Chroma Dolls, Ali Williams and Kala Hagopian, are a fine art and mural collective. You’ve no doubt seen their work both in and outside of the city as they’ve been both painting murals since 2006.
I had the chance to visit them in their Kensington studio several times and even accompanied them to Stroudsburg to watch the mural installation process. We then sat down to discuss how they started, the types of projects they like to work on, and why they love working for themselves.
At their request I also included a short gag reel to show off a slightly different side of them that the interviews might not always capture. It was really a blast.
We’ll start with your names and what you do.
Ali: We’re Chroma Dolls, a fine art and mural collective. My name is Ali Williams.
Kala: I’m Kala Hagopian.
Where did the name Chroma Dolls come from?
K: We wanted something that was feminine, fun and colorful. So we came up with Chroma Dolls.
How did the two of you meet?
A: We actually met working in the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. We were both assisting at the time and realized we had great chemistry and the same drive and ambition so we decided to take it further and branch off. That’s how we started to work together and eventually form our collective.
K: We realized we wanted to be more independent and have the ability to work one-on-one with clients doing larger-scale projects instead of working for someone else.
Describe your ideal day.
A: Personally, and I know Kala feels the same way, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Art is who we are and we’re completely focused on our company right now. I couldn’t imagine spending my day any other way. We get to come to the studio and hang out with our best friend and paint all day. It doesn’t get any better than that.
K: We get to do what we love for a living instead of working our lives away for someone else. We always have to be one step ahead thinking “What’s the next project?” and constantly lining things up, but working together every day and just having fun in the studio laughing and having random conversations about what’s going on in our lives; it’s the best experience ever.
We want to put the absolute best work out there to represent us. We don’t really have a moment to say “Oh God, we really blew that one.”
How long have you been creating murals?
A: We became a company within the past three years, but we’ve both done art our entire lives. I started working on murals when I was in college, about eight years ago.
K: I’ve been painting pretty much my whole life with my father as a mentor and got into the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program assisting lead artists several years ago. It wasn’t long after that I met Ali and we decided to start our collective.
Do you have any formal training?
K: We both have a traditional fine art base. I went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art.
A: I went to Moore College of Art.
K: Basically that training means being able to work from life or a reference and draw or paint representationally. Having that skill set gives us the knowledge to be able to create a realistic mural, but we can always go off from there and that’s based on our own creative discretion.
How would you describe your work?
A: As far as our work goes, beyond the traditional fine art background, I think we’re very interested in realism, especially the figure, but we also like to play with pattern and juxtaposing different abstract elements.
K: That’s something that we both have going on in our own individual work as well, so that’s one reason we’re able to work so well together.
A: It’s to the point where we can be focused on a piece that’s small and I can pick up a brush and work where Kala just did and vice versa. Our painting skill is really complimentary.
In situations that might discourage us or make us slow down, we just charge forward and keep going… otherwise we’d be doing something else.
How does being so close in proximity and skill level affect your work?
K: You could get upset or it could easily become competitive. It’s so hard to find people you can work with, let alone spend every day with.
A: Trust is a major factor. We’re still learning, but our relationship as a duo has definitely gotten stronger and we’ve learned to understand each other a lot more and can work together that much better.
Is there a such thing as a “standard mural”?
K: I think our murals vary quite a lot. We just wrapped up the Philly PAWS project which was 2,700 square feet, then Stroudsburg and the Women’s Conference were both smaller projects and next we’ll be working on a mural that’s in someone’s house, so it varies quite a bit.
A: There is no “standard” mural. We’re open to do all types of projects.
K: The one consistent theme that ties them all together is our own personal aesthetic that we like to put into all of our work.
What’s the mural process like? What goes into creating one?
A: There’s a lot of conversation that has to happen before we even get to the point of design. With PAWS, for example, we had to sit down with the client and figure out exactly what they’re interested in seeing in the mural. Our design with them lasted about seven months. Once we had the design, we painted the entire mural in about two and a half months, which is pretty record-breaking for a 2,700 square foot mural.
K: We were in the studio seven days a week, working long days. That’s not typical, but were we rushing against the winter months to be able to get it installed. Normally we talk with a client, and go back and forth with a few Photoshop designs that act as a rough collage for the mural.
A: Then once it’s approved we sketch it out on parachute cloth in a grid system in our studio and then we’re able to paint each panel of the grid from our references. Once everything is painted to completion we install it on the wall with an adhesive called Nova Gel, seal it, and we’re done.
How long does a mural take to install?
K: It really depends on the size of the mural and how many sheets we have to put up. In Stroudsburg I think we started around 10am and finished at 6:30pm, so that was a full day.
You almost have to be crazy to start your own business doing something art-related
How do you know when a mural is done?
A: Sometimes you just think “Yeah, that looks great!” but other times I think we’ve had moments where we need to take a few days away from the piece and then come back with fresh eyes.
K: But for the most part I think we can work on one large section and, because we have each other, we can each look and ask “Does this look right?” or “Are these things clashing?”, etc. Because we have that ongoing dialogue, I think we’re able to figure out when something meets our own personal aesthetic and also what we know the client is going for.
I know that for my type of work, I’m always going back and tinkering to improve things here and there. Do you ever get a similar feeling with your art or can you let it go pretty easily?
A: We would never say a project was finished unless we were completely confident in it. This is our portfolio, so we want to put the absolute best work out there to represent us. We don’t really have a moment to say “Oh God, we really blew that one.”
K: We can’t afford to do that since we’re just getting started. Every portfolio piece isn’t just for the client, it’s for us so we want to be able to say that’s our best work for this job.
A: No matter what we always put our best selves into the project.
Do you try to make each mural better than the last?
K: We are always resetting our standards, so in a way we always want our work to be better but that’s not what we’re thinking when we’re looking at it. With each project our capabilities evolve a little more, and so with every new piece we just ask ourselves “Is this as good as it can possibly be?”
What’s one piece of advice you would give to other muralists trying to make a name for themselves?
A: If someone is interested in doing something like this or following their passion I think the best advice we can give is just to be completely determined and focused; you just can’t give up. It’s hard but you just have to want it bad enough to make it happen. We don’t come from business backgrounds, but we want it so we’re doing everything we can to make it happen and learning along the way.
K: You almost have to be crazy to start your own business doing something art-related because there’s no security in it. Art is not a necessity for most people. So, you have to be a little crazy and block out the negativity and just charge forward and make it happen because you have to.