In the winter of 2009, Sheila Crider, a Washington artist, was visiting a butterfly farm in the Caribbean and immediately wanted to capture in her abstract work the fluidity and colors she saw. Lisa Marie Thalhammer, another Washington artist, spotted a jazzy sneaker in a magazine and tucked that image away for a future figurative piece.
Months later, the two artists were asked by the local arts commission to create a window mural at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. They had never met. They checked each other’s work out on the Internet. They liked what they saw. And now the elusive butterfly and the fashionable sneaker have blended into a colorful site piece called “Butterfly Speeches.”
“My work is volume. Lisa’s is very detailed,” Crider said, standing inside an empty retail space behind the windows. Before the two started, the work of other artists had dressed up the windows so the gray strip didn’t look so forlorn. As Crider and Thalhammer explained their artistic project, the morning sun broke through the white markings of the cascading butterfly figure, leaving shadows on the concrete floor.
Very quickly after meeting in July, the two found common artistic ground. Crider sent Thalhammer a butterfly sketch, and Thalhammer returned a rendering of the butterfly emerging from the mouth of a woman. “Once we started talking with a visual language, we were there,” Thalhammer said. “And I thought about the purpose of the convention center and what people do here. So out of the mouth are speech bubbles.”
The collaboration covers two large storefront windows, one 21 feet long, the other 14 feet, just south of the Metro station on Seventh Street NW. Initially, the project was part of the “Arts on N Street” festival, sponsored by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the Washington Convention and Sports Authority. The Crider-Thalhammer work will be up for an indefinite time.
In the first of two parts, named “Butterfly Speeches,” Thalhammer has placed a mocha brown woman in the corner, wearing sunglasses etched with stars, her gold and black hair catching the wind. Small green bubbles flow out of red lips and stream into the black, white and green butterfly.
To complete this mural, Crider filled the area around the figure and the butterfly with the blue, green and yellow of flowers, sky and sea. “I’m usually on public transportation, and I realized the colors had to be big and bold,” said Crider, who didn’t disclose her age.
In the other window frame, Crider’s black-and-white butterfly spreads across the larger surface. The black-and-white wings are abstract patterns that look like a string of onyx and pearls at times and a school of fast-moving fish at others. In this painting, Thalhammer has put the beautiful head of a bronzed woman, her hair pulled up into a curly knot and her green eyes blazing. Her mouth releases a stream of speech bubbles, connected to the butterfly wings. Her neck emerges from a gold, white and black sneaker.
Crider, who was born in Beckley, W.Va., moved to Anacostia when she was 8, graduated from the University of Virginia and now lives in Congress Heights. A woman of medium height, dressed in white shirt and pants, she had her natural hair pulled back from her round, brown face on a hot weekday morning. Her work is represented in several local collections, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art. “Butterfly Speeches” is her second mural in the last year; the first is at the old St. Elizabeths Hospital.
Thalhammer, 29, says the convention site is also her second public mural in the city. “Boxer Girl,” a huge painting of an African American woman in boxing gear and with a black eye, is at the corner of First and W streets NW.
Thalhammer grew up in Troy, Ill., and her parents operated a truck plaza. “I went to an all-girl Catholic school and worked in the diner at night. I loved listening to the travel stories, and that’s been an underlying thread in my work, as well as the empowerment of women,” Thalhammer said. She graduated from the University of Kansas and moved to the District in 2004.
When they started the painting, on the empty windows of the storefront, the artists faced the challenge of painting in reverse. Neither had worked that way before. They both sighed. “I practiced in my studio, but it was very different because of the heat,” Crider said.
Thalhammer used her computer, intending to project the image onto the window. “I scrapped it. It was too bright,” she said. They waited until the evening, Crider working in acrylic, Thalhammer with oil paint markers and letter enamel.
In the end, the work and the artists clicked, the different strokes becoming one vision. Now they are using the language of associates. “We made a stronger statement together,” Crider said.