Street Sense set mural (image 1)

           This mural was John's first collaboration with The Cleveland Public Theatre in the early 1980's. Under the artistic direction of its founder, Mr. James Levin, the theatre was premiering a new opera by New York writer Migdalia Cruz.

           Since both the author and the opera's content dealt with the Hispanic community in New York city, James wanted an artist that could capture the lyrical vibrancy of the work in visual form. Rumours about John's artistic prowess had been circulating in the city's tight art community and James extended John an invitation to work on the set design.

           John's designs amazed everyone. The sheer visual power of his imagery was stunning. Drawing from the dark, mystical and surreal world of the play, he emulated the pictorial style of Salvador Dali -the master of surrealist painting, to create a visual representation of the major themes in the play.

           In due course he alone painted the entire set mural in a space of three weeks. His design included objects bursting out of the mural in 3D. These were built out of paper mâché by a sculpture working from John's drawings and then attached unto the mural walls. Notice the fingers of a hand extending forward with hangman's nooses hanging from each finger (later to be enlivened by an actor).

           During performances the visual effect of the set mural was further intensified with the use of stage lighting and floors covered in artificial fog. In one of the opera's most imaginative scenes, a section of the mural, which had been painted on scrim cloth, was rendered invisible thus revealing another background scene in which an eight foot hand eerily rose from the floor.

           With the presentation of Street Sense the Cleveland Public Theatre lived up to its reputation of being one of the country's foremost experimental theatres. The opera opened to mixed critical reviews and controversy, especially among Hispanic audience members who disapproved of the darker tones in which their community was portrayed.

           But John's murals were singled out for praise in the printed media and they established his reputation as a top muralist in the city. It was also noted that many people who did not enjoy the opera attended several performances just to admire the sets.

Street Sense commentary continues on next image.


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