words by Elizabeth Tyran; photos by Shane Wynn
Name: Michael Ayers
My work: I’m a muralist heavily influenced by graphic design and typography
Favorite food: Not picky. I’ll eat anything.
Favorite possession: My collection of sports memorabilia and a resin & marble cast relief of Mary’s face from Michelangelo’s Pieta
It’s almost 7 and there are eggs and toast for breakfast before it’s time to leave for work at Akron’s minor league baseball stadium, Canal Park. But he’s not a player, he’s not part of the park’s administration or crew, Michael Ayers is an Akron born and raised graphic designer turned muralist. Ayers graduated from Kent State University having majored in graphic design and minored in typography. After doing graphic design work for the Akron Beacon Journal for 27 years the company was forced to eliminate his whole marketing department. He enjoyed working for the Beacon but says he was still too young when he left to spend his days fishing, so he resorted to plan B: he became a freelance muralist. He tells me that when he started he didn’t know what he was doing because he’d “never worked that big before”, referring to the scale of his new art form.
Since that initial transition Rubber Ducks owner Ken Babby has hired Ayers to do several interior murals at Canal Park starting in 2012 when he bought the team. Another mural Ayers is known for is of jazz artists on an outside wall of the Civic Theater at Lock 4, the site of Akron’s summertime Lockbottom Blues and Jazz concert series.
He stands 6’1”. He’s wearing a pale blue t-shirt that is just starting to fray a little around the collar and little smudges of paint can be found scattered about the front like what you’d see on a painters palette. “I can look at the different colors of paint on my shirt and be reminded of the different murals I’ve worked on,” he tells me.
His work area is quite a different story from his paint smudged t-shirt and he acknowledges that when it comes to his space he’s a very neat painter, but that when it comes to himself, “I get it all over me.” There is a 4’ x 12” clear plastic sheet on the floor along the wall as a just in-case he drips precaution, but I could hardly find a drop. He washes his brushes in a restroom sink in the Press Box area of the stadium. It’s a far cry from the Quaker Steak and Lube in North Canton where he did his first mural while the restaurant was being constructed. There he had to rinse his brushes in the only available source of running water which was outside, and it was winter, in Ohio. “But”, he says “those are the kinds of challenges that you just rise to and that become part of the story.”
Today I’m watching him in action, quietly and methodically he shades the ripples of a baseball players uniform in Prismacolor pencil. His overall process includes painting the shapes of the figures with white flat interior wall paint over the existing satin-finish paint so that his acrylics will have a better surface texture to set on. He refers to his style as “semi-photo realistic”.
Even with the amount of detail and thought goes into each design, the 20-30 foot murals like the one he is painting now will only take him in the ballpark of three weeks from start to finish. He stresses that, “The design is key.” He attributes his history as a graphic designer to his ability to balance color and for. “He says you might be able to draw and execute well, but a bad design can ruin everything.”
I asked him if he takes a lunch break, he said “No, not usually, I don’t like to stop once I’m going, especially if it’s a good day.” By a good day he means when the work is coming together, “There are days,” he adds, “when it just won’t.” There was one Diet Pepsi can near his paints on his 4 step ladder and another on his cart of supplies a few feet away. I think tomorrow I’ll bring him a sandwich, even if it is a good day.
He stayed at the park until just 4:30 on this particular day because a University of Akron vs Kent State baseball game would be starting soon. When he got home he played with his one year old grandson, Christian, until it was time for dinner for which Michael made sure his grandson got his favorite thing, mashed potatoes. After dinner he watched the Cavs game and before bed he searched one of his favorite websites, 1001 Fonts, for the perfect lettering to incorporate into his current mural. So much thought, so much detail, and tremendous talent, it’s no wonder Mr. Babby and others rely on Akron’s new master of murals, Michael Ayers.