Artist is master of an unconventional medium, by a long stretch
PROVIDENCE - With rolls of green and blue painter's tape and a blank wall, Michael Townsend can make quite a scene. He crafts life-sized images both ordinary and fantastic: two children riding a rhinoceros, an ax-wielding man strolling toward a tree.
Townsend has turned a utilitarian tool - low-adhesive colored tape - into his artistic medium of choice.
And though he's been making so-called tape art for nearly two decades, he still finds himself explaining what it is so he carries around photos on his cellphone to show to the curious.
"There aren't really any standards for tape drawing. There aren't any van Goghs. Because it's a new medium, it doesn't come with any baggage," he said.
Townsend's comfortable being unconventional. He may be better known for a stunt that briefly garnered him national attention when he and fellow artists created an apartment out of a forgotten storage space in the parking garage at the Providence Place Mall. Townsend lived there off and on for more than three years before getting caught in 2007 and charged with trespassing.
But tape art is his true love. Indoors and outside, his canvas is an empty wall. He and his friends have drawn large outdoor murals of space aliens and giant teddy bears that cover the sides of buildings.
But some of his smaller pieces are equally appreciated.
He has re-taped one hallway in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at
On a recent morning, he's standing on his tiptoes, holding down the end of a length of green tape under one thumb while he turns, pinches and presses the tape with the fingers of his other hand. He whips it back and forth into small, fat leaves that pop off the wall where the tape twists.
Another artist, 20-year-old Paige Bradley, rips thin strips from a length of blue tape. She gently pushes it along a wall, tapping with a finger, until a patch of thin reeds grows behind a fisherman in profile. A small green dragonfly hovers behind the angler.
"I would never have realized that tape art could be a form of art," said Linda Goodale, a child life specialist at Hasbro.
Goodale helps find adult and child patients who might benefit from having a tape art mural in their rooms. Sometimes, they are critically ill children who are unconscious. In those cases parents tell Townsend what images their kids like.
In the hospital's day-treatment center for kids coping with emotional and medical issues, Townsend instructs the patients to make their own murals.
"Sometimes the work looks more professional, sometimes it's absolutely goofy looking," said Paula Most, director of the healing arts program at Lifespan, which operates Hasbro.
Townsend, a California native, first created with tape while attending the Rhode Island School of Design, where he graduated with a bachelor's of fine arts in printmaking in 1993. One night, he and some fellow artists used rolls of pale masking tape to create a figure holding a balloon on the ground - like a crime-scene chalk outline.
When Townsend returned the next day, he enjoyed watching people's reaction to the work.
He's stuck on tape because it allows him to work on large-scale projects, it lends itself to collaboration, and it's easy to correct mistakes. Tape murals are intended to be temporary.
"It leaves such a soft footstep," he says.