Photo of artists working on a Dropbox mural at SXSW 2018

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Behind the collaborative process: 3 murals come to life at SXSW


Published on March 09, 2018

Every Spring, Austin, Texas becomes a mecca for artists of all kinds—and provides a rare opportunity to explore what they can create together.

At this year’s South by Southwest Conference, we’ve asked a few of our favorite artists to join forces for great causes. We’re giving them a space to showcase their activism through art—and this weekend, you’ll be able to watch their ideas come to life on the streets of Austin.

Each day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., two artists will meet at the Ironworks Parking Lot at 511 E. Cesar Chavez to co-create a live mural.

On Friday, Shawna X and Rachell Sumpter will reimagine the future. On Saturday, Ben Sanders and Maxwell McMaster will explore environmentalism. And on Sunday, Stacey Rozich and Matt Leines will combine their talents to create a mural based on the theme of human rights.

Collaborating in Dropbox Paper

Creative energy is what helps you solve problems and think in inventive ways—and we believe it can be a powerful force for positive change in the world. Dropbox wants to make it easier for teams to keep their energy flowing by removing barriers, blockers, and obstacles.

So we introduced our muralists to Dropbox Paper, a collaborative workspace where teams can create and share early ideas. Each duo was given a theme as a prompt for their collaboration, then turned loose to see where their imagination would take them.

Screenshot of comments in a Paper doc

Visionary energy: Reimagining the future

We reached out to two forward-thinking artists and asked them to explore their interpretations of the future through art and design. Shawna X and Rachell Sumpter are both accomplished artists and experienced collaborators, but this was their first time working together. Though the two had their own, independent ideas for portraying the future, Shawna says it was surprising to see how two creative minds can work together. “When we had to combine forces to make a cohesive work, it was seamless,” she says. “Something I think creatives do best is how we tackle problems.” So how do two artists with contrasting styles begin merging ideas?

Screenshot of Paper doc showing mural sketch by Shawna X
Paper doc showing mural sketch by Shawna X

“Shawna likes to write in the beginning so she took the first leap and put down a word list,” says Rachell. “I follow with some thoughts and then put out some initial sketches to test the waters.” “I have been fascinated in what the future will bring,” says Shawna. “Especially watching the exponential progress by aid of technology in science, robotics, space exploration and of course, progress in culture and humanity.”

“There are people and entire ecosystems that rely on ice and snow to exist. Where will they go? What will they do?”—Rachell Sumpter
Screenshot showing combined mural sketches by Rachell Sumpter and Shawna X
Combined mural sketches by Rachell Sumpter and Shawna X

For both artists, it was their first time using Dropbox Paper. “It’s actually quite easy,” says Shawna. “Fun to see the progress, the discussion, and overall, a very efficient process for collaborations.” Rachell said she could see Paper becoming a valuable tool for art directors and their collaborators. “A CD could be cued in to what is going on down the line and not necessarily needing to participate, but making sure projects stay within their overall vision.”

Create and share early ideas in Dropbox Paper

Take-action energy: Protecting the environment

For Maxwell McMaster and Ben Sanders, the collaboration began with a face-to face-meeting, then sketches shared on Paper. Though the concept isn’t too far stylistically from what Maxwell usually does, he says working with a partner helped open him up to decisions he might not have explored. As a result, the evolution of the concept was surprisingly smooth. “Our initial ideas were fairly strong and got more refined and unified as we moved forward,” says Maxwell.

Early sketch of mural concept by Ben Sanders
Early sketch of mural concept by Ben Sanders

“The concept comes from a drawing I made that was a part of my most recent body of work,” says Ben. Though most of his paintings and sculptures are made alone, Ben said his creative process didn’t change much in this collaboration. “The only difference is that I had to fit the composition to line up with the previously agreed upon shape so that it fit with Max’s piece.”

Screenshot of Paper doc showing Max's early sketch
Paper doc showing Max's early sketch

“I’ve always thought it’s beneficial to have more trees around,” Maxwell explains. “So my first thought when I got the topic was to do something about planting trees. The hand sprouting trees was the second thing I drew out. I think I got lucky that it just worked. Later, I thought about the hand as humanity lending a helping hand to nature, kind of giving mother nature a boost to do what she does naturally.”

Sketch of mural combining artwork by Ben Sanders and Maxwell McMaster
Sketch of mural combining artwork by Ben Sanders and Maxwell McMaster

Maxwell says he’s passionate about supporting environmentalism because it’s easy to get detached from nature living in a big city and forget how important it is. “It’s also important to preserve our planet for future generations to ensure we can sustain life here.”

“I’d like to see us preserve our planet as much as possible because there’s so much beauty in it.”—Maxwell McMaster

For both artists, it was their first experience collaborating in Dropbox Paper. Ben said working in Paper was “much easier than attaching images to email. You can very easily see the progress, like on a blog.”

Max added that working in Paper streamlined the way he worked with images. “I also enjoyed using the comment feature. It really helped keep the conversations organized.”

Empowered energy: Standing up for human rights

“We are at a crazy turning point in history. It’s a moral imperative to care about human rights.”—Matt Leines

For their mural based on the theme of human rights, Stacey Rozich and Matt Leines began their collaboration by chatting about their individual processes, and comparing notes about their experiences working on a large scale. After their phone call, Matt sent Stacey some loose sketches which helped her form her own concepts alongside his compositions.

“From there, we shared our sketches with the team via the Paper doc, along with some of our previous work examples for inspiration,” says Stacey. “The pairing of Stacey Rozich and myself was a great choice,” says Matt Leines. “It was like we were on the same page from right off the bat. Once we started communicating, it was really just a matter of refining ideas.”

Screenshot of Paper doc showing comment conversation between Matt and Stacey
Paper doc showing comment conversation between Matt and Stacey

Their concept grew out of a Dropbox Foundation presentation on human rights. Though finding the right interpretation of activism was daunting at first, it became easier through the sketching phase. “Once we refined my sketches down to a singular idea, I polished it up along with several iterations of color,” Stacey explains.

Matt says the content of his work usually exists in a more surrealistic environment: “When I do touch on themes like this, they tend to be more metaphoric.” For her side, Stacey also imagined a metaphorical situation, but chose to go to a darker place that depicts a scenario before the figure has tapped into her “empowered energy.”

“Every other human on this planet deserves the right to safety, to have their voices heard and to have the guaranteed freedoms of the most privileged.”—Stacey Rozich

Stacey says working in Dropbox Paper made developing her artwork faster and easier. Instead of sifting through long email threads to find a specific piece of feedback, the linear format helped her quickly access and reference material she had shared in an earlier phase.

Matt agreed, and noted that being able to scroll back up to earlier versions of the sketches helped streamline the process. “Having all parties on board the same platform made it much easier to keep everyone in the loop and comments and direction flowing.”

Ready to watch these artists in action? Follow Shawna, Rachell, Maxwell, Ben, Stacey, Matt and Dropbox on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to see these concepts become finished works of art.

Then on Monday, March 19, we’ll return with another post showing time-lapse videos of each mural from beginning to end.