Application Spotlight: Color Jam Throws Chicago for a Loop

When it comes to politics, sports, jazz and blues, architecture, culture and a great many other categories, Chicago is a truly colorful city.

But recently, that status was taken to literal and figurative new heights, with the unveiling of “Color Jam.” The creation of artist Jessica Stockholder, Color Jam saturates building facades, sidewalks, crosswalks and more in what is the largest public art project in the Windy City’s history. An entire Chicago intersection, State and Adams in the Loop, has been flood coated with color.

Several months in the creation, Color Jam was completed on June 4, 2012, after eight nights of installation. It will be in place throughout the summer and early autumn, and is scheduled to come down on September 30.

(Click here to see a full photo gallery from the entire project installtion.)

Color Jam is composed of 76,000 square feet of vinyl, enough to produce 50,000 vinyl records, wrap 130 city buses or cover 1-1/2 football fields. It has also garnered national attention. Its creation was featured on Rock Center with Brian Williams, and ABC’s Good Morning America and the Fox network are among media outlets that have produced features on the innovative art project.

Part of Art Loop, a long-term project that infuses Chicago’s downtown Loop district with contemporary art, Color Jam is the catalyst for a series of public events, including concerts, speeches and other happenings, that will be taking place throughout the Loop this summer. It has even spurred area businesses to create their own Color Jam specials on items ranging from drinks to hotel stays.

Taking it to the Streets

The Color Jam project was awarded earlier this year to Bloomingdale Signs by Tomorrow, a 21-year-old shop in Bloomingdale, IL, near Chicago. Founded by Gary Schellerer Sr., the company is also headed by sons Gary Jr. and Alan, and has six graphic designers and 14 3M-certified graphics installers. “We have digital printers ranging from latex to solvent to UV flatbed technology, and can print up to 16 feet wide,” says Alan, director of operations and project manager for the company. “We have full finishing capabilities, including banner sewing and welding, and full lamination capabilities.”

Bloomingdale Signs by Tomorrow was courted for the project by Color Jam’s sponsor, Chicago Loop Alliance.

“We were the third company they approached, and we were recommended to them by a customer for whom we had produced a single banner three years ago,” he laughs. “The other companies approached did not have all the capabilities in house of producing a project of this scale.”

Chicago Loop Alliance forged an agreement with Bloomingdale Signs three months before the installation. “When the project was brought to us, we were handed a piece of paper with a crayon drawing of the intersection,” Schellerer remembers. “We had to do the material discovery, along with color matching, and we had a limited set budget we had to stay within as well.”

(Check out this video produced by Bloomingdale Signs By Tomorrow detailing the creation and installation of the Color Jam.)

Alan worked with his dad, Gary Schellerer Sr., to handle the material discovery, he recalls. Once materials were approved, the project progressed through the company’s organization, from color matching to print production to the company’s finishing team, and finally to its installation team.

Along the way, permission to install the graphics had to be obtained from every tenant in all four of the buildings to be colored. The Chicago Loop Alliance handled most of that task, Schellerer says.

Print Production

Four different materials were used for the entire project, Schellerer says. A 10-ounce mesh vinyl from UltraFlex Systems, in hues of warm red and turquoise, was used on two concrete buildings. A perforated vinyl film from Clear Focus, in colors of warm red and Kelly green, was added to two glass buildings.

The third product used was Asphalt Art, accessed through Milano Digital. Asphalt Art, in all three colors, went across sidewalks, crosswalks and the middle of the intersection, Schellerer says. The final material employed was General Formulations Inc.’s Concept 230-54. This is a self-adhesive vinyl that was used to wrap lamp posts, flower beds, awnings and any other inanimate objects protruding from the streetscape. It also depicted all three colors.

Some 30 rolls of GFI’s Concept 230-54, a product typically used to wrap vehicles, were utilized. What’s more, half of them were donated by Mike Clay, president of Sparta, MI-based General Formulations, Inc.

“It was a distinctive request, and kind of a unique project,” Clay says, in justifying the donation. “Why did we do it? Because it’s a unique, fun project. We don’t promote this product to wrap buildings, or for downtown exteriors or city intersections. But it just goes to show this wrap material can be used for more than wrapping vehicles. They did a great job of printing and installing it.”

To print the UltraFlex mesh vinyl and the Clear Focus perfed vinyl, a 16-foot HP Scitex XL 1500 printer was employed. Of the 76,000 sqft produced for this project, 60,000 sqft were printed on the Scitex XL1500 Printer. The GFI Concept vinyl, meanwhile, was printed on a 60-inch printer. “Because this would be seen at such close range, we refused to have any banding or imperfections,” Schellerer says. “We held to that even though it took 4-½ hours per roll for 30 rolls of material.”

The Asphalt Art, on the other hand, was painted, recalls Debra Lucas, Midwest sales representative for Milano Digital, the supplier of the product. “The Asphalt Art is a product that’s typically digitally printed,” she explains.

“But they wanted to take it out of the box and paint it on site. Digital printing would cost more, and it couldn’t be touched up, [a concern] because the product would be scuffed.

“I researched paint, what would work, and bought the paint. It happened to be Benjamin Moore. We had to go with what we knew would be best. We painted samples and sent them to the manufacturer of Asphalt Art to confirm we were within safety standards. They said we were within those standards. Once the paint was found, the process took just two weeks.”

As it worked to complete the materials, the team anticipated having 14 nights for the installation. But eventually, the city reduced that to eight days. In order to fit a shortened schedule, some work had to be done ahead of time. “Our solution was to pre-paint all the Asphalt Art,” Schellerer says. “Originally, we were going to lay down all the Asphalt Art all white, and paint it on site. [Pre-painting] saved us a lot of time and probably a lot of mess. Debbie Lucas saved us on that by making her warehouse available to stage a project of that size.”

Recalls Lucas: “We had just moved to this warehouse in Bensenville a month or two earlier. Gary kept asking me if I knew a place to stage that work. It finally just dawned on me we had some space.”

Notes Schellerer: “We finished printing the day before the installation. After everything was printed, we still had to weld all the mesh banners together. And they had been printed in 16-foot panels, which had to be welded together to create one banner per side of each building.” A Miller WeldMaster was used to weld the 16-foot mesh banners together for the sides of buildings, he says.

Overnight Success

To install Color Jam, the Bloomingdale Signs by Tomorrow installation team worked through the hours of least Loop traffic, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. “The permitting was getting kind of hard to schedule, and we were at first only allowed to close down one quarter of an intersection at a time,” Schellerer recalls. “But the city got onboard and eventually issued us a blanket permit to close down whatever part of the intersection we needed during that eight-night period.”

It’s difficult to name just one “biggest challenge” on a project of this scope, Alan Schellerer says. “But the portion I was most obsessed with was the color matching. There were four different materials and three different colors. They had to match, and it they didn’t everyone would know it in a very big way.”

Moreover, because two of the materials were perforated, background lighting would impact their colors. Meeting the color challenge meant bringing color samples from Bloomingdale to the site 25 miles away, and laying them next to each other in the sunlight to make sure there were no problems, he adds.

“So that’s why we made the trip and laid them on the buildings. I made five or six trips, and spent many nights obsessing over the color matching.”

What did the Schellerers and colleagues learn that might help other PSPs? “The biggest lesson I learned is that anything on this scale, just because it looks so large, seems daunting at first,” Alan Schellerer says. “But when you break it down into individual smaller elements, it’s not so daunting.”

For additional coverage of this project, please visit:

New York Times: At a Busy Intersection, Going Beyond Red, Yellow and Green

Chicago Tribune: 'Color Jam' lights up the Loop

Huffington Post: Color Jam, Chicago Public Art Installation, Premieres In City's Loop