork."It’s nice to do something here and make it a little bit (of) home," Essl says of his work in Vail.Sgraffito may be the most unusual and fascinating art form that Essl uses, but it is far from the only one. He is also an accomplished artist in several other ancient European art forms, including frescoes, mural painting, rosemaling and bauern malerei (found on many hope chests). Essl can faux paint walls or stone columns or archways. He also faux paints furniture, giving an entire new look to old pieces or can antique a new piece.He can strew garlands or leaves around door frames and grace ceilings with angels, or create bucolic pastoral murals of farm animals or wildlife, such as the wildlife he painted to decorate the former Walt Disney house in one western resort town. He painted the god Bacchus on a winery, and wrapped a panoramic scene around a fireplace chimney for a three-D effect. So real was the life-size mural he did of a friend’s dog that the dog actually started barking at it.Essl is also skilled at replicating antique work, such as the 1600s lithograph from Munich he did for a BMW car dealership, or the 900 AD Roman pattern he re-created around a client’s windows.In one restaurant he re-created an 8-foot-by-12-foot mural of Monet’s "Impression: Sunrise," and he sometimes uses gold leafing to detail his intricate decorative artwork and writings.Sometimes Essl combines his mediums, such as a dramatic bighorn sheep scene he created, which was half Sgraffito and half fresco. Or, he might paint some of his Sgraffito for added depth and detail. On the Assenmacher home in East Vail, he used a combination of faux painting of stonework, as well as frescoes and Sgraffito to create garlands and flowers around the home’s exterior.Essl first perfected his faux art by painting plain coffins in Austria to look like stone, marble and lovely wood. Today his beautiful work graces buildings and homes in Lake Tahoe, Heavenly and in towns across the west.One Sacramento school bears his 18-foot Sgraffito eagle, and a chateau in Pebble Beach looks 400 years old, thanks in part to Essl. He also helped restore the Eureka Opera House in Eureka, Nevada after a fire destroyed the original wallpaper and moldings. The work on the historic building, which once played hosts to the likes of Lily Langtree and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., took hours of detective work, piecing together the original pattern and replicating it with faux techniques. That project earned Essl an award from the National Preservation Society.Wherever you find Essl’s work, it is easily recognizable for its beauty of composition, excellent workmanship and innovative techniques.