The 90-foot-tall mural inside the Gravity complex presents the painter new challenges, sparks a continuing discussion on public art

Standing at the base of Mandi Caskey’s new 90-foot-tall mural inside of the Gravity building and looking up, the butterfly fluttering toward the top of the painting appears almost dainty.

As one ascends the adjacent staircase, though, which carries the viewer up through Caskey’s magical, outsized biosphere, from goldfish-dotted waters to forests populated with a mystical creature and into the butterfly-laden skies, the winged insect continues to grow, eventually taking on a massive scale that suggests it could do battle with Godzilla.

“Looking at the mural bottom to top, things on the top tend to look smaller,” said Caskey, who will host a public viewing and talk at Gravity in Franklinton on Friday, Nov. 22. “Sometimes [muralists] do figures and the heads aren’t big enough, so looking up it’s like, ‘Oh, that dude has a really small head,’ but it’s only because you’re looking at it from down here. So, using that perspective, I made the butterfly way more massive. But even then, when I was up there, I was like, ‘Oh, shit. Maybe I made it too big.’”

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The mural, which took three months to complete — twice what Caskey initially estimated due to the ongoing construction within Gravity (the scaffolding Caskey employed had to be removed and then reassembled on three occasions for various building inspections) — is the tallest project the artist has taken on yet, and its scale proved a challenge from conception to completion.

One early sketch for the space centered on a female figure whose hair stretched toward’s the building’s rooftop skylight, which Caskey soon dismissed since the stray hairs would offer little visual interest to those on the upper floors. Eventually, the light within the space started to shape the artist’s thought process, with darker, earthier tones falling closer to the ground floor and blue skies breaking the treeline as the painting stretched toward the sun-illuminated ceiling. At the painting's midpoint, a butterfly locks eyes with a giant, feminine, two-headed deer creature, a connection that signifies the space where earth and sky meet.

As with most of Caskey’s paintings, the image is intended to tell a larger story — a byproduct of the artist's early fascination with fantasy novels. “I like having that story element, which tends to be eerie, like, ‘Oh, look at this with caution,’” Caskey said. “When I get to paint what I like to paint, the stories lean toward that darker fantasy.”

Caskey encountered numerous challenges in completing the mural. Since a boom lift couldn’t navigate the tight space, scaffolding had to be constructed against the wall, which meant the artist started most days on her own schlepping heavy buckets of paint to the top of the towering structure. The imposing scaffolding also meant that Caskey couldn’t view the piece in its entirety from the jump, instead working top-to-bottom in five-foot increments, the work gradually revealing itself.

“You couldn’t project [the image] and you couldn’t necessarily grid it,” she said.

Instead, Caskey flung different shades of paint at the wall from the staircase, allowing the drips to serve as a kind of guiding force, as well as a stress reliever (the artist said untouched white walls can be a source of anxiety). “It was like, ‘I have to get this going,’ and I just started flinging paint at the walls,” said Caskey, who had never attempted anything similar on previous works. “And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m kind of making a grid this way because every paint mark is different. You see the dress right there? That layer behind the green where you can kind of see the paint dripping? That’s what I used to figure out where [the deer-headed figure] was going to go, and where the antlers would be — all that fun stuff.”

While this particular mural isn’t on public view, reserved largely to Gravity tenants, Caskey still hopes it can advance the conversation around public art in Columbus, a city she views as lagging behind other locales she’s visited in recent months, including Philadelphia, where she witnessed public art serving as a prevalent source of civic pride.

“It’s frustrating. I think we’ve grown enough as a city that we can see [public art] makes an impact and is good for us, but it’s still not being utilized in ways that benefit the community,” Caskey said. “I’m trying to get people to understand we should do this here more often.”