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Have you driven past the corner of Woodlawn and U.S. 20 anytime lately and noticed something that wasn’t there before? If you’ve noticed traffic slowing down along Woodlawn where Naturally Wood Furniture occupies that busy corner, then you need to pull into the parking lot and have a good look at the larger-than-life, three-dimensional mural that now graces the side of Naturally Wood’s business.
This is no temporary art exhibit. It’s meant to be around for a long, long time. Look closely at the bookshelf on the mural’s lower right, where local artists Connie Kassal and Linda Weigel have left their “signatures.”
Back in May, Connie Kassal invited the Beacher over to a studio at the Southern Shores Art Association to observe the super-sized work in progress where four 4x8 sheets of heavy plywood lay propped against the studio walls. Susan Weigel had a paintbrush in her hand, busy applying the first of three coats of weatherproofing varnish to one of the finished panels. Connie had been painting in some finishing strokes on another of the panels, and her husband, George, was there to lend a hand and help steady the rolling scaffold-cart that he custom-built for this and other mural projects in the works.
This collaborative effort among our local artists and a local business took form last fall. Naturally Wood’s Mark Schoonaert was meandering through New Buffalo when an appealing mural caught Mark’s attention.
“I was walking down Whittaker Street when I passed a long, brick building that had a window and flower box painted on it. I looked at it, stepped back, and looked again, thinking that’s a pretty neat idea,” Mark said.
Mark returned to Michigan City with that mural on his mind. He told George—who happens to do computer work for Mark—about the trompe l'oeil window/flower box. George suggested that his wife, Connie was well-suited to create a one-of-a-kind mural for Mark’s store. So Connie came over, took a bunch of pictures, looked at Naturally Wood’s fine line of furniture, and went back to work at her drawing board.
Mark’s spark of an idea took off under Connie’s careful planning, Susan’s helpful collaboration, and George’s skills with carpentry tools.
It’s difficult to imagine the behind-the-scenes planning that was carried out even before the mural’s framework had been built. Most often, murals are painted directly onto a side of a building, but Connie found that Naturally Wood’s brick side wall had too much of a relief between bricks and mortar. To solve that, and other challenges, George built flat, exterior-grade plywood panels that could be painted inside Connie’s studio in any weather conditions and then later attached to the business’ brick wall.
Connie showed us several diagrams that she and Linda had sketched. Connie drew the people, Linda, the furniture. Connie said she spent between two to three hours working on lines of three different perspectives for each panel to match, and then all the sketches were made into a grid.
Connie said that the mural had to convey a sense of timelessness, so she paid particular attention to how the people in the mural would be dressed. She turned to the works of Norman Rockwell for inspiration. Meanwhile, Linda found that a cozy cottage-style conveyed that same sense of timelessness in her furniture pieces.
“Linda and I have had fun bouncing around ideas,” Connie said. “She’s my creative coach.”
“You need feedback on a project of this size—it can’t be done solo,” Linda explained.
The artists said that they met together often to plan each stage of the project. And because the finished work of art is meant to last a long, long time, the choice of materials had to be researched in depth. The artists gained valuable information from Linda’s brother, a professional painter.
“There is special paint formulated just for doing murals,” Linda said, adding that the latex art medium, unlike house paint, offers an expanded palette of colors meant to stay flake- and fade-free, unlike regular house paint. The extra coats of varnish the artists applied to the finished panels are for extra protection from Northwest Indiana’s sometimes harsh weather conditions.
Connie and Linda started working on the undercoating in late January, but then in February, the project abruptly stopped when, according to Connie, “everyone got sick.” Yet when the Beacher visited the indoor studio in early May, the complex project was nearing completion. The first coat of varnish was being applied to the panels. After the third coat was dry, it would be George’s job to carefully cut out each of the figures—a grandfatherly figure, a young boy “peeking”, a woman holding a taut leash, and a curious dog. Then, all of the pieces would finally be put together on site at Naturally Wood Furniture—where they would be attached to the larger panel. Months of work and planning would culminate at the mural’s official “launch” on Tuesday, July 12, when the Chamber of Commerce officiated at the mural’s official ribbon cutting ceremony.
“They (Connie, Susan and George) were very meticulous with the installation,” Mark said, adding that some of the bricks were the wrong color, so Connie and Susan painted them on the spot to blend. Other bricks were the wrong size, and the artists patiently worked on the alterations.
The grandfatherly man in the scene measures eight feet tall. And we’re not quite sure what the little boy is peeking at through the glass window—Connie said that she deliberately left that a “mystery” for viewers to decide. Viewers will see that all of the people (and the dog) are standing on a grassy area in front of the window. A warm glow surrounds the cozy living room scene.
This newest piece of outdoor art is certainly easy to look at. But how it evolved—from idea to completion—makes for a fascinating glimpse into the complex process of mural art.
Connie and George have shared with the Beacher their photos of the evolution of their latest creative collaboration. So the next time you happen to be driving past Naturally Wood Furniture, you’ll understand that the artful and eye-catching “picture window” is anything but “just another painting.”
“The side facing Woodland was always so plain,” Mark said. “Now, it’s a lot of fun to look at. It makes people smile.”
Naturally Wood Furniture Center has been named a Michigan City News-Dispatch 2002, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 Reader's Choice Winner. Named "Best Furniture Store - First Place" in Northwest Indiana by the readers of The News-Dispatch, Naturally Wood is pleased to provide the quality and variety of furniture, lighting, and accessories that Northwest Indiana residents have come to know and love for years.
I found our own Mark Schoonaert on the floor of Naturally Wood, now grown into the prime furniture store of Michigan City and beyond, belying its old image of unpainted furniture. There is still some, tucked in back, but the display floor holds much, much more these days with its line of fine Norwalk living room furniture that outdoes any other for miles around. The ever-helpful staff, and Mark gives them the credit for the customer satisfaction that keeps people coming back, said that around holiday time, recliners, dining room sets, and curio cabinets are big sellers and they have many to offer. There's a wall of clocks that could be great giftables as well. To suit Naturally Wood's new image and selections, look for a change in their logo and signs to come soon. And unlike portents of economic slowdown, they are doing right well, approaching a record month. Mark is definitely doing something right.
I call Mark one of our own, because we beachers know him well. He retired from the Long Beach Volunteer Fire Department five years ago after years of service and moved his penchant for service to the Michigan City Chamber of Commerce board of directors where he has now finished his second four-year term and service as president and president emeritus. Mark told a story I love about attending a conference with broadcaster Paul Harvey as guest speaker, you know Mr. Harvey and his "There's good news tonight". "I know of a newspaper," said Paul to his audience from around the country. "It's a little weekly newspaper in northwest Indiana that only publishes good news. And they give it away." As Paul continued, Mark looked at his cohort and they realized that Paul Harvey was talking about The Beacher. We do, indeed, get around.
And before we leave Naturally Wood, let me tell you about a recliner that Mark coaxed me to try. One lays back in this plush leather softy, puts the feet up, turns a switch, and there is instant Shiatsu massaging action, up and down one's spine, luxurious, pulsating relaxation that goes from rippling, kneading, and on - into nirvana. I could have stayed all night. What a gift this could make.
Taken from " Meanderin' with Maggie", December 6, 2001, with permission from The Beacher.