Art on the block: New mural adorns cannabis dispensary in Amherst

  • Zaeos, the artist name of Robert Tardiff, works on a mural on the walls of Rise in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Zaeos, the artist name of Robert Tardiff , works on a mural on the walls of Rise in Amherst. The painting project is turning the one-story nondescript building in North Amherst that houses the town’s recreational marijuana dispensary into an art installation. Story, A3. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • They Drift, the artist name of Carlos Giovanni , works on a mural on the walls of Rise in Amherst designed by Zaeos, the artist name for Robert Tardiff. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Zaeos, the artist name of Robert Tardiff, works on a mural on the walls of Rise in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 17, 2020

AMHERST — Until Rise Amherst opened for medical and adult-use marijuana sales in North Amherst, the nondescript one-story building on Meadow Street from which it operates served as an auction gallery, set a short distance from farmhouses, tobacco barns, and greenhouses lining the fields at the Amherst-Hadley border.

Now the building, previously painted in warm earth tones, is being transformed into a piece of public art by Seattle artist Zaeos, who has painted a deep blue background on its cement block surface, with large images of black-capped chickadees, a blue heron, mayflowers and a ladybug, all set amid waving strips of red, purple and orange.

For Rise Amherst community outreach coordinator Ben Sussman, a 2010 graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the mural, being done in the midst of a pandemic and a contentious presidential election, can show the healing power of art and a means of relieving stress.

“We wanted to use the space to beautify the landscape and honor nature and the natural connection between art and cannabis, and bring something to the community,” Sussman said.

Sussman said Amherst, as well as the Five College area, has a vibrant arts culture, though public murals on this scale are not common.

“I just have so much love for western Massachusetts and the Amherst area, and felt the building needed a mural,” Sussman said.

Robert Tardiff of Seattle, whose uses the artist name Zaeos, said his idea was to have the mural reflect the extensive greenspace surrounding the building, and the natural habitat of the region.

“I personally enjoy painting wildlife, mixing realism with an illustrated style,” Tardiff said.

Tardiff added that he took inspiration from the Massachusetts state bird and state flower, the majesty of the blue heron, and the ladybugs that protect cannabis plants from destructive aphids and mites.

Joined by They Drift, the artist name for Carlos Giovanni, Tardiff applied a latex paint base coat and then began adding the various images by hand and with spray paint. The final element involved applying a protective seal to preserve the colors from fading from ultraviolet rays and weather.

Sussman said Rise solicited ideas from artists who have handled large-scale murals and then gradually whittled the pool of potential artists to 10 that would be put to a vote. Each artist was then asked to submit design sketches for the jury to vote on.

When he learned about the project from a friend, Tardiff said he put together a mock-up that was ready for the preliminary process that included company employees.

The final jury, after getting the OK from town officials to proceed, included Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of placemaking and special projects for The Mill District and W.D. Cowls; Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District; and Bill Kaizen, chairman of the Amherst Public Art Commission.

The mural covers the entire south wall that faces Meadow Street, the entire north wall that includes the entrance and faces the parking lot, and the east wall along the entrance driveway. Only the west wall, which is a receiving dock, was left out.

With most of the building flat, and few obstacles to deal with, Tardiff said he arrived on Oct. 26 and spent nine days on site that included contending with inclement weather, cold winds and even snow, but still managed to finish on time. After Thursday’s final touches, he was set to fly back to Seattle, where a number of his murals are on display.

The project is being entirely funded by Rise, though Sussman said he couldn’t disclose the cost.

Rise also worked closely with Common Wealth Murals, an organization run by Britt Ruhe of Amherst that has coordinated mural projects in urban areas of western Massachusetts, and provided a donation for its ongoing work.

“A mural like the one Zaeos is painting at the Rise Dispensary in Amherst will help the community see what an incredible impact can be made by a mural of this scale and quality,” Ruhe wrote in a statement.

Sussman said the entire process was inspiring.

“People are just blown away,” Sussman said. “I’ve heard nothing but extremely positive feedback.”

Tardiff said he appreciates those who have stopped by to observe and comment.

“Everyone who comes by it is really pleased,” he said.

“I do feel strongly that this is giving people a chance to pause and connect back to the natural landscape, and have a moment that is really beautiful,” Sussman said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.