WATERLOO -- A faint mist floats in the airspace around the artist's hand, sometimes red, sometimes yellow, sometimes silver. A metal-on-metal noise rattles between each color.
Paco Rosic slashes across his overhead canvas.
He is a young man and in a furious zone. Mozart occupies his ears. A military gas mask protects his eyes, nose and lungs. The heavy black rubber restricts easy breaths, though; sweat drips off his forehead but the drops cannot get beyond the seal around his face.
When the muse visits, Paco can go on for hours. A variety of poses ease some of the pain. Passion makes the remainder tolerable. At some cost.
The most useful stance -- legs apart, spine arched the wrong way like a Syrian bow, face pointed toward the heaven of his creation -- allows mobility. Paco bounces like a boxer below his opponent, in this case an oversized nude emerging with ample rolls of dimpled fat. He will face more than 300 others before completing the borrowed masterpiece.
He strikes with his left hand in staccato bursts and wide, sweeping motions. The awkward grace strains muscles, knees and neck.
"I can feel it in my back. It's a good thing my girlfriend is an acupuncturist."
Paco can do four or five days in a row with regular treatments. It is his fourth week and he has reached original sin and banishment from paradise. He separated light from darkness many days ago. He molded man, the sun and God …
"It's happening fast, but it takes my energy."
Noah and a flood lie ahead.
"It is biblical," says Gary Kelley, a friend.
Pope Julius II commissioned an established visionary to enhance an important ceiling in the Vatican. The pontiff wanted something more inspiring overhead than gold stars on a blue sky. In 1508, he hired the second son of Ludovico di Leonardo di Buonarotto Simoni.
The world recognizes the place as the Sistine Chapel, the master artist as Michelangelo.
He resisted. Refusing the pope at the time, though, was a difficult proposition.
Month after grueling month passed on the project. In the end, Michelangelo covered about 5,000 square feet with frescoes, a difficult art form that requires painting on moist plaster. The process was made more troublesome by the fact the canvas was nearly 60 feet above the floor.
The concept also was a monumental undertaking: Illustrating in broad strokes the religious philosophy of mankind's origins and early history.
"After four tortured years, more than 400 over life-sized figures, I felt as old and as weary as Jeremiah. I was only 37, yet friends did not recognize the old man I had become," Michelangelo later wrote.
Paco knows the image from his youth. He was born in Sarajevo in 1979, but his family fled the violence in Bosnia in 1992. They settled in Germany, where the 18-year-old boy discovered his real first name, Evelin, sounded less than masculine. He also learned about graffiti, tagging railcars with aerosol paint. In time, he adopted the nickname of a graffiti artist he admired, Paco.
"You can't make money painting in the streets. You can get arrested," he says.
Those early works utilized two colors and took about five hours to complete. The purpose: simply to spread the artist's name and expand the vandal's fame in the underground culture.
"But this brings me to this point," he says.
In 1997, the Rosic family emigrated to the United States. They settled in Waterloo, along with about 1,000 others who had already escaped ethnic warfare in Bosnia.
"No English. A new country. … It was awful," Paco says.
Others recognized a talent and drew him out of what he describes as a two-year depression. Along the way, he attended a workshop led by Kelley.
Paco views Kelley as a role model, an established artistic commodity based in Cedar Falls, but available nationally. Paco also admires Pablo Picasso. And Michelangelo.
"There's a wide range there," Kelley says, flattered and embarrassed by the unlikely trifecta.
After a hearty laugh, Kelley analyzes the choices and sees some similarities. Picasso offers shapes and a progressive vision, bold and graphic. Michelangelo refined the realistic human form. The old master also worked on assignment, which is how Kelley, an illustrator, makes his living.
Paco admires and is trying to emulate all those skills.
Kelley views the young man as the real artistic deal.
"His world revolves around painting, and in his case, most of the time, it involves an aerosol can," Kelley says. " … He is pretty far along, especially in his mentality and passion."
But he also wonders what lies in Paco's future.
"I'm just anxious to see him settle down a little bit and mature."
Whether greatness will ever apply is difficult to predict.
"I wouldn't say he is the next anything of this or that. But he may be the first," Kelley says.
The two men frequently discuss art, technique and vision. Paco shared his affection for a certain ceiling, asserting one day he intended to replicate the massive work. All of it. With his aerosol cans of spray paint.
"It was always in my head," Paco says.
The 28-year-old artist experienced success sufficient enough to require an agent. And recently he and his family bought a building in downtown Waterloo. Galleria de Paco, 622 Commercial St., will likely open in September and will serve original artwork, sandwiches and coffee.
Paco will paint. His father, Jacky, and his mother, Anna, will manage the food. Paco decided the studio's walls will be a textured white. He decided the 2,500-square-foot ceiling presented an opportunity.
"All I can say is I know it is a lot more massive project than I would ever assign to myself," says Kelley, who provided counsel.
"He's been talking about this for a long time. I didn't try to discourage him, but I tried to be realistic when we talked about it."
Earlier this year, Paco traveled to Italy. His primary target during the two-week trip was an extended visit at the Sistine Chapel.
"It was amazing. But the colors aren't as bright as mine," he says.
" … You can see feelings. You can see a story. It's not just a painting."
Paco was afraid of his ceiling. He began anyway.
"Can I do it? Can I not? … I just started painting."
Michelangelo offered an insight that might explain his late-arriving protege's determination.
"The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark," he wrote.
Paco uses no tape, no stencils.
"It's straight from the can," he says.
Specifically, interior-exterior aerosol paint from Krylon. The thought the company might one day be a patron has crossed Paco's mind: In four weeks, the project has consumed more than $4,000 in spray paint.
Despite 40 available colors, the palette is limited. To broaden the spectrum, Paco applies layers. Yellow, orange, white and others - applied with the master's hand -- produce skin tones with subtle shading. With care, surprisingly narrow lines and detail are possible.
"It's a good job," says Safet Dizdarvic, owner of Jeorgi's Restaurant farther along Commercial Street.
He, like many during an average day, drops in for a preview. Recently, Paco added a sign at the door asking visitors not to disturb the artist at work.
"Everybody is talking about it," Dizdarvic says.
Within five minutes, the critic off the sidewalk has an assessment
"This is something."
Paco, though, isn't entirely able to verbalize just what.
He talks about lending credibility to his methodology. "If you say graffiti artist, they think you are a criminal." He mentions making a point with his fellow aerosol practitioners, too. "You can show something beautiful, too. You don't have to go out into the city and destroy it."
He is not trying to make an exact copy of Michelangelo's painting.
"My goal is to show it as I see it -- in my eye," he says.
In September, if all goes to plan, customers will sip coffee under Adam, Eve and a serpent. They might eat a pastry under the tension of God's outstretched finger, forever showing the intent but never quite the ability to touch.
What will they think?
"See what happened 500 years ago … This is a nice piece. See what it has been through, wars. It's a big history," Paco says.
But he isn't sure.
"I don't know what people will say. We'll see."
Contact Dennis Magee at (319) 291-1451 or email@example.com.