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Scott Haynes and Anne Elisabeth Hogh have a habit of ignoring boundaries.
The South Evanston neighbors have been fast friends since their children (now in their teens and 20s) attended Lincoln School together.
Unlike the suspicious New Englander and his stubborn aphorism – “Good fences make good neighbors” – in Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” Mr. Haynes is comfortable with giving his artist neighbor free access to his home.
Building on their relationship of mutual trust, Mr. Haynes, a musician and technology architect who came from Silicon Valley in 2000, last spring commissioned the Danish-born painter to create a work of art that would cover a mural near his front door.
He gave her “complete artistic control,” Ms. Hogh says. “He is the best friend you can find,” she continues. “It takes a lot for someone to allow you to work inside their space.”
Sometime later a mermaid, blue-haired and golden, washed ashore on the waves of the artist’s imagination and took up residence in the entrance hall of Mr. Haynes’ 1890s-era historically accurate Queen Anne Victorian home.
The sculpture, says the artist, was in part a rebuttal to a statement issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration denying the existence of mermaids. Ms. Hogh objected to “our dreams [being] taken away,” she says. “You have to have dreams.”
Her response took the form of a three-dimensional piece that intertwines the real and the imagined, the prescribed and the audacious.
Maybe this mermaid relates to The Little Mermaid of Copenhagen, suggests the reporter. “People touch her for good luck,” says the artist. Or perhaps Lake Michigan served as inspiration. Yes and no, she seems to say.
“I am watery,” Ms. Hogh, enigmatic, replies. She turns to the lake when she is upset, she says, finding it “the most calming and most powerful thing.”
Whatever her origins, Ms. Hogh’s mermaid “breaks all the rules of being square,” she says. Not to be constrained, she emerges in three dimensions from the flat wall beneath the staircase, tendrils of her long, long hair escaping to wrap around the molding of the adjacent doorway.
“As children, we have no frames,” the artist continues. “Then we learn to work inside [the frame]. It takes the rest of life to break the rules again.”
Ms. Hogh began by preparing and painting the wall behind the mermaid, layering thick swaths of acrylic paint in shades of blue and white. Where the top of the wall meets the stair molding, drips of dark blue paint sparkle with glitter like water on a sunny day.
Upstairs, Mr. Haynes shows off a huge painting where the artist has used paint with similar abandon. Richly textured like the mermaid, the untitled work has swirling patterns of paint reminiscent of water and waves. In the kitchen Ms. Hogh showcased her fondness for color (a warm, deep red) and an agility with faux finishes (copper brush strokes) she brings to bear on various commercial projects.
The sculptural figure of the magical mermaid herself, applied to the wall on top of the painted background, is a plaster cast of a very real woman – someone Ms. Hogh calls “my model, supporter, brain and best friend, Claire [Bruhn].”
The process of creating a body cast involves the use of gauze strips infused with plaster, Ms. Bruhn says. The artist wets the strips, then molds them to the body of the model. They dry very quickly – in 10-20 minutes. When the cast of Ms. Bruhn’s torso was complete, it was lifted from her body. The head was cast separately. Then artist and assistant fixed the cast to the wall with more gauze strips.
Meanwhile Mr. Haynes, who works from home, was recording the event, snapping dozens of pictures with his cell phone whenever he took a cigarette break. “It was fun to see the process,” he says. He mostly watched in silence, he says, and “didn’t ask too many questions.”
His biggest question was how to know when the sculpture was finished. That, it became clear, was for the artist to decide.
The piece was taking shape before her eyes as well. Ms. Hogh says she did not begin with a clear notion of how the mermaid would look in the end. Mr. Haynes ceded control of the project to her, and then she in turn strived for a “letting go,” she says, a giving herself over to the medium. “You can’t control the drips as much on the wall,” she says. “You can’t tell what it will look like, working with color, drips.”
From the point of view of Mr. Haynes, the mermaid could have been “finished” at many points along the way. It looked finished to him in unpainted white plaster. “It would’ve had to be white walls,” says the artist.
“All blue – it could’ve been done,” he says. “But it needed the underpainting,” says Ms. Hogh, “the reds and tans, the contrast colors to bring the others out.”
In the end the mermaid was washed with gold.
Ms. Bruhn says of seeing her gilded likeness, “It’s weird – me and not me.” Though she has modeled for “a couple hand casts” before, this is her first experience as a body double.
As for her friend and patron, Ms. Hogh calls him “a good supporter of the arts.” Mr. Haynes is more than a casual sponsor. Of the mermaid and the other art that grace his meticulously restored historic home, he says, “I’d sell the art for $1 million and [give] the house away for free.”