Standing on a wooden platform about 100 feet off the ground, Brenda Councill weaves a paintbrush across the outline of an asparagus tip the size of her arm.
She is painting the dome of the Core Lab at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, the centerpiece building of billionaire David Murdock's $1.5 billion biotech complex. The Blowing Rock artist said it is the 35th and largest dome she has painted in her more than 30-year career, and believes it to be the largest painted dome in the state.
The fruits and vegetables theme befits Murdock, who owns Dole Food Co. and whose campus is focusing on health and nutrition.
Bing cherries, blueberries, tomatoes, carrots and, of course, pineapples and bananas – two Dole staples – are among the fruits and vegetables that ring the 120-foot circumference of the dome, like the world's healthiest Greek laurel.
Councill's “canvas” stretches 22 feet high, and the total painted surface covers 2,511 feet. She is about halfway through the two-month project, and is working with Thibault Tosseram, an Atlanta artist originally from Paris.
Councill said her biggest challenge is pleasing Murdock, a hands-on presence overseeing the work he commissioned.
He didn't want pictures of sliced fruit. They needed to look like how people would buy them in the market. Murdock also insisted on fruits and vegetables that would be studied by campus scientists. And he approved the final design, which was by architect Arnold Savrann with Murdock's development company, Castle and Cooke.
Lynne Scott Safrit, the campus project manager, said Murdock wanted the mural to reflect his belief that fruits and vegetables can change people's lives.
Some of the representations on the mural include a pineapple 23 feet long and blueberries a foot tall, near an 11-foot head of lettuce.
Councill and Tosseram use acrylic paints on the mural, which first had to be outlined in charcoal. Each design gets seven or eight layers of paint, and air brushes help with highlights and shadings.
The style is called hyperrealism, in which objects are rendered in a very lifelike, realistic fashion. The perspective had to be changed on some of the drawings, however, to account for the contours in the dome. It's an optical illusion that will be corrected in the mind's eye when people look at the mural, Councill said.
Tosseram also sketches in details of vegetable leafs, even though he knows “no one sees the small details.”
The mural's center is the sun in a color Councill dubbed “Murdock yellow” for a palette that pleases the boss. Councill needs to climb an eight-foot ladder to a second platform to reach the top of the dome.
Councill came up with an addition near the top, one meant to represent Murdock inspired by a symbol she saw in his home and office: a golden eagle with wings in full flight.
If you're wondering whether Councill and Tosseram end their days covered in paint drippings, they don't. The paint is thick enough when applied that it does not splatter.
Then there's what Councill calls “the myth of lying down.”
“People think we're up here lying on our backs, but we're not,” she said. “Michelangelo did it, but most muralists don't. It's not comfortable.”
But Councill said she is comfortable amid the giant fruits and vegetables, working on the biggest project of her career.