In the bright sunlight of a late November Saturday, Maryland Institute College of Art sophomore Colleen Collins was keeping company with a 12-foot-tall lion.
The 2009 River Hill High School graduate is a painter. Her latest — and certainly her biggest — work is a mural of animals that now graces a 150-foot-long wall at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, and on this Saturday, Collins was finishing her lion's mane.
"Before she did this mural, it was just a plain wall that we didn't know what to do with," said Nancy Hinds, executive vice-president of institutional advancement at the zoo. "Colleen really did this wall on her own, and to see her sketch these animals on this very large wall, the size of a football field, it was fantastic.
"We love it."
The mural, completed Nov. 20, was created through the Community Arts Partnership at MICA, a program at the school that does community service and public art projects. The Maryland Zoo reached out to the school over the summer, Hinds said, and Collins and her friends submitted several designs to the zoo for consideration. In the end, the zoo picked Collins' artwork.
Collins, 21, began work on the mural in August, with the help of two friends, also MICA students. The task soon fell to Collins alone, however, as one friend transferred out of MICA and another began the fall semester abroad in Italy. It was rough, Collins said, but the strong work ethic instilled in her at River Hill helped.
"I had a lot of homework, and they were very strict about doing it," said the painting major. "That's helped with college, and with doing (the mural), keeping me on task — I'm used to getting things done quickly.
"Doing a 150-foot mural in three months, I think that's a pretty good feat. I think it would take somebody without the work ethic a little bit longer."
Collins, of Highland, is originally from Baltimore, and attended Trinity School in Ellicott City through fifth grade. In sixth grade, she transferred to Lime Kiln Middle so she could attend River Hill High School. Collins has dyslexia, she explained, and her tutors and doctors had recommended River Hill.
Summer course a spark
Collins first became interested in art when she attended a six-week painting program at the Rhode Island School of Design during the summer between her junior and senior year.
"My mom suggested it to me," she said. "I've always been into art, but never had thought about it as a career or a life. (The program at RISD) was great; I came back for my senior year and realized I'd already taken all the requirements, all the Advanced Placement courses, my SATs — I was set, so I just took a whole bunch of art classes, five art classes. What could it hurt?"
Colins had found her calling, and began attending MICA the fall after graduating River Hill in 2009.
Her education in art has not always gone smoothly. During her freshman year, Collins developed postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, a heart condition in which changes in position cause an increased heart rate and decreased blood pressure.
"I was sick and tired all the time, and a lot of things go along with it," Collins said. "Things like chronic fatigue, migraines, IBS, fibromyalgia. I was sleeping for 36-48 hours at a time, I couldn't get out of bed, I was fainting all the time. … My second semester, I passed out during finals, my dad came and got me and I spent a few days in the hospital. We figured out what it was, and we decided to take a year off at least."
Collins' condition has improved, she said, but she's still an out-patient at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, where she receives physical therapy and personal training once a week. The condition also affected her central nervous system, wreaking havoc on her flexibility and dexterity, which in turn affects how she paints.
"That's the reason I took off for a year — I wasn't able to paint, the pain was so bad," she said. "My shoulders have been a problem for me, which sucks, because the painting I do, I need that movement."
Elephants, monkeys and bears
With her condition under control, Collins was able to paint at the zoo a few days a week. She covered the 150-foot-long wall, which ranges in height from eight to 12 feet, in boldly colored animals — elephants, monkeys, polar bears, lions, zebras and more.
"I focused on making it very bright and eye-catching, thinking about the colors and how they affect people's moods," Collins said. "The deep green is tranquil, non-threatening, while the yellow of the lion is thrilling."
The mural is a far cry from Collins' usual work, she said. She typically focuses on figure painting — paintings of human beings — and doesn't use such bright colors. She does, however, like using textures and patterns, and working three-dimensionally, aspects that are present in the mural.
"There's patterning on the elephants and lions that I used," she said. "And I like doing installations, using multiple canvases, laying them on the ground and creating three dimensions. I want things to look like they're going back into space — the way the elephants carry over from one wall to the other, for example. I like to mess with dimension and illusion."
The center of the mural, a piece of the wall set more forward than the rest, is also the center of symmetry, with elephant and rhinoceroses meeting in the middle with polar bears and birds.
It's Collins' favorite part of the mural, she said, which seems fitting: The rhinoceroses on the wall mirror the animals behind the wall, where the real rhinoceroses live.
Hinds said she was impressed with the art student's dedication. When Collins was unhappy with the way a portion of the mural turned out, she painted over it and started again, Hinds said.
"She had a vision for it, and she did not walk away from it until it was exactly how she wanted it," Hinds said. "Her talents speak for themselves.
"Not only did she take this wall and really do something with it, she changed the whole look of the area and brightened it up and made it fun. It was just a blank wall, and now you can't help but walk by it and be amazed."