WATERLOO, Iowa — Paco is down to his last prophet.
He stands on a 6 1/2-foot scaffold surveying the image of Joel, and the few unpainted blotches left on a 2,511-square-foot ceiling. He pulls a paint-spray respirator over his goatee and shakes an aerosol can, the metal ball inside rattling noisily. He leans back and begins to spray brown paint--pfft, pfft, pfft--in quick strokes of his left hand on the plaster ceiling.
And here it is in downtown Waterloo, a heck of a long way from Rome. The river here is not the Tiber, but the Cedar. The artist is not Michelangelo, but Paco Rosic, 27, a refugee of the Bosnian war. The medium this time is spray paint. But the likeness to the Renaissance original is striking, and unmistakable.
Rosic began the painting in July in a historic building that his family is converting to a restaurant and gallery. After studying photos of Michelangelo's work so long that it showed up in his dreams, Rosic laid down a foundation of almond-colored spray paint and tried not to think what he was getting himself into.
"If you think too much, you're going to kill your head," Rosic said. "I just started doing it. Then, every once in a while, I would stop and look and think, `Oh wow!' I would freak out a little. `What am I doing?'"
All summer, curious onlookers stopped by as Rosic put in 10-to-15-hour days spray-painting the ceiling amid the noisy hammers and drills of construction work.
"Have you ever seen anything like this?" asked Ron Fiacco, manager of an AG Edwards office next door. "It's tremendous."
At first Rosic lay on his back to spray the ceiling, but the extra scaffolding scratched the floor, so he switched to standing up and bending backward. He stopped counting after he went through 2,000 cans of Krylon paint and spent more than $6,000 of his savings.
And in the next few weeks, he will finish it: nine Genesis stories, seven prophets and five sybils spread over 81 feet by 31 feet--almost the square footage of a tennis court.
"This is what I live for," Rosic explains simply. "Just to paint. Nothing else."
The young artist's work--and the scale--is impressive, said illustrator Gary Kelley, who lives in nearby Cedar Falls and has been published in the New Yorker, Time and Rolling Stone.
"To do it for yourself, just because you had to do it, just because it was something you felt you had to do, says a lot about it," said Kelley. " . . . That's a lot of uncomfortable work. It's fun to see that kind of passion and commitment to a project."
It did leave Rosic, who is energetic and slim, exhausted and sore. "I was falling apart," he said. "I suffered in this project." He would hold his right hand under his left elbow for support as he reached up to the 14-foot-high ceiling.
"One night, he couldn't even lift his fork," said his girlfriend, Tara Anderson, an acupuncturist. Her needles, he says, revived him after the hardest days. "She fixed me," he said.
That was one advantage Michelangelo did not have as he labored through the four-year original almost five centuries ago. Rosic also was able to cover space quicker than Michelangelo could in fresco, a painting on fresh moist plaster. The spray paint also ends up brighter and less precise along the lines.
Here's another difference between Rosic and the master. He switches on a radio and blasts rap music.
"I haven't done this in a long time," he says.
Then he flips over onto a headstand beneath his version of The Creation of Adam, one of the most familiar images in all of art: God's finger outstretched to Adam's. Rosic splays his legs and begins to twist on his head, his fingers reaching down to the tile floor on each revolution to push off and keep him spinning.
Rosic is a break dancer. A good one. And that ability put him on a twisty path into his own Sistine Chapel that started when his mother showed him a photo of the ceiling as a small child growing up in Sarajevo.
"I was so amazed," he said. "I had this my whole life in my head. As I kept growing and growing, those images kept popping up in my head."
A refugee's escape
When Yugoslavia broke apart in a vicious civil war that split along ethnic lines, his family fled: his father is Muslim, his mother a Catholic-Orthodox mix. They bribed soldiers on the front lines and made their way to Germany.
Rosic was 11. In Mannheim he discovered hip-hop and learned to break dance.
He fell in with a group of friends who called themselves The Unique Wizards and competed in dance contests. "I used to dance 24/7," he says.
took as his own as a tribute. (Rosic's given name is Evelin.) Around Mannheim, he began "tagging," spraying his name illegally all over town, on walls, tunnels, trains.
In 1997 his family moved to Waterloo, where his aunt had come as a refugee from the war. Bosnians gravitated to the city and formed a community; many found jobs at an IBP meatpacking plant.
The family started all over again. Rosic, then 18, turned to his spray paint for solace, spending countless hours in his parents' garage, elevating his ability from graffiti to a style he now calls "abstract realistic."
"I was depressed for two years," he recalls. "The only way I survived was painting. I don't know what I would be without painting. This is how I get rid of stress."
He settled on Krylon because their cans did not jam up in the cold Iowa winters. He never had formal training but learned how to layer colors to achieve different tones. He discovered that an almost empty can produces finer lines because the pressure is low and the paint buildup restricts the spray hole.
As his ability improved, Rosic sold paintings and won local commissions. When his parents decided to leave their grocery store jobs and start a restaurant of their own, Rosic saw his opportunity. The family bought a former antique shop with sizable ceiling space and Rosic visited Rome, sneaking photos of Michelangelo's work.
Then he scoured the Cedar Valley--from Wal-Marts to hobby shops--to buy spray paint.
"I'd just clean the store out," he said. "They couldn't order enough."
Later, Krylon caught wind of the project and decided to sponsor it, shipping paint cans by the six-pack. Word spread around Waterloo--and beyond.
His work is key to an emerging cultural district in a factory town perhaps best known for the five Sullivan brothers killed when their ship sank in World War II, said Main Street Waterloo Executive Director Terry Poe Buschkamp.
"You hear about it and you say, `What's that about?'" she said. "But you take just one look at it and you see it's just beautiful. I imagine there will be coach buses coming from all over. It's cheaper than flying to Italy."
Rosic says he has developed a new appreciation for what Michelangelo accomplished, physically and mentally, and hopes next to paint a kind of American version of the Sistine Chapel, using modern figures to depict biblical scenes on an even larger scale.
But he feels no desire to move again, even to a bigger city where he could compete in the art world's fast lane. Waterloo is his home now.
"To me, if you get your name in a little city, the big city will come to you," he said.
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Looking up to one of the masters
A 27-year-old Waterloo, Iowa, man has been working for months on a half-scale version of Michelangelo's masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel ceiling.