Chestnut Hill Local (Philadelphia, PA)
by Len Lear
DATE: April 7, 2016
By no means am I an art expert, but I did have some great art courses in college with a superb professor and learned to appreciate, among other works, the magnificent murals by some of the greatest craftsmen/woman in art history, such as Thomas Hart Benton, Claude Monet, Michelangelo, Violet Oakley, Jose Orozco, Titian, Raphael, Diego Rivera, John Singer Sargent and Leonardo da Vinci, among many others.
But among muralists working in the last several decades, I do not think any could surpass Zack Bird, 47, a fifth-generation artist from Germantown whose stunning murals can be seen at the more than two dozen Palm Restaurants nationwide as well as in the Rittenhouse Square section of the city and in Northwest Philly at historic homes like Cliveden and many private residences.
Kilian’s Hardware in Chestnut Hill, which is almost as historic as Cliveden, has sold handmade Amish oak and cedar pieces that Bird was then contracted to paint. “I was doing tons of residential work like kids' bedrooms,” he said in an interview in mid-March, “but when the housing market collapsed in 2008, I lost it all overnight. I had to reinvent my business.”
Bird has made a living creating commissioned murals, commercial and residential, decorative painting, faux-finishing and restoration through his Smartwork Studio and Bird Studio. He has studied ancient techniques and refined his skill and technique to fill a niche. He said the detailed and ornate wood and stonework he has learned to work with is something many common craftsmen produced 100 years ago. “These are kind of lost arts,” he said.
Bird’s faux work includes Faux Emperor marble columns and an old Wissahickon schist stone fireplace. His mural work includes a “Where the Wild Things Are” scene painted on a client’s guest bathroom wall and a Japanese garden scene in another client’s family room.
Bird was raised in Mt. Airy next to the Houston School, which he attended. He graduated from the Creative School of the Performing Arts in 1988, where in homeroom he learned to beat box from classmates who later became members of R&B group Boyz II Men. Then he studied for three years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA).
Zack was born into a long line of artists starting with great-uncle, French painter Victor Nehlig (1830-1909), continuing with his great-grandfather Frank Bird, a draftsman; grandfather William Frank Bird, an illustrator; father William Barwell Bird (born 1940) and mother Bronwyn Bell Bird (born 1942), also a portrait artist and oil painter.
Art has been part of Zack’s life since he was born, but after graduating from PAFA, “I very quickly realized financially it wasn’t working out.” He had school loans and other bills to pay, so he worked on a smorgasbord of forms such as welding, sculpting, casting and pastel. His friends called him “Zack of All Trades.”
“The stronger you get as a sculptor, the more effective you will be in drawing and painting,” said Zack, who has also painted impressionistic scenes of the Wissahickon and Delaware Valley.
He moved to Atlanta in 1992 and worked as art director for various ad agencies. In Atlanta, he was selected as chief mural artist for the Palm Restaurants. Circumstances after 9/11 delayed Palm’s opening of three new restaurants, which gave Bird the opportunity to pursue his lifelong ambition of founding his own mural and faux painting business.
“I think curiosity is probably the one thing that binds creative people together,” said Bird. “I love the mysteries of antiquity.”
Perhaps that explains why he spends much of his time steeped in old books researching and learning old techniques.
My interview with Bird took place last month at a vacant property at 8514 Germantown Ave. Owner Richard Snowden allowed him to use a wall there to paint a mural 44 feet long and six feet high of a Denver, Colorado, scene on a canvas. That canvas was then removed, placed in a huge plumbing tube and sent by air last Saturday to Colorado, where it will be installed at the Palm Restaurant in Denver.
“Mr. Snowden has been very generous,” said Bird. “He is a patron of the arts. He charged me a minimal symbolic figure. For the Denver wall, I spent 20 hours digitally for the layout and 150 hours after that just painting. I get paid by the square foot and level of complexity. As much as $50 to $100 per square foot. This will be the longest one I’ve done for the Palm. My only longer one was for Chops Restaurant, which was eight feet tall and 45 feet long.”
Zack Bird's family has created caricatures for Palm Restaurants for decades. Palm Philly closed Feb. 29 in the Hyatt at the Bellevue, Broad and Walnut Streets. It will reopen late 2016 or early 2017. It will feature a hand-painted wall by Zack of Philly's famous landmarks overlooking the dining room. “They are moving away from caricatures of Philly people to an extent,” said Zack.
“Many are deceased and no longer remembered. My mother did many of them. I took Bill Cosby and O.J. Simpson off the wall in Philly. Somebody had glued a steak knife to O.J.'s hand. People critical to the restaurant, though, will still be there. There is an element of antiquity there, the ink and brush style of old cartoonists.”
In addition to his paid jobs, Bird also has taken it upon himself as a volunteer to paint over graffiti on walls, bridges and other public spaces such as a wall near Cresheim Creek, train trestles on the Chestnut Hill East and West rail lines and structures along Kelly and Lincoln Drives.
Bird lives in Germantown with his wife, Cara, who was a nurse at Jefferson Hospital but now does ceramics, and son, Lachlan, 16 months old.
For more information, call 215-605-3269 or visit www.bird studio.com.
Caption: Zack paints a sign at Mama's Wellness Joint, a maternity-wellness-yoga center at 1100 Pine St. in center city.
Bird created this mural for a private residence in Princeton, New Jersey.
This is the Michael J. Strange mural at Clearfield and Belgrade in Fishtown. Bird volunteered his services to honor Michael, who was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2011.
This is a mural Bird recently created for a renovation of the Palm restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia.
Zack spent several weeks on this mural at 8514 Germantown Ave. that was then shipped by air to Colorado last Saturday, where it will soon be on a wall at the Palm restaurant in Denver. (Photo by Len Lear)
This is the Capitol building in Denver, one segment of the 44-foot long mural Bird painted last month on a wall in Chestnut Hill that was then shipped to Denver.
(Photo by Len Lear)