Watertown artist creates Obama mural

Steve Bagley

Mike Mandel, an Obama supporter, is telling his whole neighborhood.

No, he’s not going door to door extolling “hope” and “change you can believe in,” he’s letting the seven-and-a-half foot tall mosaic portrait of Obama on his porch do the talking for him.

Mandel, a nationally recognized mosaic artist, just happens to live in Watertown, and he just happens to be an ardent Obama supporter.

“What I can do is to use my creativity to make a strong statement visually. It gives me a lot of great satisfaction to know that I can do that,” he said.

For Mandel, the art is also directly related to the political process. With glowing golden hues painting Obama’s face, the candidate appears ennobled, and immortalized in stone. “The fact that people are driving by, they get to see my design, that is a celebration of Obama, it makes him look patriotic, an uplifting feeling of what he represents, to me that feels like I’ve done something to enhance the campaign.”

“As a citizen, if you can do something that is an expression of your commitment to your ideals, it makes you feel better as a person,” Mandel said. “It makes you feel like you’re making a contribution.”

Responses have been largely positive, he said. People living near him on Maplewood Street would come knock on his door to thank him for making the mural, he said. Drivers slow down and look, and so far no McCain supporters have voiced problems with it. Though Mandel does worry about vandalism, he said he hoped people who do not support Obama would be respectful of his art.

The artist employed three of his Tufts students to build the mosaic, over the course of about a week. The three students laid half of the tiles in three hours, and Mandel and his wife completed the image over the course of the next several days, laying 4,320 tiles into the 4-foot by 7 1/2 foot piece a section at a time. Each section, one foot by two feet, took Mandel an hour from start to finish.

To the eyes of passers-by, the art may look huge and impressive, but Mandel brushed the piece off as “tiny.”

“All the other mosaics are, the one I did for the Atlanta Federal Center, was 30 feet tall and 130 feet long,” Mandel said. That project took him years, including months for background research and six months of construction, using six contractors working around the clock on installation.

That project, “Sitting Down at Rich’s” was completed in 2001, on the wall of Georgia’s Sam Nunn Atlanta Federal Center. The mosaic illustrates the sit-in by African Americans at Rich’s Department Store, which used to be located where the Federal Center sits now. It depicts, in part, Martin Luther King, Jr. being led away by police after leading the sit-in at the department store’s lunch counter.

Though conceding the political overtones to that piece, Mandel said most of his public art needs to not be too in-your-face. “It has to have a quieter kind of existence, so that people will be able to live with it.”

With the Obama piece, Mandel tried to keep to that. “What I chose to do was to make Obama look more tender, and full of American tradition.”

The piece will be up at least until the November elections, Mandel said.