D.C. artist installs series of four mosaic murals at soon-to-be-opened Vail Skatepark
When the new Vail Skatepark in the base of the Lionshead Village parking structure is officially opened to the public in early June, every inch of the space will be designed to maximize the user experience — including the walls.
Through a request for proposals issued last spring, the town of Vail hired Washington, D.C.-based artist Valerie Theberge to create a series of four mosaic pieces to adorn the faces of the concrete stairwells that flank the park, adding color and character to the urban feel of the space.
Mosaic as medium
Theberge attended the San Francisco Art Institute, which provided her with a strong background in the fine arts, but it wasn’t until she graduated and moved overseas to apprentice with a company in Hong Kong that she began studying mosaic.
She was drawn to the permanency of the medium in juxtaposition to the impermanence of the world around us, the solidity of mosaics compared to the fluidity of life. She also appreciated the human-to-art scale and how the magnitude of a mosaic installation shifts our normal relationship with our surroundings.
“Where I live in Washington, nature is pretty strong and you’re very small in relationship to nature, the trees,” she said. “I’ve done projects in Arizona where you’re very big compared to nature; the perspective of humans to art is different.”
When Theberge came across the town of Vail’s call for artists for the skate park project, she thought it would be a good fit for both her artistic talents and her belief that art should be interwoven into our daily lives, not separate in a closed gallery space.
“I had done a skateboarding park before in Maryland, so the concept really appealed to me and appealed to what I’m trying to achieve with my work,” she said. “It was both the location, location meaning Colorado, and the theme, the energy of skateboarders and that kind of fluid, high-flying energy, which to me matches my work a lot.”
Creating a concept
Throughout her years as a mosaic artist, Theberge has developed a process for creating pieces inspired by the atmosphere of the spaces in which they dwell. She begins with a site visit to soak up the local vibe and culture.
“I came out here early on and visited the site, walked all around Vail,” she said. “I hadn’t been to this area and wasn’t at all familiar with it. I met people, visited the site, visited the empty lot, saw the drawings from the California Skateparks people, and then I watched a lot of skateboarding videos.
“I wanted to tap into the beauty in skateboarding. To be airborne and fly — there’s something really beautiful about it. I watched mostly female skateboarders; I was looking for the grace versus the edginess.”
During the site visit last summer, Vail was lush and green, with flowers adding pops of color here and there. The vitality inspired Theberge, and she meditated for many weeks on ideas that would combine the mountain lifestyle and the verdant features of Vail with her research into the movement, lines and culture of skateboarding.
“It percolates, and then I did drawing after drawing until I’ve tapped into where I’m heading,” she said. “It’s all very nebulous, until it feels like it clicks. It’s a multifaceted process. I let it percolate and stew, so it’s really more instinctive.”
Putting it together
Theberge’s proposal was chosen based on criteria including the quality and innovation of the work, timelessness and compatibility with the site and the permanence of the design, including its resistance to theft, vandalism and, particularly, weather.
Mosaics have thousands of years of history, and you can still find original Greek and Roman mosaics throughout Europe and Northern Africa, Theberge said. The advent of modern-day, commercial-grade cement products have added to the enduring quality of the art form.
“Glass doesn’t fade, the color won’t fade, nothing about it will fade — it’s solid,” the artist said. “If you paint a metal sculpture, the paint is going to chip off, but the color is color fired into the glass, so it will never fade over time. We’re using commercial-grade adhesives that a lot of chemical research has gone into the integrity of them.”
Work began in September at Theberge’s studio in D.C. The mosaics were constructed on a series of panels that the artist then trucked to the site in Vail and bolted to the outside concrete walls of the stairwells. Over the course of two weeks, Theberge’s team scurried about on scaffolding, adding more glass, grout and mortar to conceal the seams between the panels and complete the four large pieces.
Unlike traditional spray-can street art, the Vail Skatepark murals will withstand the test of time and the harsh weather of the high country, some of which Theberge’s crew experienced while installing and finishing the panels.
“The weather has been challenging,” she said. “I brought my son with me, and he’s wearing shorts one day and the next day it snowed. You need a dry atmosphere to install these, and to look at the weather report and being told it’s going to be a sunny day and then it rains — it’s really disconcerting.”
Tarps over the scaffolding protected the artwork from the elements as it was being installed, and propane heaters provided more consistent temperatures for curing the materials. The artist said she was incredibly appreciative of the town of Vail employees who helped with the project, providing support and encouragement.
The finished pieces have lines that flow much like a skateboarder flows through the many features of the park.
“The mini bowls have a lot of curves, and they’re sort of mimicking the way that a skateboarder would go around it,” Theberge said. “Then the two big ones really talk to each other. They’re the opposite colors, one is white with blue, and the other is blue with white outlines, so they sort of, in a way, because they are really 20 feet by 10 feet, they wanted to talk to each other, even though they are very different stylistically.”
Each individual glass piece in the mosaics has a background with some sort of mirror to it, which will shimmer and reflect light, catching the eye.
“I wanted vibrancy and aliveness, and glass is beautiful in that it’s colorful and vibrant and shimmers,” she said. “There’s some thing about the way it catches the sun, depending on the time of the day.”