A Room with a View

Whether working in early Americana style or in expert trompe l’oeil, muralist John S. Coles delivers wall-to-wall art.

From Sue Geer’s pantry, she can view the wide variations of the shoreline around Manchester-by-the-Sea. On one side, there’s Tuck’s Point, with its sailboats and open water. On the other, the harbor islands, complete with foxes and rabbits, and then the salt marsh, where egrets and herons perch. Along the shore, she can see her two children, Elizabeth and John, playing, and her husband, Bart, fly-fishing. And she can also spy herself rowing a boat. Because even though this Manchester resident’s house is by the water and on a hill, she’s not looking out her windows. She’s enjoying the colorful, hand-painted mural that now lines her pantry with all the sights she loves.

“The waters of Manchester, the whole area, just hold so many fond memories,” says Geer, whose daughter and son, 15 and 12, are reaching the age when they no longer go crabbing quite so frequently in the local waters. “The whole idea is that this will be a great remembrance.”

To create the mural—part art, part memento—for her 105-year-old house, Geer turned to John S. Coles. The painter, who grew up in this town, specializes in murals and decorative painting. Having studied in Gloucester and in Florence, Italy, Coles can paint commissioned work in a broad range of styles. But whether his clients choose him for his early Americana look, similar to the work of 19th-century painter Rufus Porter, or for his surprisingly lifelike trompe l’oeil, Coles creates heirlooms.

“You have to be willing to try things. You have to look,” says Coles. Although he has created murals for many commercial spaces in New England and New York, including trompe l’oeil “landscapes” for Massachusetts General Hospital and “windows” for Post Office Square, the artist (who lives in Arlington) focuses primarily on residential work, both paintings and the kind of murals that distinguish the Geers’ house.

His process is both straightforward and highly collaborative. He starts with conversation. Often homeowners have seen his work and may already know about which of his styles they’d like. Trompe l’oeil, for example, was perfect for the playful details—the pencil on her desk, the books that seem to sit on the shelves—that enliven Linda Humphrey’s Beverly Farms home, while the Geers opted for a simple, vibrant, representational style. Usually, clients also have an idea of what subject they want Coles to paint, such as the Manchester seascape. By talking with his clients—and, more important, by listening—Coles gets his ideas, which he then translates into a sketch or a watercolor.

This interactive process is one reason that Beverly Farms decorator Susan Williams frequently refers him to the homeowners with whom she works. “He’s extremely good at interpreting what we’re after,” she says. “We can talk to him about a project, throw out ideas, and he is able to present a sketch based on our discussion. Working with me and the client, he is able to interpret and paint a mural or a painting that often has a very personal touch for the client.”
Creating the pantry mural for the Geers’ home involved just such back and forth. “We had come up with the idea of what we wanted and said to him, ‘Do you think this is something you can do?’ He was really game for it,” says Geer.

In response, he created a sketch set on a grid, scaled to the size of the available wall, between the pantry’s counters and cabinet. This allowed the Geers to see how the panorama would play out, and then to further refine their vision. “We shortened the marsh,” says Sue Geer. “We liked having more blue, more open water.”

Coles then discussed technical details. For example, did the Geers want the mural painted directly on the wall, where it would be permanent? Or would they prefer having it on canvas, so it could be removed if they ever left the house? Both options have their advantages.

When Coles created a lively jungle setting—complete with monkeys and palm trees—for Linda Humphrey’s Florida pool house nearly 20 years ago, he painted the bright, happy scene on plywood, like a backdrop. Humphrey is glad he did. “It’s still in fantastic shape,” she says, noting the playful touches, such as the tropical bird peeking out from behind a potted plant. “And by now it’s moved with us to three houses.”

Canvas or similar removable surfaces have other advantages beyond portability, says Coles. Painting on a separate surface can be useful when the walls themselves—either the plaster or the underlying paint—are not in great shape.
Even cracks or old plaster, however, can be worked to the art’s advantage. Martha Brox’s Manchester home dates to 1927, and the walls in her front hall have a rough, raw texture. When she commissioned Coles to “warm up” this big, open hall, the artist took inspiration from the country-style feel of the walls, as well as from the Italian tile on the floor. He made the Brox hallway, which looks out over a patio, into an Italianate courtyard, complete with potted lemon trees and a spunky rooster who perches over a doorway. “Everything is a little cracked, nothing is perfect,” says Brox of the subdued creamy yellows, muted greens, and dusty oranges that now adorn her hallway with paintings of terra-cotta pots, plants, and vines. “It’s very warm and wonderful.”

Ultimately, the Geers opted to have Coles paint directly on the walls of their pantry. Their waterfront scene, after all, was particular to this house and its surroundings. Once the decision was made, Coles transferred his sketch into a life-size grid, allowing him to plan out details, and with a few more rough sketches and watercolors to illustrate potential color choices, he set to work. For this job, he chose acrylic paint, which dries quickly and emits fewer irritating fumes than does oil paint. For some jobs, he says, he does use oil paints, which can give a deeper, richer texture.

At first, Coles applies paint quickly and broadly to get a sense of the scope and overall effect of color and light. “I try to mix the colors and get as much color on the wall as possible, not finish one section,” he says.

Sometimes, he acknowledges, his speed and the broad slashes of color he applies can be disconcerting: “Some clients come in and get nervous,” he says. “But it’s helpful to see how they react to it. They will say ‘Oh, it’s so light,’ and I can explain that it will change as I work on it. Or they will ask for more detail.”

Collaboration continues through-out the process, which may take a week or two, or—for large or particularly detailed projects—up to a month. In the case of the Geers’ mural, the give-and-take extended throughout the seven days it took for Coles to complete his work. “We added more and more things to the walls as the days progressed,” says Geer. The result, she says, was worth the time and the long interactive process. “This is what we see,” she says, “when we look out on a summer day.”