The canvas was concrete, six stories tall, with horizontal stripes of beige and white. It was the Quackenbush Parking Garage in downtown Albany, visible from busy Interstate 787. Michael Conlin’s challenge was to put something artistic on it.
When the owner of Conlin Studios in Albany first got the assignment to paint some sort of public mural, it would be his biggest project to date. Now 35, he credits UAlbany for getting him started in art and sending him on his current path.
Conlin, who graduated in 2004 with a degree in communications and a minor in art and education, had always been interested in art. A Long Island native, he originally planned to major in business. But it quickly became clear that his A’s were coming from art and not accounting. Leona Christie, associate professor in printmaking and digital imaging, especially helped by encouraging independent studies, said Conlin, and by introducing him to professionals. These introductions helped lead to fellowships at local printing shops.
After graduating, Conlin led a double life. In Albany, where rent was cheap, he worked three long days a week delivering film for Wal-Mart. Then he headed to New York City, where he worked at a local print shop, learning his craft. He slept on friends’ couches, on the workroom floor, or in Penn Station.
When he was 27, he was crossing Lark Street after a gallery showing of his work when a drunk driver struck him. He suffered serious head, neck and shoulder injuries, and it took him several years to fully recover from the accident. The injuries cost Conlin his print-shop residency and his New York City connections.
“The stuff I had been working hard for for a couple of years came to an end,” he said. “It was really depressing. I had to start from square one.”
Eventually, Conlin started printing T-shirts and silk-screening in Albany, and he was asked to craft a sign for a local pub, City Beer Hall. That work led to classes at Hudson Valley Community College for graphic design, and he started a sign-painting business. Jobs started coming in – for Honest Weight Food Co-op, SUNY Cobleskill, a butcher shop, and several local retail stores.
Conlin was running a “pop-up shop” – a temporary store selling his T-shirts, artwork and other goodies – in a shipping container in a downtown Albany park when he came to the attention of the Albany Center Gallery. The gallery was working with the Albany Parking Authority on a proposed mural, although Matt Peter, executive director of the authority, said the team wasn’t quite sure what image they were looking for.
“There’s this great creative economy coming together [in Albany], and we wanted to be a part of it,” he said. “We wanted to create a sort of welcoming message.”
It was Conlin who came up with the design: bluebirds in flight. Aside from depicting the state bird, the drawing symbolized the visitors now flocking to Albany. Once known as a place that emptied out after 5 p.m., downtown Albany is now home to popular high-end apartments, as well as a busy bar and restaurant scene.
Conlin started the garage job by sketching the birds onto giant rolls of paper. He and an assistant rode a bucket loader to make chalk outlines of the drawings, using the paper as a stencil. He did the painting on his own; it took about two weeks, and at times Conlin worked up to six stories above the ground. The final piece is about 80 feet wide and three stories tall.
Today, he’s discussing new projects – including more murals – with businesses and other organizations.“I feel like I have skin in the game,” Conlin said. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”