Small robot paints murals in downtown WO

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Residents heading toward Washington Street on Main Street might notice a little more color on two buildings now that murals are a part of the scenery. One, on the side of Prime Jewelry & Electronics, displays a 40-foot-tall portrait of Thomas Edison with the quote: “What you are will show in what you do.” The other, across the street in the parking lot of Schneider Hardware, covers the wall of Angels Furniture and illustrates the trolley that once traveled down Main Street long before the New Jersey Transit 21 bus. Both murals were completed in just two days by SprayPrinter in conjunction with Main Street New Jersey, a state program that works with municipalities to revitalize downtowns, and the Downtown West Orange Alliance.

“They told us they could come in August, we just needed to decide on the place and give them the picture,” DWOA Executive Director Megan Brill said in an interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Sept. 20. “They wanted to celebrate downtown and local artists, and we’re lucky that we’re one of the four towns.”

Brill submitted West Orange as a location the company, which works in San Francisco when in the United States and is based overseas in Estonia, could paint. West Orange was chosen, along with Metuchen, Summit and Bridgeton to have street art painted at a steep discount.

A painting robot called “Albert,” invented by Mihkel Joala, takes coded images and automatically spray prints them onto any surface with five cans of spray paint controlled from a spool of wires and rigged from the roof of the building. There are three colors of paint inside the machine, in addition to black and white but, when viewed from a distance, it appears that more colors are included, Joala said.

“It uses the pressure to shoot the paint through nozzles,” he said in an interview with the Chronicle on Sept. 20. “There’s five cans of paint, but when you look at it your eye blends them together. Up close you see the individual paints, but from a distance you see the new colors.”

The machine is made of two different components, which is where the name “Albert” comes from — “Bert” is the spools of wires and code that the image is stored in, while “Al” does the painting. A third, handheld piece that resembles a video game controller allows the SprayPrinter to be controlled by a person and remain on the surface being painted.

“Al gets all the fame,” Joala joked.

He said it’s impossible to say how much time is saved by printing the murals with the SprayPrinter rather than painting them by hand, but completing two murals in only two days is certainly faster than the usual rate.

“It’s hard to say. Sometimes artists take years on things like this, sometimes a week. This does around 4 square feet a minute,” Joala said, adding that the robots are sadly not long-lived. “But they don’t have a long lifespan; this is the fifth one we’ve built. We’re starting to make more.”

The images the machine prints onto the wall are programmed and coded from a digital image that Joala said becomes a text file. From that, the SprayPrinter paints the image line-by-line until the mural is completed.

While Joala physically controlled Albert to print the murals on Main Street, he didn’t design the murals. That distinction goes to Ryan Zorad, a West Orange resident and artist who was asked to come up with artwork for the murals by Mike Brick, a member of the DWOA Board of Trustees.

“Mike contacted me with some ideas he had and he sent me some records and photos,” Zorad said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on Sept. 21. “I chipped away at it and came up with what he and the rest of the team was looking for.”

Zorad is a digital editor and designs billboard that can be found in Times Square. He has had some experience designing murals, but not with the SprayPrinter method.

“It wasn’t too far off from the stuff I’d done,” Zorad said. “I had photography that I was able to reference and use as a jumping-off point. Then I researched more and worked on composing and illustrating it. What I handed them was a digital file that goes into the software, and they print it.”

Brick and West Orange Township historian Joe Fagan provided suggestions for Zorad, telling him to incorporate the trolley and horse and buggy that once traveled down Main Street and the NJ Transit bus that drives down it now for the street scene mural, as well as what they had in mind for the look of the Edison portrait.

“When Mike approached me I was happy to do it,” Zorad said. “It’s definitely an avenue to continue doing this type of work.”

The street scene is based on a postcard of Main Street from the 1920s. Fagan said that while modes of transportation have changed, some things still remain the same on Main Street.

“The trolley was No. 21 and the NJ Transit bus is No. 21,” he said in an interview with the Chronicle on Sept. 20. “This would have been a common sight to see on Main Street. The embellishments are really great, it focuses on the transportation hub that West Orange was. At one time West Orange was occupied by trolleys, buses, and horses and wagons at the same time. It really captures the microcosm of transportation history.”

The mural of Edison shows him holding a light bulb, but Fagan said it also captures the other projects he developed in West Orange, like storage batteries and improvements to the phonograph. The building-sized portrait of Edison is located only a few blocks away from Thomas Edison National Historical Park, Edison’s former laboratory.

With the murals, Brill hopes to brighten up West Orange’s downtown and encourage more people to patronize the local businesses.

“We knew that, with the redevelopment down here, people are going to be coming out of the Battery Building and ask, ‘Where do I go, what do I do?’” she said. “We want to make the downtown look as good as we can.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic, and Courtesy of Susan McCartney and Susan Anderson