The goal of home design is to create a living space that’s a work of art. But what if you could literally live inside a work of art?
This is the fantastic reality Kingston artist Kevin Paulsen brings to homeowners all over the Hudson Valley, New England, and indeed the whole country.
For 30 years, Paulsen has installed his incredible hand-painted floor-to-ceiling murals for art lovers far and wide.
Most of us know what it’s like to fall in love with an artist’s work. Some of us have acquired pieces to hang in our homes. We’re used to defining interior design around our favorite art.
Paulsen’s murals take art in the home to the extreme. You don’t just appreciate a mural in your dining room. You inhabit it while you eat.
“Something I’ve always enjoyed is there’s context to a mural,” Paulsen said “It’s an environment versus, ‘Oh, there’s a painting hanging on the wall.’”
One of the most exciting parts about a permanent art installation in one’s house is the rich and storied sense of history the work brings with it. While many of Paulsen’s murals reside in high-end homes, the origins of his muraling tradition have a storied past in the residences of the less wealthy.
Two hundred years ago, a new school of art was being born on the walls of homes throughout New England.
The walls of history
The history of American itinerant artistry has an outsized influence on the world of mural painting. Paulsen’s work is rooted in an appreciation of the timeless forms of Colonial-era painters, often self-taught, who did uncredited work in exchange for room, board, and traveling money to the next town.
“These were funky, worn-out, simplified formats of landscape and decoration,” Paulsen said. “A lot of it was that they were emulating the wealthier class in the city, but they didn’t have the resources.”
The American Itinerant tradition is something Paulsen is very familiar with, though he says he’s not as influenced by it as he used to be. “I took it as a lesson,” he said. “My stuff looked ‘period’ early on, but then I just developed imagery to make something new.”
Artist and polymath Rufus Porter is the figurehead of this tradition in 1800s New England. He literally wrote the book on the subject.
“It was more or less his theory about how you approach a wall,” Paulsen said of the text’s influence on him. “He didn’t really talk about technique or naturalism or realism. He talked about balance and form. It was more like Abstract Expressionism.”
The techniques Paulsen developed for mural painting had their origins in his work as a restoration artist, where he would bring vintage art and decor back to life. It wasn’t long before he was turning his talents to creating wholly original works.
“I got into this idea of putting plaster on lightweight styrene, and I developed a technique,” he said. “Plaster’s one of the oldest and most permanent things you can paint on. I’ve always used unorthodox materials to figure out what I was trying to get at.”
His more traditional paintings are even more unique, right down to the canvas. “With painting commissions, I’m getting away from the plaster surfaces,” he said. “Old boards, 18th and 19th century, folksy urns .… I started painting on my floor literally by accident. I did 53 paintings on my floor, most of which are gone. Eventually I’ll cut the floor up.”
He also incorporates elements of graffiti into his original works, a more modern tradition of uncredited, itinerant American artists very similar to their Colonial counterparts. Both art forms exhibit the fly-by-night aspect of throwing art up on a wall and bouncing to the next spot.
The unifying artistic thread between both scenes is the spirit of painting intuitively and indelibly, honing technique while letting creativity run free.
Paulsen has shown at many esteemed galleries over the years, and many mural customers end up purchasing paintings to hang as well, carrying Paulsen’s antique-meets-modern aesthetic throughout their entire home.
It’s hard to quantify the number of Paulsen pieces that adorn walls throughout the country. There are certainly enough to feed a word-of-mouth cycle that drives homeowners and designers to discover his show-stopping work and hire him to turn rooms into art.
“The value increases with the reputation,” he says.
Making of a mural
If you’re a homeowner interested in exploring murals and hand-patterned walls, you’ll be happy to know that artists such as Paulsen make the process easy. Your biggest challenge may be finding the artist that connects with the aesthetic you want to define your dream room. Once you find them, Paulsen recommends trusting them to achieve the best results.
“Usually people find me by word-of-mouth now, so they already know what I’m about,” Paulsen said. “If they know what I do and they let me do it, they’re usually much happier.”
While he will consult with clients on color scheme, mood, and general aesthetic, Paulsen is an intuitive painter with a keen eye honed over many decades of his craft.
“I rarely do mockups,” Pauslon said. “You get better work out.”
He likes to see the space. “You work with elevations,” he explained. “Sometimes the measurements you get can be inaccurate. If I can, I go to the site and take measurements.”
For such a massive art installation to be produced on a client’s timeline, it’s imperative to start planning as far out as possible.
“The further ahead the better,” Paulsen says. “Once we’ve met and had a meeting of the minds, it can take a few months. The actual time that it takes varies from job to job, and sometimes there’s a level of detail or fine-tuning that takes further time.”
Once the specifications are set, Paulsen enters his Kingston studio to begin the process of creating the custom mural art. “I stretch theatrical muslin, shrink it with water, then I apply a thin veneer of synthetic plaster,” he said. “I don’t always use it the way it’s meant to be used. I get a dry, crusty color, and then I just work on top of it, stain and sand, and make sort of a mess.”
Once complete, the mural is rolled up and transported to its final destination, with Paulsen present to do the installation and final touches.
“I’m usually the last one in and the last one out,” he explained. “When I hang these murals, the painters are usually finished. I trim to fit. We glue it to the wall slightly oversized, and we trim it. And if there’s any antiquing, we do it then. It’s hard to put up a mural when you’ve got people moving around, working.”
Wallpaper is back
According to major home-design trade publications and market data, wallpaper is making a major comeback. The ability to print digital wallpaper has allowed unprecedented customization. Paulsen has a long history of hand-painted patterning, and more recently has gotten into the digital side.
“Patterning takes quite a while, especially if you do it by hand,” he said. “It varies on the scale. It can be anywhere from a month to six months, it depends. I’ve also done some digital wallpapers, which are easier.”
Patterning techniques can be mixed and matched. Some walls are done with hand-stamped wallpaper and finished with painting by hand. Whatever the technique, one must truly see hand-pattered wallpaper to believe its superior artistry over traditional printed wallpapers.
The latter is a mass-manufactured aggregation of ink, the former feels as if it has come from nature. Each handmade pattern element is ever-so-slightly unique, and in aggregate this creates the almost surreal effect of a perfectly repeating pattern in which no two parts are exact copies of each other.
Pricing the priceless
Paulsen said price “is a big variable, and it’s not based on their money, it’s based on the scope of the job. It can be $15,000 to $150,000.”
Besides the priceless experience of living within the art of your dreams, there are other benefits to investing in a one-of-a-kind piece by a renowned artist. “I’ve heard tell that sometimes my murals up the price of a home,” Paulsen said humbly.
Homeowners are well aware that costs and wait times for home services are through the roof thanks to inflation and supply chain woes. It may surprise you that the same challenges exist where the art world intersects with home improvement around mural installation.
“I wanted for months to get a roll of jute,” Paulsen said. “It used to be fairly cheap and easy to get. I waited for three months for it to arrive. It’s hard to get shellac and spray fixative. I’ve heard from designers that they’re having trouble getting material, and shipping has become prohibitively expensive.”
For now, the paint is still flowing, and the homeowners are still lining up, especially locally. “I do murals here, there, and everywhere. But with all the money that’s coming up to the Hudson Valley, I’m getting more work in the area,” he said.
If you’d like to take your place in modern art history by dedicating a room to Paulsen’s widely revered mural art, he can be reached at [email protected] or 845-338-8046.