Asked for the secret of his success, director Francis Ford Coppola once said, “Art depends on luck and talent.” Moving closer to home, it’s a formula that definitely describes the art – and business – of Oak Cliff-based custom mural and design firm Eyecon, Inc.
RWhen they talk about their outsized art business, Eyecon’s two principals – Cliff native Chris Arnold, 40, and Cliff “adoptee” Jeff Garrison, 41 – interweave their business history with stories of creativity and serendipity. The resulting tale, like their art, is a richly colored canvas that’s uniquely Eyecon.
Luck of the draw
Arnold, a 1984 graduate of Dallas arts magnet high school Booker T. Washington, met Garrison on their first day at the nation’s top illustration school, Columbus College of Art & Design. The two, who went on to earn BFA degrees in illustration, were randomly assigned to be roommates. They hit it off instantly, forming a friendship and a fledgling partnership that, 23 years later, is still going strong.
“We started working together early,” reports Arnold, who four years ago married another Booker T. Washington alum, Kim Held. “Our first paid job was a sign for a new pizza place in Ohio.” Garrison recalls asking the owner if he needed a sign. “We’re art students, we can paint it,” he recalls. “He said, ‘I can’t afford much,’ so we said, ‘Hook us up with a couple of free pizzas.’”
Painting that sign would be the first of many outdoor installations to come, but large-scale works like the multi-story murals Eyecon is known for were still down the road for the pair. “For starters, we were trained as illustrators, and illustration is really tight,” Arnold explains. “It’s meant to be viewed at arm’s length.”
How, then, did they graduate from smaller-scale work? By painting theatrical sets and backdrops after graduation as a way to pay the bills. “It was the opposite of illustration,” Garrison asserts. “Compared with illustration, those backdrops were giant. Impressionistic. Looking back, painting sets was a way for us to understand that perspective. It wasn’t something we were trained in, so we both feel that it was a bit of a gift to have that time in theater.”
Talented and gifted
Gift. Luck. Fortune. They’re words Arnold and Garrison sprinkle into the conversation frequently when they talk about Eyecon – and it’s clear they both believe they stumbled onto a good thing all those years ago. Their relationship “really works,” asserts Garrison, whose wife, Cindy, is a fellow artist and CCAD graduate. “We enjoy different parts of the process,” Garrison continues, “I get the most enjoyment out of producing the work. Chris gets the most enjoyment out of creating at the start of the process. We’re opposites, so we constantly debate each other. We keep each other honest in the process and in the business.”
One of Eyecon’s greatest strokes of fortune was receiving the opportunity to bid on its first major project in Dallas, the acclaimed 12-story “Mass Transit,” funded in 1993 by the Dallas Improvement District. “Mass Transit” (temporarily covered by a digital advertisement at present) covers the west wall of the Renaissance Tower parking garage located at Griffin and Pacific. The mural depicts a 100-foot toddler – Garrison’s oldest son, who was just a year old at the project’s completion – pulling a wagon filled with life-sized cars, a nod to the adjacent DART light rail track.
At the time, the Eyecon partners were struggling to make ends meet, and Arnold, a lifelong resident of Oak Cliff who was born at Methodist Hospital, had begun talks with administrators at Booker T. Washington to become an art teacher. A member of the arts magnet staff was sitting on the Improvement District board, and was surprised to learn that the organization planned to solicit bids from only East and West coast artists and firms.
“She asked why they weren’t talking to local artists; she mentioned us, and we were given the chance to throw our hats in the ring,” Arnold recalls. “I was set to begin teaching the next semester. If we hadn’t won, I would have started teaching, and we would have split and gone our separate ways.”
The two clearly relished their first large-scale assignment. “We started in August, and we were working 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week,” Arnold says. “We’d get there really, really early. We’d start working, and, gradually, you’d hear this crescendo of sound rise from the city. I’ll never forget it.” Eyecon completed “Mass Transit” on Christmas Eve, and they were hooked.
They began looking for their next project and fate intervened once again. With “Mass Transit,” the fledgling firm was on the map – so they were invited from the start to participate in the Dallas Improvement District’s nationwide competition for another 12-story city mural. The result is Eyecon’s “The Storm,” which overlooks the Dallas Arts District from its location at the corner of San Jacinto and Leonard. The mural, which symbolizes the energy produced during the creative process, features a swirl of local artists surrounding a symphony conductor.
The conductor? Arnold’s father, a dedicated DISD music teacher and the longtime band director at South Oak Cliff High School. And the artists? Real, live Booker T. students. Arnold and Garrison, the latter of which was named an honorary graduate of Booker T. Washington, indulged in a little payback, featuring teachers and students at the magnet school. “We went to Arts and set up a photo session,” Arnold explains, “so the people you see on the mural are all real, local artists.”
Butch & Sundance
Arnold and Garrison undertake most of these projects by themselves. “We’ve only had one other full-time employee ever,” Arnold says. “When we need to be, we’re flexible, and we can crew up when we have to.”
Their one full-time employee Reynaldo Gonzalez, is a Cuban-born artist they met, once again, by chance. “When we were working on ‘The Storm,’ this guy kept showing up with pictures of his work,” Arnold says. “He didn’t speak any English at the time, but he wanted to show us his work. We finally told him to come back when we were finished and we’d take a look at his stuff.”
Gonzalez’ “stuff” turned out to be a book of detailed works that related the story of his exodus from Cuba and arrival in the U.S. “It was unbelievable, so we hired him,” Arnold states. “He had no formal training, but he was the most dogged person I have ever met.” Gonzalez worked for Eyecon for seven years, learning English along the way as well as the tricks of the trade. “He finally left us to move to Miami, and he’s a mural artist there now.”
Making it work
If lucky breaks and opera backdrops have helped Eyecon on its path to success, the duo’s hard-won on-the-job experience has proven just as invaluable. For starters, they’ve mastered the art of knowing what will – and will not – work. “One of the biggest mistakes some people make is forgetting that murals are viewed – so they have to be crea
ted – in context,” Garrison explains. “You have to design murals to be site-specific, they have to interact with their environment. It’s the opposite of fine art. Murals are not an entity to themselves.”
And Arnold, for one, had to overcome a fear of heights. “When you’re hanging 100 feet in the air, swinging, that’s tough,” he states, “even for people who don’t have a problem with heights.” The two quickly became adept at rigging tether lines and safety harnesses, their lifeline as they paint. “You get used to it pretty quickly, and you forget that you’re 100 feet up,” asserts Arnold. “Well, you forget until you run out of stuff to do and you get a little bored. That’s when you start noticing that you’re 100 feet up, and all of sudden the people and cars look really, really small.”
The heat, too, is one of the bigger occupational hazards facing a muralist in Dallas. Both artists admit to longing for a more temperate climate – San Diego, they say in unison – in which to work. “When you’re at the top of a six-story building, there’s no shade for miles, and it’s 107 degrees outside, really all you can do is grab your brushes and go to your happy place,” Arnold jokes. Garrison, agrees, laughing. “That’s when we start asking ourselves, ‘Where, exactly, did we go wrong’?”
Big, bigger, biggest
Check out Eyecon’s national reputation, and you see, quite simply, that they haven’t gone wrong. From 12-story murals in Dallas to eight murals produced in their studio in Dallas and installed in Seattle, their acclaim – and the size of their body of work – is growing exponentially.
Their current project – painting 7 four-story art deco murals and an architectural frieze along the top of the Phoenix Midtown Apartments on East Mockingbird – is their biggest and most complicated undertaking to date. “We’ll be working on the Phoenix murals for most of the 18 months, with a few breaks along the way to complete some other projects,” Arnold reports. “We like working on a few things at once. It keeps things fresh.”
They, too, are seeing signs that their national reputation precedes them. A New York City-based design firm contacted them recently, soliciting a bid for a large-scale mural for celebrity chef Bobby Flay’s new Las Vegas restaurant. The design firm selected another NYC mural team, but told Eyecon their bid had been extremely competitive. “We’re at the top of our game,” Arnold states, then characteristically jokes, “but there aren’t that many people in the game.”
The Arnold Triplets, A Year Later
Keen-eyed CliffDweller readers may recall reading about Chris and Kim Arnold and their family of triplets – 3-year-old sons Matt, Drew, and Nate (pictured above) – in mid-2005. The boys, who were born prematurely and have required near-constant nursing and medical care, were the beneficiaries of the first-ever “A Taste of Oak Cliff” event, a community fundraiser that took place in Winnetka Heights on June 18, 2005.
Eighteen months later, the boys continue to improve. “They’ve just turned three, and Matt and Drew are thriving,” Arnold enthuses. “Drew is on-target developmentally, and Matt is about three months behind him. Nate is doing better and better. He’s still on a ventilator, and he still needs around-the-clock nursing care, but he’s getting stronger.”
Arnold, who was born and raised in Oak Cliff, states firmly that he and his wife are Oak Cliff’s biggest fans. “I’ve always loved it here, but the outpouring of support that we’ve received, with an event like ‘Taste of Oak Cliff’? We were blown away, and we’re still so touched.”
“A Taste of Oak Cliff” was organized last summer by neighbors who saw the family struggling with the overwhelming financial burden associated with providing continuous medical care for the three boys. “Kim and I still can’t believe how much help everyone was,” Arnold says. “We can’t imagine living anywhere else. We love Oak Cliff.”