A Can-Do Painter's Creation
This Iowa graffiti artist is no Michelangelo, yet folks look up to him as he replicates the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the medium he knows best.
WATERLOO, Iowa — Lying on industrial scaffolding, his legs dangling 12 feet above the ground, graffiti artist Paco Rosic reaches for a can of leather brown paint. With a quick, rattling shake, he squeezes the nozzle and adds subtle highlights to the hand of God reaching for Adam.
Paco is using 12-ounce cans of spray paint to fulfill his lifelong obsession: to re-create one of the world's greatest artistic works -- Michelangelo's fresco on the Sistine Chapel ceiling -- in his own street style.
Paco and his family have spent their life savings, and his parents have taken a second mortgage on their home, to buy a dilapidated building in this sleepy Midwestern downtown, about two hours northeast of Des Moines.
They paid $67,000 in January for the two-story, 1870s brick building that once housed an antiques store. The shop's ceiling wasn't curved, so the family hired workers to tear it down and create a plaster one that, at its highest point, is gently arched 14 feet above the floor. Paco ended up with 2,511 square feet of blank space.
He has spent the last four months reproducing a nearly half-scale replica of the fresco illustrating the birth of man and early Christian history, including nine scenes from the Book of Genesis and seven Old Testament prophets.
When he started, he carried a sketch of the Sistine Chapel ceiling onto the scaffolding. Now, it sits at home; he has memorized the painting.
Michelangelo, who was commissioned to paint the chapel in 1505, finished in 1512. Paco is almost done.
His reproduction is smaller, more vibrantly colored and has far fewer details: The eyes and cheekbones of the figures are made with broad lines of paint instead of tiny, delicate brushstrokes. Some of Paco's Ignudi, or the naked males painted in the corners of the creation scenes, are surrounded by garlands of oak leaves -- just like Michelangelo's. The emerald-green garlands, like the folds in the prophets' robes and the gentle sway of Noah's beard blowing in the breeze, were painted freehand.
Paco said he left out thousands of tiny acorns clustered around the figures because "it's too small of a detail. It would look like a big blob."
So far, he has drained more than 2,000 cans of spray paint, regularly wiping out the stock of every Wal-Mart, craft store and hardware shop in a 10-mile radius. With each can costing about $4.50, Paco estimates that he has spent $9,000 on paint supplies alone.
He still needs more.
"My friends thought I was crazy," said Paco, 27, a Bosnian immigrant. "So did my family. But this has been something I've wanted to do since I was a child."
An agnostic raised by a Catholic mother and Muslim father, Paco said his focus is more on reverence to art than God. But after a local newspaper wrote about the project a couple months ago, it captured the attention of art aficionados and the faithful alike.
Recent visitors, said Paco, have included elderly women from Des Moines, art teachers from Minneapolis and a staffer from the New Melleray Abbey, a Cistercian monastery in Peosta, Iowa. Most ignored a handwritten sign on the front door: "Please do not disturb the artist while painting, unless you have an appointment or you are the media."
"This is unbelievable," said Kathy Snider, a visitor from Davenport. "I'm a Catholic, so of course I've seen pictures of the Sistine Chapel. This is probably the closest I'm ever going to get to see the real thing."
Religious groups around the world have e-mailed Paco, asking about his inspiration. Art instructors have pestered him for private tours. And thousands of people have flocked to his website (paco-rosic.com/sistine.html), where he has posted snapshots of the work in progress.
Paco's fascination with the Sistine Chapel began at age 6, when his mother, Anna, began sharing her passion for art. In the family home outside of Sarajevo, Anna, Paco and his older brother, Alen, would study books filled with the works of Pablo Picasso and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
But it was Michelangelo Buonarroti who captured Paco's imagination.
"He always was drawing" and asking questions about the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo's work, said Anna, 45. The Rosics fled the violence in Bosnia in 1992 and settled in Germany. There, Paco was exposed to hip-hop music and graffiti art. He began painting murals at nightclubs and tagging railroad cars.
In 1997 the Rosics arrived in Iowa, where they had relatives. Anna and Jacky, Paco's father, landed jobs at a Hy-Vee grocery store. Alen studied photography at Hawkeye Community College here. Local businesses, including a sushi restaurant and a Web-hosting firm, hired Paco to paint edgy street murals and design company logos.
"He kept telling us that he was going to paint the Sistine Chapel," said Jacky, 51. "I didn't believe him. Over time, he convinced me he was serious."
Jacky and Anna started looking for a building with a ceiling large enough to accommodate Paco. They also wanted enough space to open a cafe and jazz club to help pay for the building. Paco joined the search.
They found the spot late last year next to what was once Grandpa Harry's Antiques and Collectibles in downtown Waterloo, population 66,400. The Community National Bank here loaned Paco and his family the money to buy the building, and pay for construction costs and the paint. Family friend Gary Kelley, an illustrator from Cedar Falls known for his murals with Barnes & Noble, served as a mentor.
"He has a passion and a focus that most artists his age don't have," Kelley said. "I knew that once everyone saw his progress, people would be intrigued."
The cafe and jazz club -- due to open in November -- will join the revival of a downtown which declined in the 1980s, when scores of family farmers were driven into bankruptcy and the largest employer, Deere & Co., made deep job cuts. Investors now are turning empty buildings into airy artist lofts and chic restaurants. But even in a place hungry for innovation, some considered Paco's idea crazy.
The artist didn't care. He traveled to Rome this spring and spent four days in the Sistine Chapel sketching details. Back home, he practiced painting each biblical panel: Paco hung the frames from wooden rafters in his garage and learned to work lying down.
"I'd step outside to smoke a cigarette late at night, and I'd see this guy come out of his garage with a gas mask on," said former neighbor Terrance Bush. "I didn't know whether to ask what he was doing, or to call the police. Then, I saw the paintings and loved them."
Even critics have offered ideas for improving history.
"We had a city inspector come in and spend a long time looking at the ceiling," said Alen, 29. "He said: 'I like it. That man next to God? He's naked. Don't you think the people need more clothes?' I looked at Paco, and we tried not to laugh."
Trying to reach a far corner to finish a column, Paco stands on the scaffolding. With his legs apart, his spine bowed nearly horizontal, he aims a can of almond at the ceiling. With a few quick strokes, the outer edge of a column appears.
A faint, brownish haze floats around his slender, 5-foot-9 frame. He grabs a can of white. Carefully, methodically, he uses the white to lighten the brown, and create the illusion of depth around the curve of the column.
A black mask with a filter protects Paco. Though the temperature in the room hovers in the 50s, sweat trickles down the side of his face.
The interruptions are constant. His cellphone rings. It's the fifth stranger to call this hour with questions.
Three college students from the University of Northern Iowa huddle beneath the scaffolding and bombard Paco with questions. Which prophet is Daniel? Which is Ezekiel? Why aren't Adam's and God's hands closer together?
When two more visitors show up, Paco calls it a day.
He caps his cans of watermelon (for God's robe) and Woven Tapestry (for the snake's tail in the Garden of Eden). Peeling off his mask, he climbs down the yellow metal scaffolding and steps gingerly over dozens of empty cans littered across the floor. Paco smiles and offers to give the visitors a tour.