Alex Proba is not just an artist, she’s an artist slash muralist slash graphic designer slash rug designer slash sculptor slash furniture designer.
(Get the picture?) Before starting Studio Proba in Brooklyn six years ago, she had been an art director with Nike and Kickstarter and a design director at ad agency Mother in New York City.
Alex DelBello is a senior at Parsons School of Design majoring in fine arts who loves large-scale painting. She followed Proba on Instagram and admired her work. So it was a fortuitous opportunity when Proba was commissioned to create a mural for environmentally conscious salad chain SweetGreen’s new store in Manhattan.
As she does when she does large-scale artwork, Proba put out a call for assistants.
DelBello jumped at the chance to work with her.
“The opportunity to work with such an established artist and designer was really valuable. From the start, she immediately came off with such a humble personality. And because of her sweet demeanor, you feel like you’re just friends painting together. That made the experience really fun.”
The way this latest mural came together was Proba first mapped out her design with pencil.
Day one was filling in the shapes, layer after layer after layer. Since it was stucco, “we had to apply about five to 10 layers on each shape,” DelBello says.
“So we all just painted layer after layer, Alex too, painting right beside us. She planned it all out and had final say on everything, of course.… We all painted together and just painted more layers for days. It was cool that she wasn’t just a boss and had her assistants painting for her. She got just as dirty as we all did.”
DelBello says she was grateful for the chance to work with Proba.
“She taught me a lot about painting on stucco and the best ways to achieve the flat, perfect look she does. I can’t express more how much I loved the humility in the way she taught, though. She makes you feel like equals when working together. And even though I was the youngest assistant there, she respected the different kind of work that I did outside of this job, which enhanced this feeling of ‘friends painting together.’ I was just lucky to get to learn so much.”
As the world spins, so does Proba’s life. Sometime between working on murals in Seattle or Los Angles or New York City, she found time to answer some questions.
It’s hard to put you in a box. Murals, rugs, furniture, branding; wow. Oh, I left out sculptures. Are you a designer first or a painter or…?
“Hah, that’s very true. I think I am a multidisciplinary designer and artist. My background is in interior architecture and graphic design, and I studied furniture and product design in grad school in the Netherlands.
“But I think about that question a lot. What am I? I am a graphic/brand studio but also do environmental/spatial design as well as furniture and home products as well as art and murals. It’s a lot to make sense of for the viewer. For me it all makes sense. I’ve started my career in architecture and then fell into graphic design and branding and that evolved to art as well as furniture and product. I started my studio in 2013 and until 2018 I’ve had full-time jobs next to running it (for many reasons). But two years ago, I finally put my love, passion and creativity into my studio work and could not be happier.
“I take it day by day and am not trying to create a distinction between my art and design work. I take client work and commissions as they come in and I try to make every day different. Sometimes I am only painting, the next day I am working on a branding project and then another day I am designing new products for my home collection.
“I am not a creature of habit or routine. I need exactly the opposite to be happy and to activate my creativity.”
In regard to murals, what comes first, the image or the colors or the shapes?
“The colors. The colors come always first.”
Do you have a favorite mural?
“That is a tricky question as I have different emotional ties to one mural over another and it’s very hard to pick my favorite. I would have to say that I love them all for different reasons. At the end of the day they are all a collection of my personal expression and mean a lot to me.”
What was the most difficult to do, whether time constraint or site choice? What was the easiest?
“Murals are paintings and the worst that can happen is to paint over. 🙂 Therefore I don’t try to see anything as too difficult or too easy.”
How do you think so large? Does the image start small? Could you please describe the process?
“I think my training in architecture and furniture/product design is very helpful in this case as I have a great ability for visualizing dimensions in any scale. All my work, even if it’s a small collage or a canvas painting, starts digitally — which is the graphic designer in me. I plan the design out digitally and mock it into a render or photo of the space to feel and see the scale ,and once I feel good about it I make it reality and paint it.
“I somehow fell into murals painting when a friend and former boss, Aaron Robbs, asked me to create a 60-foot-long mural for Dropbox’s New York City headquarters. That was about four years ago now and we both had absolutely no idea where to start and how to do it. Haha.
“I feel like once you have a challenge like that in front of you, you just figure it out. And I kept thinking what the worst is that can happen and it was painting over and starting again — which is ultimately not bad at all. So we just did it and it worked out great. And ever since I’ve been painting a lot of murals in different sizes and heights and I’ve gained so much more knowledge of how to do it and what not to do. But I feel like you only learn those things if you do it and you will grow every time. What I love most is how murals (on whichever surface wall, table, ceiling) completely transform an environment. They add life and personality. They make you smile when you see them. They are an emotion for me. I love that.”
I read somewhere that you were first going to be a dentist. What happened?
“I am from a family of doctors. When I was 16, I studied as an exchange student in Ohio. I learned to appreciate art and craft more than any other time in my life. I started drawing, painting and experimenting with materials and objects. I felt something special when creating. After I came back home to Germany, I didn’t stop creating.
“My parents thought of my newfound creativity as a hobby, but I didn’t. But when it was time to decide on a career, I initially chose the expected route to become a doctor/dentist. After spending some time in the sciences, I started to explore the world of spatial and graphic design as well as product and furniture. And I feel so incredibly fortunate to have chosen the path that’s right for me and I feel very lucky to be able to do work I love.”
Have a you ever had a design come to you in a dream?
“Haha, I wish but that hasn’t happened yet. I dream about solutions a lot though. Often if I can’t figure something out during the day, the solution to it will come during the night and I wake myself up from it and have to write it down immediately so I won’t forget in the a.m.”
Has there been one artist (or more) who has influenced your works, be they murals, posters, rugs, etc.?
“I am working in so many different mediums from graphic design, spatial design to furniture. It’s very hard to find one specific source of inspiration. Back in school I used to look into literature and design history for inspiration, but that has drastically changed. I’ve learned how to be inspired by not visual and ‘designy’ things or other artists, but more by simple conversations with people, their stories and their emotions as well as smell. That also leads to materials. I love researching materials and their properties — to feel and see them at the same time inspires me. In general, I have to say that it isn’t necessarily visual inspiration that brings out an idea in me. It can be way more abstract than that for me. “
Did you have a mentor?
“My dear friend and past employer Mimi O Chun.”
What do your parents think of your vast works?
“I would like to know that myself. :)”
Is there any other artist that comes close to you in creating on so many levels?
“There must be. Hmm, maybe I would say (textile, graphic and interior designer) Camille Walala.”
When you introduce lines to your shapes, it reminds me of an Alexander Calder sculpture. What do you think?
“I love that compliment as I am a big admirer of Calder. Thank you.”
For more on Alex Proba, visit studioproba.com.