In the last few weeks I had the pleasure of working on a massive new banner that was just unveiled at the corner of State st and Adams on the Chicago Loop. The mural which is about 2500 sq feet depicts a surreal parade of aquatic animals winding it’s way through downtown Chicago. Commissioned by the Chicago Loop Alliance and art directed by the brilliant Tristan Hummel, this was an absolute honor to work on. I was amazed at how receptive the CLA was to my most out-there ideas. I really felt like the rug was going to be pulled out from under me at any moment but sure enough the final mural was officially unveiled this morning. I cant thank Tristan and the CLA enough for having the vision to make this happen and trusting me to produce it.

The announcement was covered by ABC7 news in Chicago here. Problem: tree obscuring part of the mural. Solution: BRING IN A HELICOPTER (!!!)

I also did a Q&A with the CLA discussing the production of the mural, a bit of my background and the value of public art. I’ve included that conversation below.

Here at Chicago Loop Alliance, we have the privilege of frequently working with exceedingly talented, motivated, and creative young artists. Noah MacMillan, creator of our latest public art project, Float, is clearly no exception.

Float is now the largest mural in downtown Chicago, and can be seen wrapping around the Century Building on State and Adams from anywhere on the nearby streets. With the public announcement of the project this morning, we think it’s the right time for everyone to get to know Noah. So enjoy our Q&A below and meet the man behind the mural, Noah MacMillan.

Q: Noah, tell us about yourself. What’s your favorite thing to draw? What work from your past are you most proud of?

A: “I always have the most fun when I’m figuring out something that I’ve never drawn before but there are subjects that I always find myself coming back to. I love drawing animals, architecture, any kind of complicated machinery. I basically draw like a 12 year old boy with a slightly better understanding of composition and color.

One project that I’m particularly proud of was a collection of illustrated creation myths from around the world that I made for my final college project. I did a bunch of research and chose about 15 stories from all different cultures to draw. I learned a ton while working on that project about selecting the right moments to illustrate and really refined the techniques I’m using in my work now. The images wound up getting a bunch of attention online and were eventually published by Smithsonian magazine. (You can see a selection of them here).

Q: You’ve said before that Float was created completely digitally. Tell us a little about the process.

A: I think of my work process as about half digital and half old-school. I hardly touch a computer (except for finding reference images) all the way up until I’m ready for the final coloring. I do all of my concepting, sketching and drawing by hand with pens and paper and a lightbox. I find that computers get in the way of my thinking so I stay away from them until I’ve already made all the decisions.
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Q: Why work with that medium?

A: That’s just what I’ve come up with for making images in a predictable way on deadline that still have some looseness. It’s always changing and hopefully I’ll be doing things totally differently in a few years.

Q: You’ve previously described Float as “aquatic animals floating through a coral reef of Chicago” in a “surreal parade.” Beyond the beauty of the concept itself, why depict Chicago in this way? Is there something unique about Chicago that made you want to do this?

A: The incredible architecture all over the city was definitely something I was thinking about. The parade of sea creatures was actually an idea I’d had floating around (ha!) for a while but deciding to make it Chicago and include some specific buildings and existing public art pieces made it so much stronger.

Q: As you know, Float is located at a very busy intersection in the Loop. Thousands of people will walk by every day. How did the publicity of the piece affect the way you thought about the project?

A: The biggest difference in terms of thinking was trying to keep in mind that this thing would be viewed from 100 feet away. I looked at a lot of murals and graffiti to get a sense of how much detail looks good, what looks too empty and what sorts of details get lost at scale. The pressure of knowing how public it would be was great for me. It made me want to focus on making every element as good as it could be instead of focusing my energy on one part and letting the rest be secondary (the Octopus still kind of steals the show though). The only part that really stressed me out was when I’d make a tiny ink smudge or mistake and think: “well, that’s going to be 14 feet tall”, but that’s what photoshop is for.

Q: This mural enlivens a busy intersection by directly integrating the City of Chicago with the art world. As the artist of this project, what kind of value do you see in connecting the art world with the public in this way?

A: I love public art. One of the things that first got me excited about art was riding the DC Metro and seeing all the incredible graffiti along the red line. I always looked forward to that part of the ride. One of the main reasons that I gravitated toward illustration instead of gallery art is that I wanted to make things that would go out and live in the world. I totally believe that public art can make a city a better, richer place to live. I visited the mural last week and it was so much fun to be a fly on the wall and watch people react to this new piece of art in their neighborhood. Folks were stopping to look and taking pictures and I saw a little girl trying to identify all the different kinds of animals, which made my day.  I think Millennium Park is the ultimate example of how great public art can be. There are people all around the Bean enjoying it all the time. As an artist, I’d rather have that than have my work on the wall in a gallery or somebody’s house any day.

Q: Do you see a future in these kinds of projects in Chicago or other cities in the United States?

A: I hope so. Cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore have done a lot with adding murals particularly in neighborhoods that don’t always get enough attention. It is a really easy way to make a huge difference in how a space feels. Building a new park can take years and millions of dollars but a mural can go up over the weekend for almost no money. I think they can have a similar effect in making people proud and excited about their public spaces. From an urban planning perspective public art is a great value.

Q: Do you see yourself pursuing this kind of work in the future?

A: Yes! Totally! As much as possible. Call me for all your huge crazy mural needs.

Q: Anything else you want to say about the mural or the project in general?

A: Just thanks to the CLA for having the idea and choosing me to execute it! Seeing the mural in person last week was the most rewarding experience of my career so far. I’ve said it before but I think that my drawing this thing pales in comparison to the fact that you guys had the audacity to imagine this massive piece of public art and actually figured out how to make it happen. I’m totally grateful to have been a part of it.”

Thanks again to Noah for sharing his creativity with the Chicago public, and we hope to see more of him in the future!