Byron Peck is where he likes to be, doing what he likes to do: clinging to a ladder on a roof above the streets of Adams Morgan, finishing off his latest painting -- with a power drill.
A plume of maroon and cobalt blue pigment dust shoots out from where the drill bit bores into the artwork. The drill cuts deeper, and a cloud of red brick dust erupts from the wall behind, powdering the artist's forearm.
"I like soft brick," he says.
He has long since overcome any sentimentality about puncturing his creations a dozen or more times.
"That's the nature of the beast," he says. "You have to destroy a little to save a little."
The beast, in this case, is the unnervingly provisional profession of wall muralist. Peck used to simply paint murals on walls. No drilling was required to attach them. Over a 25-year career, he has created some of the best-known images adorning Washington's streetscape. You can't walk or drive far without beholding a Peck:
The iconic Duke Ellington portrait on U Street NW, the Frederick Douglass on Massachusetts Avenue NW, the Black Family Reunion collage on 14th Street NW, the kaleidoscopic Metro Center mural, the Dupont Circle fountain mural on Connecticut Avenue NW, the stiletto high heels at 22nd and M streets NW, the three macaws on Columbia Road NW, scenes of young people playing at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, and the bird-and-swimming pool -- a collaboration with muralist Cheryl Foster -- on I Street SW.
You also see his mark inside restaurants and offices. That's his portrait of a leering Dwight Eisenhower in a headdress holding a golf club in Chief Ike's Mambo Room in Adams Morgan and, more respectfully, George Washington gazing over the Potomac River on the wall of the visitors center at Mount Vernon.
He has covered nearly a football field's worth of Washington walls, and lately he has gone to work in Silver Spring, Rockville, Leesburg, Aberdeen, Md., Knoxville, Tenn., Jacksonville, Fla., and Los Angeles. Such a wide presence . . . yet the muralist feels life's evanescence more keenly than most. He pays $120 a gallon for his shot at immortality -- or at least a century, before the inevitable erasers of time and weather triumph. But even special paint isn't enough. Walls can be torn down or built over. Peck has lost four painted walls to the recent construction boom in the District.
So now he paints on quarter-inch concrete panels, then bolts them in place. He can rescue the art, if necessary.
Drill in hand, he calls the work in progress at 18th Street and Florida Avenue NW his Mayan Mural. The two central panels, totaling 64 square feet, give the illusion that hanging from the old brick wall is an ancient stone statue on a colorful tile background. Four more panels will complete the work.
A voice hollers from a car passing below. "Don't work too hard, Byron!" It's Foster, the fellow muralist. Peck, 50, is one of at least a dozen muralists active in the city -- but he is the most prolific, to the point of ubiquity.
He knows all that space doesn't belong to him. "It belongs to the community," he says.
He is trying to live forever on our walls.
If this portrait of the artist were in the style of a Peck mural, it would be a collage. It would play with picture planes and depth of field, so that the surface would appear to have images floating above it and vistas opening deep within it, or beyond it.
It would have a foreground frame -- say, an interrupted scene of the artist at work on a rooftop. Then it might cut away to a dairy farm near Herndon in the 1960s, where a boy was figuring out that milking cows was not for him. He'd rather draw.
He drew elaborately detailed works in ink. They were psychedelic, in tune with the times. In high school, his greatest triumph was when an exhibition of his drawings -- Tolkien-inspired -- temporarily displaced the trophies in the school sports showcase.
His parents supported his decision to go to an art college. Peck's father, Ben, and grandfather and uncle were dairy farmers. His mother, Margaret, was an elementary school teacher and administrator of Sully Plantation for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Eventually half the farm was sold for the construction of Dulles International Airport, the other half for a corporate office tower, and Ben became director of public works for Herndon.
At Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, many of Byron's professors were quasi-famous abstractionists from New York. They disdained his predilection for air-brushed illusionistic realism, but he got more satisfaction manipulating compositions of real objects and human figures. The style got him his first mural job while still in school. For a restaurant, he painted a train appearing to burst from the wall.
After a year designing window displays for department stores, he began painting full time. Commissions trickled in. The owners of the City Cafe at 22nd and M streets NW offered $8,000 for his first big outdoor mural in 1986. Aloft in a balky cherry picker, he painted those stiletto heels as if they were in a Polaroid snapshot lying on a tile table that was peeling away to reveal a view of the Mall from across the Potomac. The composition was 45 feet tall, with a tiny signature at the bottom, G. Byron Peck. The G stands for George.
"As soon as I was able to actually stand down and look up at a painting that big," he says, "that's when I knew this is something I really wanted to do."
Collage: snapshots from a tour of the city. The artist is driving his minivan with art detritus in back, stopping to appraise various works. Each has a story, symbolizing the tensions of art and commerce, private vision and public duty, destruction and renewal.
Duke Ellington. Based on a famous photograph, Peck's Ellington (1997) gazes with wisdom and defiance into eternity, from inside a faux gilt picture frame. Framed around the frame are piano keys and art deco motifs. It's one of Peck's simplest and most literal images, speaking directly to the neighborhood where Ellington grew up and played some of his first gigs.
"Most murals I've done have some sort of topical relationship to the neighborhoods they're going into as well as to the kids I'm working with," Peck says. "That's why I'm not a big fan of giant abstract public art that's not offensive but at the same time doesn't say very much. Representation and realism automatically bring up content and attitudes about what's important and not important to the neighborhood."
With Ellington, Peck perfected a system of production he has used on many murals. He raised $25,000 from a company (Mobil Oil, this time) and an additional $10,000 from the D.C. government. He invited high school art students to help conceive and execute the design. Over the years, he estimates he has painted with 140 students. "It's one step beyond the artwork," he says of these student workshop collaborations. "It makes the community a little more enriched."
Originally Peck's Ellington greeted people coming out of the U Street Metro station at 13th Street NW. A couple years ago, an office building went up and covered the wall. But Peck had already learned to paint on removable panels, so he moved the mural down U Street to the True Reformer Building, where Ellington played one of his first gigs. To make the 36-by-24-foot portrait fill the larger space, Peck had to add 12 feet of width. He extended the piano keys. The composition suffered, he thinks. But it survived.
Unlike the Frederick Douglass mural (1995). Peck gets out of the minivan at 12th and Massachusetts NW. Luxury apartments have been built flush against the red brick wall of the Swiss Inn. A few inches of the mural peek out from the new construction. "G. Byron Pe," reads the cryptic, cut-off signature.
On the Black Family Reunion mural (1994) at 14th and Florida NW is, strangely, a McDonald's logo. The company hired Peck for the job and insisted on the golden arches.
"I got a lot of criticism over accepting corporate money," Peck says. "What if the difference is between dancing with the devil and not doing anything at all?"
He danced. McDonald's paid about $15,000, and Peck got to employ three students and three artist assistants. The corporation suggested the reunion as the subject, but the design is Peck's, a collage of photos arranged on a tiled table, based on generations of family snapshots lent by a friend.
Peck figures McDonald's has received more than its money's worth. "I've been thinking of going up there after so many years and knocking the logo out," he says.
A picture of compromise is the three macaws mural (1994) at Columbia and Ontario roads NW. Peck had wanted to keep it simple, the colorful birds native to Central America alongside Mayan ceremonial motifs, a homage to the Latino residents of the neighborhood. But other neighbors wanted something more multicultural. Peck inserted an Asian dragon, African statues and a faux-Polaroid rainbow coalition of children. He considers this design artistically weaker -- but better than a blank wall.
Almost blank are the twin white-tiled tunnels where 12th Street SW passes under I-395. Only scribbles in black marker are visible as the minivan motors through. They are Peck's measurements for an ambitious work that has been stalled for three years.
The $290,000 city-funded Southwest Gateway project was to feature tunnels decorated with Peck's scenes of Washington's waterfront and a vast trick-of-the eye ceiling seemingly open to the sky with a beautiful woman peering down over the edge.
After approval by multiple layers of bureaucracy, in spring 2001 the project had to go before the Commission of Fine Arts, the federal design board. The chairman, the late J. Carter Brown, rejected Peck's realist images, largely because he thought they would distract motorists. He asked for a different approach.
Peck was annoyed. "I don't want to have my artwork redesigned by committee, which is why so much public art sucks," he vented after the hearing.
But now, having followed Brown's suggestions, he's feeling better. Rejection of the painted realism forced him to experiment and create colorful abstractions in mosaic, a material he's adding to other projects. A fabricator is assembling the mosaics, which are scheduled to be installed by next fall.
"Once you embrace that change, you accept it for what it is and move on," the muralist says. "Your interpretation of the feedback is where it goes to."
He insists that even his compromised designs pass what he considers the most important test of public art: "That it might make somebody stop, and think, and embrace those moments while they wonder: What's that thing doing on the wall there?"
A final snapshot: Peck is back in his studio, on the third floor of his Mount Pleasant rowhouse. The walls are papered with blueprints, sketches, half-painted panels for eight new murals in various stages of production. One is the $250,000 installation of mosaics and sculptures on and around the Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue underpass at Kenilworth Avenue NE, where he's working with high school students in the Corcoran Gallery's outreach program. There'll be scenes from the neighborhood, including a portrait of Burroughs, the pioneering educator.
All told, Peck's collage of painted walls has provided a good living. Depending on the flow of work, he estimates his annual income ranges from $50,000 to $90,000.
The artist is on the roof adding two more panels to the Mayan Mural.
With him are his longtime professional assistant, Ivo Koytchev, 33, and his father, Ben Peck, still climbing ladders at 84, as well as other helpers.
The new panels are geometric birds, painted with soft brush strokes to mimic the Guatemalan textiles that inspired them. Ultimately, the central panels of faux stone and tile will be framed by two panels of the fabric-like birds on each side, a total of 224 square feet.
Peck frets that the mural may look small and busy from the street. He designed it with students several years ago to go on another wall in Adams Morgan. Then the owner of that wall rented the space to a commercial billboard company instead. A second location fell through before Josh Gibson, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, helped Peck find the current spot, on the upper story of a bar.
"His images are so iconic in the community that to find out I have a mural specifically made for Adams Morgan that has sat in storage for three or four years was almost unbelievable news," Gibson says.
Now, standing on the roof, staring at his partial mural, Peck discusses with Koytchev ways to punch up the images, liberate them from the picture plane.
"A shadow on top of that one, and then a shadow on top of that one," Peck imagines. "Which would probably be lost to anybody on the street."
"A shadow over here, so you create a contradiction. . . .
"Which is about the time you say, 'Just get the thing done and go home.' "