Behind the Scenes With GA’s Chalk Artist + New Boston Campus

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General Assembly Chalk Murals Obama NYC Casey Opstad

Chalk artist Casey Opstad with his mural of President Barack Obama at GA’s New York City headquarters.

When you set foot in any of General Assembly’s campuses around the globe, one of the first things you’ll notice is the prominence of chalk art. Each campus has vivid murals of local innovators, from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in New York, to early computer programmer Ada Lovelace in London, to civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta.

We believe our surroundings affect how we learn, and GA’s chalk art is one way we’ve created a positive environment that inspires students, instructors, and staff while also honoring our communities’ powerful roots.

Most of the chalk portraits across our campuses were drawn by the Philadelphia-based artist Casey Opstad, who got his start using chalk as a medium here at GA after earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in drawing from the University of North Dakota and a Masters in painting from the Minneapolis College of Design.

As General Assembly expands to new locations, Opstad’s work will continue to inspire people around the globe. After four years growing a GA community at a coworking space in Boston (nearly 40,000 students have walked through our doors and 1,700 have graduated from our full- and part-time courses there) — we’re thrilled to announce a new dedicated campus that shines with GA’s distinct personality. Opstad has marked our new Boston digs with portraits of pioneering nurse and American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, former Boston Red Sox slugger David “Big Papi” Ortiz, Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy, and other local heroes.

We spoke with Opstad about the merits of chalk as a medium, how environment can shape a person, and the artists that inspire him.

How does art play a role in a community space?

I think environment shapes you. If you live in New York you’re going to be a different person than if you live in South Dakota. GA invests in architecture and making sure you have the right energy, and I think that’s important.

General Assembly Chalk Murals Boston Leonard Nimoy

Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy at GA’s new Boston campus. Photo by Casey Opstad.

How did you start working with chalk?

Chalkboard walls are nice because they’re huge canvases. I like [working with chalk] because it’s temporary — it’s not meant to be here forever. If you’re bored with it you can change it and make something else — and in five years, your taste has probably changed a little bit. When drawing with white or drawing the highlights, it takes a second to realize it’s not drawing in black, which is what we’re normally used to.

I went to college for drawing and graduate school for painting. On the day Steve Jobs passed away, GA contacted me and asked, “Could you come do a picture of Steve Jobs?” I did, it was well received, and they asked me to do a portrait every two weeks for a year. That was when GA was a coworking space, so there were companies based here. When the other companies started moving away, I got a lot of different jobs through GA. I’ve done work for Bit.ly, Venmo, PayPal, and others.

General Assembly Chalk Art Boston David Ortiz

Boston Red Sox slugger David “Big Papi” Ortiz at GA’s new Boston campus. Photo by Casey Opstad.

What’s your chalk art process? How do you actually get it from this portrait to the wall?

I’ll send the client different designs through Photoshop, which has some really good filters for adjusting a drawing to make it black and white. I try to pick images without contrast to create that illusion a little bit better too. All it is, is just drawing white. I’ll give options to the client, and then I set up a projector to display the image on the wall so people can determine the positioning and they know what they’re getting.

What special tools and tricks do you need to do this well in any given space?

The projector is important. Painters have always used lenses and technology. There’s a whole documentary on Johannes Vermeer, Penn & Teller’s Tim’s Vermeer, that shows he probably used a camera obscura for projecting back in the 17th century. [In the film, inventor Tim Jenison replicates a Vermeer painting using a similar technique.] When he finishes the replica, it’s really meticulous and really well done but there’s no life to it. I think that’s important when drawing in chalk — when to stop, how to put energy and life into it too. I think that’s true with painting and art in general.

General Assembly Chalk Art Boston Clara Barton

Pioneering nurse and American Red Cross founder Clara Barton at GA’s new Boston campus. Photo by Casey Opstad.

What other art are you doing besides chalk?

I just moved to Philadelphia so the idea I came up with was to take canvas and do plein air [the act of painting outdoors], go out into the public and to parks and paint, and give out business cards. It’s a good way to get to know and really experience the city. Moving to a new city and not knowing anyone, I need that interaction and to get out of the house and do this work. I recently took a painting back to the North Dakota Museum of Art for their art auction, so I’m also doing stuff like that.

Which artists inspire you?

Recently I really like David Hockney. He does plein air painting. He’s hot right now, but he also sort of rallies against Photoshop, how Photoshop makes everything look the same. I use Photoshop, I don’t have any issue with it, but if everything looks that way it does become sort of boring. I really like Jeanne-Claude and Christo too — I was in New York when they put up The Gates, [orange vinyl gates installed across Central Park in 2005]. For me, The Gates was a special experience. It transcends gallery and it was all about people interacting. I really like interactive work that involves people, for the most part. Being in the studio is all right, but I think it’s hard to sometimes engage people from the high end — who are really educated in culture — to the lower end. When you’re painting in the park, there’s something in people where they like to talk to somebody drawing, or you see somebody painting and they’re like, “Oh, I’ll talk to this person.”

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley, the first published African American poet, at GA’s new Boston campus. Photo by Casey Opstad.

In addition to the new Boston murals, Opstad recently added President Barack Obama to GA’s NYC headquarters (pictured at top). At GA, we believe that everyone should have access to world-class computer science education. That’s why we work with and support policymakers like Obama and others who have expressed an unwavering commitment to creating opportunities in tech. See a time-lapse video of Opstad’s work below, shared in conjunction with our fundraising initiative for Black Girls CODE, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide young and preteen girls of color access to STEM education.

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