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Bringing the sky inside

For years, a love of North Dakota's sprawling skies kept Ric Sprynczynatyk in his native Bismarck. But then, a different brand of skyscapes whisked him across the world - most recently to a bustling coastal metropolis rather unlike his home place.

Between January and September

For years, a love of North Dakota's sprawling skies kept Ric Sprynczynatyk in his native Bismarck. But then, a different brand of skyscapes whisked him across the world - most recently to a bustling coastal metropolis rather unlike his home place.

Earlier this fall, the artist, who paints sky murals for Colorado-based company Sky Art, completed the world's largest - 250,000-plus square feet of scattered cloudy ceiling at the new 3,000-suite Venetian hotel in Macao, China. From January to September, Sprynczynatyk - along with fellow Bismarck native Scott Buelow - logged countless hours wielding an airbrush some 70 feet above ground.

Even after adding these 250,000 square feet to a resume packed with dozens of sky murals, Sprynczynatyk, 50, says he hasn't quite tired of the repetitive subject matter: "Every time I get down to the ground and look at a new sky, it excites me."

Racking up clouds

For most of Sprynczynatyk's life, the restaurant business was his main gig. He held a slew of dining room jobs at such Bismarck hotspots as Casper's East 40 and Peacock Alley. Painting was an after-hours passion: portraits of customers' dogs, illustrations for the Bismarck-based Vintage Guitar Magazine and the fanciful design of Space Aliens Bar & Grill in Bismarck.

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It was while working on the grill's outer space mural in 1994 that Sprynczynatyk sent a handwritten letter to Karen Kristin, a famed Hollywood backdrop designer who started Sky Art in the late 1980s. He had a question about paint. Kristin, an expert graphologist who's published several books on handwriting analysis, was taken with his writing, Sprynczynatyk says.

She called and offered him a job. A couple of days later, he was in Reno, Nev., working on a 30,000 square-foot mural at the Hilton. He didn't admit to his boss until recently that he had limited experience with airbrush tools - and sky depictions. "My experience with sky was lying on the grass looking at the sky," he says.

When he started out, Sprynczynatyk was anxious about flying. Since, he's helped paint the ceilings of a three-story fashion mall in Tokyo, a remote temple in India and the Bismarck Airport, among others. But this January he faced by far his most grueling assignment yet.

Sky Art landed the Venetian Macao-Resort-Hotel commission a little less than a decade after painting sky ceilings in its stateside sister hotel, the Venetian in Las Vegas. The much-buzzed-about Chinese version dwarfs its American predecessor: The 32-story complex, which can hold 90 Boeing jumbo jets, is the second-largest building in the world. Sky Art would paint the ceiling of its 350-shop mall, a replica of the Venice Grand Canal complete with bridges and gondola rides.

"The other Venetian I thought was big and high-ceilinged, and this was double that," Sprynczynatyk, the lead painter on the project, says. "Your mind goes a little crazy thinking about what it must be like."

Huge sky in China

In January, Sprynczynatyk and his fellow Sky Art crew members began adjusting to their new "vampire lifestyle," as he came to call it. To avoid some of the ongoing construction commotion, they worked evenings, wrapping up the workday at 3 or 4 a.m. For Sprynczynatyk, the workday involved standing on scaffolding or a crane cherry picker and painting fluffy clouds as a teammate guided him with a laser beam from the ground.

"Ric's the fastest cloud painter I've ever seen," says Pablo Sison, a Los Angeles film backdrop painter on his first project with Sky Art in Macao. "I was in awe. We'd stand by and watch him go."

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As the finishing painter, Sprynczynatyk personally covered more than 90 percent of the ceiling surface. Still he made a point of painting each cloud a bit different. It's a point of professional pride, and an antidote to burnout.

"When you're doing a big job like that, what you don't want to do is repetition," says Sprynczynatyk, pointing out the sky doesn't repeat itself. "The most challenging part was painting on a large scale and coming up with something unique in each area."

Meanwhile, he and Buelow, a Bismarck acquaintance he had recruited to Sky Art, dealt with a separate challenge - communicating the niceties of their job to Chinese colleagues. They had to explain the battery of tools (from industrial paint sprayers to the most delicate airbrush), the five shades of blue they used to create the illusion of depth and the sky mural jargon (clouds can be, among other things, puffies or whispies).

Sprynczynatyk was struck by the modest means of the migrant workers at the hotel and the poverty next door to the luxurious hotel. The Sky Art folks' weekly per diem allowance, says Buelow, was equal to the entire monthly salary of a waitress in town.

Back in Bismarck, Sprynczynatyk has a plan that's thoroughly North Dakota nice: He plans to organize an online art auction with artist friends and send the proceeds back: "Nothing would make me feel better than seeing some of those people go back to their families."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529 Bringing the sky inside Mila Koumpilova 20071106

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