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A giant mural blooms in Buffalo — 6½ stories tall

A garden of echinacea, hibiscus and pussy willow plants has engulfed the entire side of the exposed, yellow-brick wall on the side of the 6 1/2-story Sinclair Building at 465 Washington St. downtown, snaking around windows and extending to the rooftop.

The latest installation of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's public art initiative is as gargantuan — 80 feet tall by 160 feet wide — as it is ambitious.

It's the largest mural ever painted by Detroit-based artist Louise Jones, who was still putting finishing touches on the project Thursday before she was brought down to street level in a lift to greet those on the ground who stood gazing at her work.

"It's not nearly almost complete for me to relax, but I feel as if I'm on time, and I'm excited," Jones said.

"It's coming out to be quite like the sketch, but better," she said.

Jones, who also goes by the street name 0uizi, has painted murals around the world and across the United States, including Detroit, New York City, Miami, Aspen, Virginia and Arkansas.

Nearly all of her works, which number in the hundreds, feature floral scenes — like her latest and largest.

"It features wildflowers that are specific to New York, and it also features a few flowers that I encountered on my trip here. For instance, this flower here is from a staff member's family farm, and the pussy willow is also like a very Buffalo-centric plant, specifically, I think, it's Polish," Jones said.

Downtown buildings cast afternoon shadows on a giant mural by Louise Jones in progress on the southern face of the Sinclair Building. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Aaron Ott, curator of public art at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, said the work was born of a shared affinity he and Jones have for nature and a discussion they'd had on how that could be celebrated in an urban landscape.

The chosen canvas was a brick wall — already painted yellow — next to the public parking lot across from the rear entrance of what used to be the AM&A's department store and about 200 yards from the central branch of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library.

"The concept of this was born out of a walk that I was taking with my son as we were exiting the downtown public library here. There's gardens over there, and I was sitting with my son and looking through those gardens at this blank wall and wondered what it would look like if that garden grew up onto the wall," Ott said.

"So we started thinking about the ways we do have agency over that landscape that is purpose-built, shared by partners, informed by public interaction and feedback. We take all that into account when we're preparing the work that we do," he added.

The four-year-old public art initiative is a public-private venture, with support from the City of Buffalo, Erie County and private partners.

This project has taken almost two years to develop. The aim, said Ott, is to produce the best artwork possible for what he described as "our shared landscape."

"When you see a space that's already painted — the brick was already painted — you have building owners and constituents that understand what it's like to maintain that, and they really understood the kind of creative culture that would make this not just an asset for the people who live and work here, but for everybody who is visiting downtown Buffalo," Ott said.

Artist Julia Douglas works on a giant mural by Louise Jones on the southern face of the Sinclair Building as part of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's Public Art Initiative. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

"Murals are long-term but temporary works, ultimately. The fact that this was a previously painted wall means that owners know how to maintain that. Of course, when we're doing murals through the public arts initiative, we work with our partners to determine the risk factors, like water and whether it's a south-facing wall, which this is, so it gets more sunlight, and the kinds of materials we need to use to ensure its longevity," he added.

Many more works such as the one now on the Sinclair building are planned throughout the city and county.

"Our foundational sponsorship came from County Executive Mark Poloncarz and the County Legislature. It's their support that helped to establish the operational foundation that we needed to run. So there's works that will be done all throughout the county, not just city," Ott said.

"Later this summer, you'll see works popping up by Stephen Powers … that will take place throughout Erie County. We've got another sculpture that we hope to place later this season in Amherst," Ott said. Ott said that Powers is known by the name ESPO.

More than 20 works have been produced through the public arts initiative since 2014 — including Shark Girl and Matthew Hoffman's "You Are Beautiful."

Not all of the planned future works are murals.

"We develop our works with the partners that help us produce, with artists we've identified and community input. So it's trying to put all of that information together and working with communities and sponsors and partners to help to determine what's right in a specific location," Ott said.

As the museum continues to expand its public art profile, an expansion of  the gallery is also on track, said Maria Morreale, Albright-Knox director of communication.

"It's moving along according to plan," Morreale said, noting that the concept that was presented at the end of June is undergoing continual refinement.

"We're also going through the approvals process with the City of Buffalo and all of the relevant authorities," Morreale added.

The public arts initiative is a complement to the museum's expansion plans, said Morreale.

"They work hand-in-hand, because what we do in the public realm connects people to art and the art experience, and we hope that it will point the way to the campus on Elmwood Avenue, welcoming people at the museum itself," she said.

"This summer, we had a Robert Indiana exhibition at the museum, a sculpture retrospective, and if you go down to the harbor, we have a series of his numbers sculptures by the waterfront. So it connects spaces inside the museum with spaces outside the museum. So work we're placing in the public realm is also echoing within the walls of the campus on Elmwood, too," Morreale said.

Bridging the internal and the external is not a stretch for the Albright-Knox, Ott said.

"The luxury that we have is that the museum is the sixth oldest museum in the nation, the oldest museum dedicated to modern contemporary work. We've been doing this for a very long time, not necessarily public work, but working with artists and our board and the community to ensure that we're producing at the highest level with world class artists and that will continue, because it's part of the DNA of our institution," he said.

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