Children who visit the Towson Branch of the Baltimore, Maryland, County Public Library are drawn to the "Towson Dragon" In the outdoor courtyard. They jump and play on the large circular pad with the image of a friendly green dragon and its long pointy tail, a castle with flags, a maze, and a map clutched in the dragon's claws.
Kids as well as adults enjoy the library's play feature, but most don't stop to think how that 24-foot, elaborate design made it onto the concrete pad. But somebody did it - a group of people actually, with the help of graphic artist Rachel Bruce of FLOORmap Stencil Designs in Springdale, Arkansas, whose specialty is incorporating designs onto concrete.
"It's a very specialized product," Bruce said of the stencil designs she loves creating. "Every single job, no matter how simple or complex, is a new challenge for me. There is no monotony, especially when my creative juices get to flow. That is very liberating."
For the Towson Dragon, Bruce was hired as a subcontractor by Hunt Valley Contractors, color and textured concrete specialists in Owings Mills, Md. Her job was to create the stencil from the design created by artist Sydney Hopkins and then to assist with the installation. "She did a stellar job," said Tom Sparks, Hunt Valley president. "My wife and kids and grandkids go there. We wanted to do this job in order to give back to the community, and she helped us do that."
Bruce's independent business is only about a year old, but her work can be found in businesses, schools, public places, and homes throughout the country. The process all starts with an image. Often this is a corporate or school logo, though it may also be a brick or stone pattern, complex geometric figure, or other artistic design. Or it may just be the seed of an idea not yet formed.
"I've had clients send me ideas sketched on a napkin," she said. "But I love that because I get to be the most creative with those."
One project she's excited about right now is an idea for an interactive play area at SeaWorld in San Antonio, Texas. She's been conceptualizing with the architect in charge of the project about their hopes for in an image and how it could be installed. These are the types of projects that stimulate her creativity and she most enjoys.
Typically, the artwork for an image is provided to her in an electronic vector format (such as .EPS, .AI or .DWG). Vector graphics are composed of individual objects made up of mathematical calculations. This is how her computer software communicates with her plotter. In the event that the file isn't available in a vector format, she recreates it. Bruce specializes in working with multiple colored designs, isolating each color or group of colors in the design on separate layers of vinyl material.
The next step is the installation. Bruce has done many installations herself, but she prefers to train others to do it. She holds regular trainings in partnership with the American Decorative Concrete Co. (ADC) in Lowell, Ark., which sells color systems for decorative and polished concrete.
"My goal is to train installers so they are confident in doing it," Bruce said. "Some designs may look terribly complicated, but it's not rocket science. I really want to show them how easy it is to do. You don't have to be an artist to do it right."
The stencil is built with three layers of material: The transfer paper (which holds the design together), the precut vinyl design, and the backing paper. The stencil is first placed on the clean, concrete surface and held in place with a strip of blue painter's tape. The backing paper is cut and removed, the stencil firmly applied, and the transfer paper is removed to reveal the stencil that remains. Then the dye or other decorative medium is applied, and when it dries, the stencil is removed. If multiple colors are involved, registration tabs are used with a separate stencil for each color or group of colors.
The process is so easy, Bruce said, even her children have helped her do it. Bruce has three, and the whole family helped install the multicolored Lion Coffee logo on the floor of her office. A four-foot blue and red circle surrounds a majestic yellow lion's face and the words "Lion Coffee," "Hawaiian Islands," and "The cup that roars." Because there are several colors in this image, multiple overlaying stencils were used.
Besides colors, different design elements may be incorporated, such as embossing or inlay effects produced by troweling or spraying a thin concrete overlay material, or concrete engraving or etching done with sandblasting materials or acid.
Designs created using the penetrating dyes that Bruce typically uses can last for many years if properly maintained. Even so, some of her projects are meant to be short-lived, namely the displays she creates for trade shows like World of Concrete. In fact, creating such a display was how she got into this business. Bruce has a degree in graphic design and has worked for many years in advertising and design. Three years ago she was working as the marketing director for ADC, and one of her duties was coordinating their part in shows.
"I wanted to have something cool and funky at the trade show, but there are only three days to get ready, and everything took too long," she said. "So I asked, 'What about stencils?'"
She had the knowledge to create design stencils but needed the equipment, namely a plotter. She was able to acquire one and create a design for the show-a geometric pattern of squares and a star in two shades of blue, which was a hit. She began doing more and more stencils for clients, particularly designs with multiple colors. Eventually she decided to branch out on her own with FLOORmap Stencil Designs, though she retains a loose partnership with ADC, where she holds her trainings.
"It was kind of a fluke how it got started," she said. "I really am truly blessed."
Though she's only had her independent business a short time, her reputation has expanded by word of mouth. Her designs can be found throughout the country and a few internationally. A large, intricate image of an Aztec calendar was featured at the AmeriPolish booth at the 2010 World of Concrete show.
One of Bruce's favorite designs is a five-foot image of four puzzle pieces, one blue, one green, one yellow, one red. It looks almost three dimensional, like it's floating above the polished concrete, and Bruce said it was perhaps the most challenging one she's created. It was originally designed for a World of Concrete display. A client saw it and wanted it in his daughter's bedroom. Bruce installed it with the help of Lance Drabczyk of Superior Polished Concrete in Rolla, Mo. "The customer wanted to put the design in his daughter's bedroom," she said. "He said she likes to jump from piece to piece. I think that's just great."
More about Bruce's designs and the process she uses for getting the design onto concrete can be found at her web site:.
Four images at Left, and Right: Rachel used multiple, closely-registered stencils to produce a multi-colored logo from a 19th century coffee importer's trademark. In these process pictures, the tedious task of peeling away stencil frisket is shared by her family, who fully support Rachel in her growing business.
The Towson Dragon Mural offers a whimsical and serene space including a maze to occupy small feet.