Jun 02, 2017 12:00PM
By Leo Adam Biga
Visual artist Mike Giron's creative life spans studio practice, teaching, and working with A Midsummer's Mural and South Omaha Mural Project teams.
“In my studio work, I have no idea what's going to happen—I just go. I'm not forcing or insisting on anything. The work creates itself in some crazy way,” Giron says. “When it comes to murals, it's a lot more deliberate. You have to propose a design before you begin. So, I live in these two different worlds, and I think it's keeping me balanced.”
The New Orleans native came to Omaha in the early 1990s by way of Colorado, where he met his ex-wife, an Omaha native. After her father died, the couple moved here with the intent of restoring her family home, selling it, and returning to Colorado. But Omaha proved a good place to raise their two children, so they stayed.
Giron, 45, taught art at Bellevue University and ran the campus gallery. Today, he's a Metropolitan Community College adjunct instructor.
Without knowing it, he prepared to be a muralist through his experience painting Mardi Gras floats in New Orleans. Walls are not so different from float structures—they're big and imperfect. And just as he used cut-out panels on floats, he does the same with murals.
“The Polish mural is the clearest example,” he says. “There was a downspout, a chimney, and a fence around an air conditioning unit, and we used cut-outs to hide those things. It gave a 3D pop-up look effect. It also breaks the frame to extend beyond the box of the building.”
Patience is a virtue for a muralist.
“Murals take a long time—maybe two months,” he says. “Unless you really practice your Zen, you've got to make it enjoyable to keep on doing it every day.”
The social contract of public art and the collaborative nature of murals means you'd better like people. He does. You'd better like working big, too.
“Once you experience large-scale production, it's hard to go back to small paintings,” he says. “Although I still consider myself a studio painter, there's also something about doing large work. You can't help but see a wall and go, ‘Oh, that would be perfect for this statement.’ And then the physicality of the work feels good. You're carrying stuff all the time; you're up and down ladders. The brush strokes are not just a flick of the wrist.”
But Giron says the real reason he and his fellow muralists do it is because “we're channeling the voices of people who can't do this, and we take pride in that.” He says, “We feel good about delivering something that people feel does express them.”
The process for the South Omaha murals involves deep community immersion.
“The more you immerse and personally connect with the people on a street level, the more you're going to be trusted by that community, and the more they'll open up and allow you in,” he says.
The South O murals feature diverse looks.
“Some fall into naturalism, and others go into some other place,” he says, “That's interesting to me because it's not the same. Rather than a signature style, I would prefer they look like they were done by different people.”
They are. Giron works with Richard Harrison, Rebecca Van Orman, and Hugo Zamorano. Neighbors contribute stories and ideas at community meetings. Residents and students participate in paint days and attend unveiling celebrations.
The works are an extension of the new South Omaha Museum, whose director, historian Gary Kastrick, conceived the murals project. Giron serves on the museum board. He enjoys digging through Kastrick’s artifact collection and preparing exhibits, including a replica of an Omaha Stockyards pen.
The idea is for the museum, the murals, and Kastrick’s history tours to spark a South O renaissance keying off the district's rich heritage and culture. Muralists like Giron share a bigger goal to “make Omaha a destination for public art.” He says murals are a great way to enhance the city’s visual aesthetic and to engage the community. Besides, he says, murals “demonstrate to the public there is an arts community here” in a visible way galleries cannot.
Giron is impressed by the Omaha arts explosion. “There's so much going on and so many young artists hitting the scene making a big impact,” he says.
Meanwhile, he continues to create studio art. His series On the Brighter Side of Post-Apocalyptic Minimalism employed fire-singed materials to make their satirical marks.
“With the process-oriented stuff I'm doing now, there's a huge amount of variety, even though I'm just using grids,” he says, explaining that his personal artworks have moved away from rules of perspective and representational dictates of realism.
“When you don't use any of that, all you have is the process and the visual reality of things—line, shape, value, color, texture, and space,” he says. “When you start playing in that area, where there's no limits in terms of defining what things should be or should look like, you find it's actually inexhaustible.”
He intends to follow “the course of my curiosity,” adding, “If you are really free as an artist, then you just follow whatever's interesting to you.”
New murals keep beckoning, though. “I get pulled into all this work. You set yourself up for a fall, but the fall is where all the good stuff happens,” he says.
Having completed Czech, Lithuanian, Polish, Mexican, Metropolitan Community College, and Magic City murals for the South O project, Giron and company are now working on a Croatian mural. Irish, Italian, African-American, and Stockyards murals are still to come.
Visit amidsummersmural.com for more information.
This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.