Germantown’s Bird flies high as world-class muralist



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

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)

How to build a Homemade In-Ground Back Yard Pool / Spa - Germantown Philadelphia.

Our first year in the new house kept us busy, building the stone wall and clearing brush in the deep back yard. The second summer seemed hotter than ever before in Germantown, by August An old claw foot tub had been lying upside down in the tall weeds began to attract my attention. Cara and I employed it as a make shift water feature to survive the intense heat and humidity. Although we had to take turns in the tiny tub, we enjoyed it so much we decided that this was an idea that we needed to expand on and within a couple weeks we were pacing off and marking out an area in the yard. I believed at the time that this was going to be no more than a modest back yard splash pond.

Ok so its a plan, the next day we picked up a couple of shovels and started digging. We dug in the heat with great enthusiasm and while we worked we exchanged exciting ideas on how a little more work we could make it better...  so we dug some more. It seemed the more we dug the more great ideas we had! And just think... some people pay to exercise like this!

After throwing ideas (and dirt) around for several weeks we finally had carved out both a design and a 20 foot long 8 foot deep and 8 foot wide pit. We both agreed had no interest in the traditional backyard aqua blue monstrosity that most people picture when you say pool. We just want a place to cool off and float. and that it would be best if it did not look like anything more than an elegant garden reflecting pool. I said to Cara "Its going to be a sleeper" I explained to her that a "Sleeper is a street term for a car that you don't recognize as being super fast until the light changes.

She agreed, we want a sleeper.

Now we finally have a design, we decided we would build a six foot wide and six foot deep and 12 foot long "plunge chamber" with a shallow deck at one end and set it into a flagstone patio.

I sketched it up on the computer. to help with any estimates we might need to get.

Estimates for having it shot-creted were in the range of 12- 15 k!  So this really was going to have to be a "do it yourself" project for sure!

I studied many blogs and decided that for years similar projects could be and have been done with concrete block.

I decided to go with Ivany Block. Its a block that is specially designed to accept horizontal rebar as well as vertical. This block costs about 3 dollars a block but adds substantially more strength to the structure.

I calculated that about 300 blocks would cover the job and ordered a delivery from 

Fizzano Brothers


So now I've got the blocks, no turning back. But before we could start building we needed a strong foundation so that would require a lot more digging and that was not going to be done this year we will have to wrap things up and wait until spring.

After a major collapse of the hole during the winter, Spring began with a lot more digging and a massive timber reinforcement project to keep the project safe as we installed the foundation and block walls. The collapse turned out to be a blessing, It required gigging out allot more space than I was initially going to and now I will have about a 26"of work space behind the wall as I construct the pool. It will also give me some additional foundation which is recommended to provide stability behind a retaining wall.

Once the retaining boards were up I began setting the drains. Three feet apart and I installed a Hydrostatic pressure valve under the drain to the right to keep the pool from floating like a ship when and if the surrounding water table rose to high.

 I set the rebar for the foundation with a grid of heavy 5 bar at  8" centers and set super heavy vertical bars before poring the foundation to insure that the walls will not separate from the floor under the pressure of back fill. To make a footing, I dug a 12" deep trench under the foundation and filled it with stone and a course of concrete block. The footing fill in as we pour the foundation and provide even more strength to the walls and foundation bed.

Here comes the concrete! I ordered a soupy mix of high strength fiber reinforced Concrete. Because of the larger footprint and the footing the total pour was 11 cubic yards! 

As the walls began to rise, we could now for the first time see what we thing were building looks like, in other words, time to make adjustments. It was decided to extend the Sun Shelf from 3 to 6 x6 feet. I believe the additional length will make for a more accommodating shallow end and create a longer more elegant esthetic.

in order to keep stacking block during the endless spring rains we built a MASH unit.

5 more yards of concrete for the sun deck, this time all mixed in the drum...

Can you believe that some people pay to get this kind of work out? 

Blocks and bars of the sun deck,  This thing is really starting to take shape.

300 blocks will hold about 4 cubic yards of concrete. If I had bad dreams last sumer of endless digging, this year it will be of mixing, luging and pouring 80 lb. buckets of mortar into 6 foot deep holes.

 I skimmed the surface with s-mix and finished up with three coats of Ramuc EP Hi-Build Epoxy. I chose Sand color to create an exotic turquoise color when filled.

 I chose a blue stone cap from Robinson Flagstone for the perimeter. Butter the back of each section and set over the bonding onto a bed of grout.

A couple of days fiddling with the plumbing and

its time to start filling the pool. 

We finished the patio by mid September and with the addition of a 266k gass heater we will be enjoying our back yard pool well into November.

The thing I love most about Philadelphia is the Park

Sadly, many of the elegant structures and bridges in the Wissahickon have fallen into disrepair. Litter and dumping has been a problem for this environment from before I can remember and now a new level of neglect is starting to take hold. 

Once relegated to concrete abutments and train yards in town, a number of vandals have moved their campaign of blight into our parks. Spray tagging is beginning to appear on many of the stone walls, steps, foundations and natural surfaces along the creek

As a landscape painter I have looked to the bridges along the Wissahickon and the Schuylkill as the primary subject of my oil paintings.

These majestic structures have always captivated my attention and respect and it saddens me to see them defaced.

As a professional faux and mural painter I  have been using


 techniques for years to "antique" brand new restaurants, making new walls look old, transforming iron security gates into mahogany and making plywood look like marble. I also paint theatre and movie sets, employing paint effects to give a sense of realism to surfaces that would other wise "not fit the scene". 

It occurred to me some time ago that the techniques I provide for my clients, if modified, would be a perfect way to restore the landscape. 

This year I decided to put that idea to work.

The trick to successful faux is color. The process begins with accurately matching a base color and subsequent glaze colors. Then its a mater of layering and stippling the colors together to replicate the surrounding texture. When you can no longer see it, you know you've got it.

Often I have to apply the base one day and return to glaze the area the next. 

Access is difficult, I often find myself climbing thru stickers and over icy, wet ledges to get to the area, add a couple gallons of paint , rollers, spray bottles and brushes and it becomes 

a good work out!

Ironically when done correctly, faux finishing is impossible to detect and so my efforts (

unless pointed out) 

disappear into the scenery, This is of course my goal, but it makes 

promoting the project unusually difficult. 

I have a meeting with Jane Golden's office next month and I hope among other things, to gain access to  the SEPTA and Con-rail bridges that span the 

Schuylkill River /I76. 

If I am successful in that effort it will be noticed by virtually every one!  I hope that telling this story might inspire able bodied citizens to get out doors,  volunteer and help restore this world class park that is truly unique to our city. 

Thank you again!


My number is 


My web site is

(see faux)

I liked off my biannual effort at Lincoln and Ridge Avenue this morning.  Immediate removal is the only way to break a vandals will to continue hitting these surfaces. If you or someone  you know is interested in helping out with material donations, an account titled "Anti Graffiti" is being handled by Russel Jr. at Killian's Hardware, Chestnut hill.

Making a Walnut slab bench table with Bow Tie inlay

On a recent trip thru the Pocono Mountains I decided to stop at lewis lumber in Picture Rocks, PA. Turns out they had just received a delivery that included a wonderful selection of rough cut American Walnut slabs. I decided the time had come to try my hand at a bench or table in the style of George Nakashima.

I look care selecting the slab from about 20 beautiful pieces. I selected a 6 feet 4" long slab and tied it to roof of the jeep. In the studio I spent some time sketching my design based on the feel and look of the slab I selected. I decided to have it stand at 18".
I wanted to try to produce 4 compound angle tenon legs out of Hickory. Before drilling holes into this beautiful piece of wood I recalled a joinery method used by Paul McCobb in the
1950's to secure a similar bench leg. Employing this method I made 4 mounting bases for my tenon legs. This allowed me to adjust the angle and placement of the legs prior to fastening and reduced the possibility of a misplaced hole or bad angle.

I marked the depth on each leg, cut the shoulder on the band saw and used a chisel to trim them round to the depth of my cut. In preparing the slab, I stripped the bark with steel wool and sanded the surface with 3 courses of paper 80, 120, 220. then mounted the legs and made some small length adjustments until it stood firm and level.

One quintessential detail and ultimate challenge for me was to include a hand carved butterfly inlay over a split at one end of the plank. I considered purchasing a router jig to do this but decided at the last minute that the look achieved using a router was to mechanical, also I don't care for the template shapes provided in the kits, moreover I want this bench to show off my abilities not my router's.

The trick to making a clean and flush butterfly inlays is to first design and shape your hardwood inlay piece, I made a couple of sketches and produced one out of
soft wood just to get a feel for the size and look of my pattern.
I chose Ebony to make my butterfly because its very hard and will provide elegant contrast against the deep brown Walnut. I cut it out of a piece of Ebony stock on my band saw. position your stock so the butterfly's grain will intersect the repair. I'm careful to cut slightly outside the lines so can use a file to chase it up and create perfectly straight clean edges. I used a metal file to angle the sides inward slightly so that the footprint of the piece will be slightly smaller
than the top. Position the piece and trace its outline with a marking blade or scribe. Obviously this is a critical step - it cant move and the angle of your marking blade must be maintained all the way around the perimeter.
Cut out with a flat sharp chisel making sure to produce a flat bottom and straight vertical walls that are the same depth as your inlay material.

Apply some glue to the center of your piece and carefully
hammer it in using a board to protect the surface of your wood, clamp it and
let it dry for 12 hrs.

The next day I sand it flush and its done.

I used a 50/50 mix of Boiled Linseed oil and applied this liberally with a rag fully saturating the surface for 24 hrs. then applied liberal coats once a day for a week. The color of the wood became dark and even and the grain filled in beautifully. To produce a super smooth finish I wet sanded the surface with my last coat of oil and 400 grit sand paper. I finished the whole bench with oil based poly urethane and gave it a couple more passes with 400g and fin.

Scenic work for movie set - Law Abiding Citizen

I got my introduction to the world of movie set production this week. I was brought on to the set of "Law Abiding Citizen" staring Jamie Fox and Gerard Butler. The scenic department needed assistance faux painting two action sets on the last two days before filming. The set was constructed in a huge warehouse in south west Philadelphia.

both "subterranean" sets were actually entirely free standing wood fabricated structures.
All the stone, brick and mortar is made of vacuum formed sheets and stapled into place, our job was to faux it all to look like the real thing.

The gates and cell doors are all brand new iron work and custom made on site, then faux painted to look ancient and rusted. Due to filming requirements, every thing had to be fire proof, so we were strictly limited to water based materials. I worked from sketches on site ...

The schedule was crazy. We started each 15 hour day at 7:00 am with two coffee breaks and a 45 minute lunch break in between

It was the most intensive two days of faux painting I've ever done and I'm hooked! I hope very much to be doing more movie painting in the future.

To see more of my work please visit

Portrait painting at studio Incamminati

I started a Monday night portrait painting class with Kerri Dunn, My goal is to learn some new approaches to handling color and value, and reestablish some existing skills that have weakened since I started to work exclusively in Acrylic. I haven’t done much in oil since the Academy.  I know that simply doing the work is the only way to achieve my goals.  My busy schedule has made it far to easy to put the brush down when I’m done the clients work, and for that my fine art skills have suffered. 

So each Monday night at 5:30 tired or not I’m finding my way to Studio Incamminati for three hours of pretty intense study from a live model, This is the final model pose for this class, it will be a four night study.

This is what I achieved on the first night, I’m using Ultra marine and Burnt Sienna on a medium ground linen canvase with clear gesso. The Belgian linen is a bit rough. The goal here is to develop the drawing and establish values. I’d forgotten how nice the oil is to work with, great for removing and adjusting the tone.

I'll continue to post my progress each Tuesday for the next three weeks.
To see more of my work please visit

Upholstering an Eames style Plycraft Lounge

I've wanted to own an original Eames lounge chair and ottoman for years and since they cost 3,500 new and even more used, I'll probably wish I had one for the rest of my life. 
A beat to hell knock off found on the side of the road is right up my alley. I began by taking the entire chair apart and removing all the old leather, buttons and piping (about 10,00 staples hold it all in place). It makes sense to save all the parts and pieces as they will be used for templates and provide a road map to put it all together again. I bought New high density foam at Katz in Philadelphia 857 N 5th street (much cheaper than in the fabric district).
I decided to use black vinyl because its cheap and won't be a problem if my cats decide to work on the chair when I'm done. A lounge chair takes about 6 yards. You need a zipper foot on the sewing machine to remake the piping and can find directions on You tube. 
I got a button dye at the fabric store for half inch buttons. you just cut one inch squares of vinyl and pop new buttons with a hammer. Shape the foam with a sharp serrated bread knife, put it in place and apply a layer of new batting. cover foam with your new vinyl shapes and use a staple gut to attach. Carefully locate the button placement and punch new holes threw the foam and attach to the backing board with heavy cord, staple on back.
 The arm pads are the tricky part and because I wanted to add a second bead of piping to the arm rests, I subbed the sewing out to my assistant Lila who makes hand made shoes. When they were finished they are fitted over new foam and stapled to the wood forms. I sourced the caped round based T nuts from a place in Chicago called EFC International (exact match to the originals) 
I sanded down the edges of the molded plywood chair backs and finished them with Antique gel stain to provide a visual contrast like on the new Herman miller chairs. New Plycraft chair parts such as; Swivel rockers and base can be found at swivel-chair-parts .com

Because I prefer a vintage look and I don't want the chair to look new, I simply oiled the wood forms to freshen it up and remove any dusty looking abrasions. Basically then I just screwed it all back together and I was done!

To see more visit

War Bird - Restoring the battalion Insignia on a vintage WW2 RAF Spitfire

On Jan 28 I got a call from my client to come down to his Aircraft hanger and help with something he needed fixed on one of his planes.  I walked into a hanger filled with beautiful vintage aircraft. I was told that the RAF spitfire had been recently restored and shipped from England and had one final flaw that needed fixing before she could be flown. "The 28th Squadron's  insignia thats painted on the side of my plane looks like the donkey from Shrek!"
Honored and more than a little nervous, I began by carefully removing Shrek. It was extremely important not to damage the original field of white as it was painted with a specialized epoxy that had been sprayed directly to the plane's aluminum fuselage. Repainting the white square would require masking out the entire aircraft and spraying it out again.

Historically these planes were embellished by "fly boys" who used whatever paint might have been laying around the air field. I decided to use "OneShot" sign painters enamel because its durable and slow drying enough to manipulate the image as I work. When painting with enamel you need to be careful not to brush the surface to much because it does start to skin over. Because the white field of paint is completely cured, I can "edit" my freshly painted lines to perfection using a clean brush loaded with pure mineral spirits and a rag. 

Utilizing this removal technique requires that you let each layer cure overnight so that the solvent does not eat into the previous layers of paint. Its time consuming but the finished work has super clean lines and smooth flat color fields. 
to see more visit