Located in West Hollywood, CA,The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institutehas stood for nearly 40 years as an acting school as well as a monument to a groundbreaker in the acting world. Lee Strasberg pioneered the Method acting approach, and in 1931 he opened the school for actors to learn and understand his ways. Recently, Strasberg’s son, David, asked Michelle Griffoul of Michelle Griffoul Studios in Buellton, CA, to create a mural honoring his father.

Maintaining the legacy that Strasberg left on the acting world, the school’s mission is “dedicated to the ideals, values and vision of Lee Strasberg’s innovative work known throughout the world as the Method.” Strasberg taught many well-known Hollywood names, such as Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Jane Fonda, Robert DeNiro, and many other Method actors. With a legacy such as his, much care needed to be taken to honor the mentor properly.

“I was commissioned by David Strasberg, who told me that he wanted something to make the outside of their building reflect what they do and who they are,” said Griffoul. “It had to also be creative and interesting. He died about 30 years ago, but still is the mentor for Method acting.”

The honorary piece of art that was created was a 10 foot, 3 inch- x 15 foot, 3-inch porcelain mosaic mural of the mentor himself. Using handcrafted tile, Griffoul captured the spirit of Strasberg and created a piece of art to enrich the creative atmosphere. “The actual artwork was inspired by a watercolor by James Paul Brown that was in the acting school for many years,” explained Griffoul. “I liked the movement and the color.

“I also used several photos that his son, David, sent me to get a real feeling of the ‘twinkle’ in his eyes,” the artist continued. “To capture the feeling that his son remembers of his father was the real challenge. I made three different sets of eyes. After it was up on the wall — all of it before grout except the eyes — we taped each set of eyes up and then walked across the street to see what kind of feeling we saw from each set. The changes were very subtle close up, but from a distance they really communicated a different feeling. One was stern, one questioning and the one we settled on — magical.”

The rest of the mural was entirely comprised of porcelain tiles that were made in Griffoul’s studio. “There are many large pieces (the hair, moustache, ears, shirt collar, etc.) that I had to make a paper pattern for and make it 10% bigger to accommodate the shrinkage of the wet clay,” she explained. “The rest of the mosaics are handmade ½ x ½ to 2 x 2 inches. We also used many small triangular pieces, ½ x 1 inch, to fill in difficult areas.” 

During the process at the studio, before the tiles are installed, Griffoul and her staff have an intricate process to make these tiles by hand. “We buy wet clay by the ton,” she explained. “We wedge the 25-pound block of clay on a wedging table which is made of casting plaster. We then shape it into a rough rectangle and put it onto the slab roller. We roll it out, sort of like cookie dough. We have a manual slab roller. We then transfer the slab to a table and have a needle tool that we use to cut out the mosaics into squares. Nothing is automated — it is all done by a person, one slab at a time.

“For the custom shapes, which will shrink 10% after firing, we still roll out the slab and put the patterns onto the slab, in reverse, use a dissecting needle to cut out the shapes, remove the extra clay and recycle it. We then let them dry, turn them over in the middle of the drying to prevent warpage and do any carving on them that is required for the design. 

“I glaze everything by hand — the individual shapes by hand with a brush and the mosaic with paint rollers. To achieve some of the color and texture that I want to see in various glazes, they may need several layers of glaze and wax to create special effects. I developed the recipes for 90% of our glazes. It is all porcelain fired to approximately 2,150 degrees Fahrenheit. Then we have thousands of tiles in about 25 different colors and just as many different sizes, and we begin the layout of the design.”

The installation was done by Paul Martin of Paul Martin Tile & Stone in Camarillo, CA, using a team of three workers. The mural was installed as a mortar bed installation over plaster with thinset and then tile. The mortar bed was a cement and sand mixture, the mortar used was Laticrete 252 Silver, and the grout was Custom Building Product’s Polyblend Sanded Grout, of which they used 10 colors. “Probably the grouting [was the most unique aspect of the job], mixing colors together and grouting different colors — that was challenging,” explained Martin. “Working 15 feet off the ground — that was [also] pretty challenging.”

“We used 10 different colors and blends of grout to create the background,” explained Griffoul. “We used grout like paint to continue the flow of the colors, not to interrupt them. It is a technique that I have used in other large murals that makes the final project really a work of art. Sometimes the challenge is to get the installers to trust that I do know what I’m doing, and once they are on board and we are actually working ‘together,’ they see the final work and they are very proud of it.”

With the mural being located in such a busy city space, there were some regulatory issues that proved to be somewhat challenging for the installers. “Mostly, the access to the building [was the biggest challenge],” explained Martin. “It’s on a sidewalk, and the mural was 15 feet off the ground. We had to scaffold off the ground area and keep people away from it. Also, parking was a nightmare. We had to get a scaffolding/sidewalk permit to set up and parking permit to do the job.”

The project took nearly a year to complete, from conception to finalization. This was partly due to the red tape that the designer and installation team had to go through. “A large part of that time was waiting for all of the signage paperwork and permits to be completed,” said Griffoul.

After taking on a project that is so close to someone’s heart, Griffoul delivered a mural that encapsulates Strasberg. “The hardest thing in working on such a personal project was always thinking, ‘Will he like it? Is it the feeling he wants?’ Trust is a huge part of this type of project,” explained Griffoul. When the project was completed, “David hugged me a lot and has told me it is great, fantastic, and even his kids love it. Cars stop all the time and tons of people have been taking photos. I believe it to be traffic stopping.”

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Installation Details

Mosaic Designer: Michelle Griffoul Studios, Buellton, CA

Installer: Paul Martin Tile & Stone, Camarillo, CA

Installation Products: Laticrete, Bethany, CT (252 Silver Mortar); Custom Building Products, Seal Beach, CA (Polyblend Sanded Grout)

Number of Installers: 3

Installation Time: 1 week, 3 days