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A Massive Canvas

Artist uses Tyvek to create banner that encircles historic building

by Lois R. Ember
November 26, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 48

It's A Wrap
Credit: Courtesy of Rosemary F. Covey
"The 0 Project" banner is installed around the Arlington Arts Center in Virginia.
Credit: Courtesy of Rosemary F. Covey
"The 0 Project" banner is installed around the Arlington Arts Center in Virginia.

PASS ANY CONSTRUCTION SITE and you're likely to see sheets of weather-resistant barrier material bearing the name DuPont Tyvek. Send something in a FedEx envelope and you might take note of the tough but rice-paper-like texture of the Tyvek mailer.

Stroll pass the Arlington Arts Center in Virginia, though, and all you're likely to notice is the mass of screaming faces printed on a banner wrapping the historic building, not the Tyvek on which they are printed. How the image came to be printed on DuPont's material and how the resulting banner came to encircle an arts center is a saga a full year in the making: an odyssey of dead-ends, frustrations, generosity, and finally, triumph.

The felicitous melding of art and Tyvek begins with artist Rosemary F. Covey's ongoing search for new and creative ways to express herself. Covey, an internationally known wood engraver, was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and now lives and creates her art in Alexandria, Va.

Until recently, Covey probably would never have considered producing the 15-foot-high, 300-foot-long banner, which she considers an interactive art installation and calls "The 0 Project." It's a stretch for a wood engraver to conceive a project by way of xerography and execute it on a commercial ink-jet printer. But two events combined to propel her in that direction.

For some 30 years, Covey has perfected the laborious craft of wood engraving. Then, one day a few years back, a young boy stood by her workbench and watched her rub ink onto an engraved wood block to transfer a print. "Why," he asked, "don't you just Xerox it?"

She didn't dismiss the boy's question out of hand, but at that point in her life, she still maintained that copying a drawing on a machine was not creating fine art.

Fine art was what Covey had in mind in 2004 when she began her fellowship residency at California State University, Fullerton's Grand Central Art Center, in Santa Ana. Once there, she began drawing a rough sketch of the 0 (zero) work for what she then thought would be a wood engraving.

Perhaps remembering the boy's words, Covey experimented one night with photocopying the sketch to see if the work, replicated many times, could fit together in a seamless whole in a fairly large wood engraving she might then produce.

WHILE COPYING the work, Covey realized the "rough quality of the drawing took well to Xeroxing." The 0 work "became stronger, more dramatic once I started building the Xerox segments," she explains. Then, in an artistic Aha! moment, Covey decided, "the rough sketch was what I wanted to have as my finished piece, instead of a starting point for any engraving."

Art and Commerce
Credit: Courtesy of Rosemary F. Covey
Covey stands in front of apanel of "The 0 Project."
Credit: Courtesy of Rosemary F. Covey
Covey stands in front of apanel of "The 0 Project."

"The 0 Project" she exhibited on paper at the Cal State arts center was 5 ?? 100 feet simply because it fit the center's exhibition space. But as Covey notes, "There was no real reason I had to stop at that size; I just stopped. I created an idea that could go on forever," as it seems to in the banner now encircling the Arlington Arts Center. For Covey, the 0 in the work's title represents infinity.

In 2006, Covey applied to the Arlington Arts Center for a solo exhibit of her wood engravings, and, almost as an afterthought, she mentioned "The 0 Project" in her application. The arts center personnel were intrigued with the idea of wrapping the center's building and selected it as an installation project. As the center's director of exhibitions, Jeffry Cudlin, explains, "Rosemary has a reputation as a maker of fine, traditional prints. So when she proposed a site-specific installation using technology for mass-reproducing images on state-of-the-art, nontraditional, synthetic material, she clearly got our attention."

Once her project was accepted, Covey says, she began her yearlong artistic quest by "contacting people who printed billboards or banners."

Several years ago, Covey had noted the similarity in appearance of Tyvek and the rice paper she normally used to print her images. As a lark, she experimented with printing and drawing on Tyvek, but not until last year did she consider using it in her printmaking.

As a sort of proof of concept, Covey says she photocopied "The 0 Project" image onto a FedEx envelope and then stuck "the print" to a friend's car to test its durability. The results were positive. In 2006, she contacted DuPont via the company's website. Curtis J. Oberholtzer, a key account manager with DuPont Graphics, responded, and the marriage of art and commerce began.

Tyvek, it turns out, is an ideal platform for Covey's concept and good for the environment as well. Sheets of this high-density polyethylene material are produced by "flash-spinning pellets or fibers of polyethylene that are then bonded together with heat and pressure," Oberholtzer explains. The resulting sheets "contain no binders or fillers and are totally recyclable."

According to Oberholtzer, Tyvek is "durable over many months outdoors, typically up to eight months." When Covey's banner comes down next February, it will have been exposed to the elements for five months. It will also have been the largest banner ever printed on Tyvek, he says.

Although Tyvek is strong, it is also light. Its weight allowed Covey to "easily roll up individual sections or panels and carry them around," Oberholtzer says. The banner that encircles the arts center like a protective epidermis is actually composed of 60 separate panels fused together.

FINDING A PRINTER capable of printing the large-format panels is a story in itself and underscores the journey Covey had to make to see her project to completion. The saga begins with Oberholtzer putting Covey in touch with Deborah Weber in Hewlett-Packard's large-format supply sales division.

Fused Fibers
Credit: DuPont
Polyethylene fibers in Tyvek shown in a micrograph taken at 300×.
Credit: DuPont
Polyethylene fibers in Tyvek shown in a micrograph taken at 300×.

Unfortunately, HP printers cannot print on the untreated Tyvek that Covey wanted to use. But Weber was so supportive of Covey's project that she took the initiative to find a printer. That printer turned out to be Scott C. Snoyer, owner of a FastSigns franchise in Antioch, Tenn., who had the equipment and experience to print in large format.

But before a panel of Tyvek could be printed, Covey first had to get its screaming faces scanned into a digital format that, after some tweaking, could be read by Snoyer's Vutek-brand large-format ink-jet printer.

A 6.5-foot-wide, 150-foot-long roll of uncoated Tyvek was then loaded onto the printer. About 10 identical panels could be printed on each roll of Tyvek, with each panel measuring 5 × 15 feet. The ink was cured by ultraviolet light so each printed roll left the printer dry and ready to be cut into panels.

In late September, Snoyer sent Covey a total of 60 panels, which Covey then assembled into the banner that was installed on the arts center's building early last month.

"This was the first time I had ever printed on uncoated Tyvek," Snoyer says. It was also his "first-ever art project. I took on a big one—I didn't start small!" he exclaims.

Snoyer didn't charge Covey for the printing, which cost about $15,000. When asked why, he says: "Rosemary needed help, and I had the ability to help, so I did."

DuPont contributed the Tyvek, a value of about $5,000 to $7,000, according to Oberholtzer. Careful installation of the banner on the historic building involved an architect, an engineer, and the blessing of Arlington officials. It cost about $5,000, figures Covey, who estimates her own efforts conservatively at about $60,000.

Covey is reluctant to explain what she was trying to convey in the image of a crowd of silent screams. The closest she will come to expressing her motivation is to say, "I was thinking more of the nature of a crowd, its danger and anonymity, its ability to force change. Also, when too many voices are talking at once, you end up with voicelessness."

She much prefers that "The 0 Project," which is after all a public installation, be interpreted by the viewer. Most viewers will immediately think of Edvard Munch's iconic work "The Scream." Covey says, "I wasn't thinking of that, though I have an affinity for Munch."

Young children, Covey says, see zombies. Some adults have interpreted the 0 image as the Holocaust, or, now after the recent violence in Burma, as protesting Buddhist monks.

Other artists have translated their interpretation of the 0 image to music, dance, and poetry. Some of the poetry and viewers' comments can be found on Covey's website, The image has also been projected on gallery walls and at rock concerts. It even gained, for a while, a virtual existence on "Second Life," an interactive website.

However the banner is interpreted, Cudlin, the exhibition director, can attest to its impact: "I've seen it stop traffic more than a few times."


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