Ashley Pierce pushes her art to new heights, literally

Andy Downing
Ashley Pierce

Ashley Pierce didn’t know she was afraid of heights until she had to paint the moon.

Precariously perched atop a 25-foot ladder leaning against a building at 934 Gallery in August, Pierce was forced to embrace this new reality as she painted the giant orb that serves as the centering peak of a massive, multicolored mural the artist is in the midst of completing on a wall facing Cleveland Avenue.

“I was like, ‘Once the moon is done, I’m not going back up there,’” Pierce said on a recent early September evening, where work on the mural continued closer to terra firma.

Creating on this scale is new to Pierce, an illustrator by trade who had never painted a canvas larger than one at Urban Scrawl. (For comparison, the piece from which Pierce’s mural takes inspiration is a compact 8-by-8 inches.) And it’s not only dizzying heights and the sheer size of the piece that have provided hurdles. Pierce has also been forced to navigate unanticipated issues, including the rough texture of the wooden wall, which makes line-work difficult, and the fact that a number of features on the building are just slightly off-center, which upsets the symmetry usually inherent in the artist’s work.

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“The door isn’t centered, the window isn’t centered, the peak isn’t centered. But it’s something where you do your best and make it work,” said Pierce, whose completed mural, along with those done by a handful of other artists on adjoining walls, will be on display for 934 Fest, which runs at the Milo-Grogan gallery on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 13-14. “It’s been a challenge all around, but that’s why I wanted to do it.”

There have been pleasant surprises, as well, not the least of which has been the opportunity to take one of her characters, which usually exists in severely shrunken-down form on the page, and paint it to the scale in which the self-taught artist imagines it would exist in reality.

“A lot of the characters I draw live in this bigger world, and I very rarely have the chance to draw them the size they feel they should be,” said Pierce, who had paused from painting blue eyes on the massive, feathered-and-antlered creature that dominates the piece, a bulk of its head visible as it peers out from behind a camouflaging cover of leaves. “I was thinking about it last night as I was lining this guy in, because he’s supposed to be this big, which has been a fun and unexpected surprise for me.”

Pierce also has many surprises in store for viewers. A hidden message atop of the door frame only visible from above — it reads, “For things to be different, you must do things differently” — has been purposely tucked into the piece by the artist, while another Easter egg will be created in collaboration with artist Ariel Peguero, who is crafting an augmented reality element for the mural that will allow viewers, through an app, to experience the work in a wildly different light.

“I really like this secret world [Peguero] creates,” said Pierce of the companion digital realm, which will spring to life through a viewer’s smartphone screen and allow for actions as simple as making Pierce’s creature blink, or something as grand as unveiling entire hidden galaxies that whirl forth from the piece. “I try and make my stuff pretty narrative, so having it be able to come to life like that on another platform is just crazy to me.”

Pierce traces the narrative leanings in her work to an early fascination with children’s books and a chance elementary school visit from author and illustrator Aliki Brandenberg, whom Pierce described as “the most fascinating human being I had met.” “So when somebody asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, it was always an artist, but I always thought I was going to be an author and illustrator of children’s books,” Pierce said.

Now that the artist is also a painter of massive walls, she’s excited to see what directions her art takes in the months and years moving forward. “Tackling something this big has been really important to me because it’s something new and it pushes me creatively, which will translate into future work,” Pierce said. “It’s like stairs up to someplace. If you keep learning, always, you keep climbing and keep going new places.”

Just not too high, OK?

934 Gallery

7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 13; 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14

934 Cleveland Ave., Milo-Grogan

934 Fest