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Artist completes ATLAS mural, samples surreal CERN life

The ATLAS mural is only one-third the size of the detector it represents. Image courtesy of CERN.

The ATLAS mural is only one-third the size of the detector it represents. Image courtesy of CERN.

Over the course of three months this summer, a gray, boxy service building at CERN gradually transformed into a three-story work of art.

American artist Josef Krisotofoletti used a cherry-picker lift and a collection of vibrant paints to turn the building’s rectangular face and side into a three-dimensional mural representing ATLAS, the largest detector at the Large Hadron Collider. In the process, he experienced some of the strange and wonderful quirks of life at CERN.

The ATLAS collaboration officially unveiled the mural today.

Kristofoletti, 28, has over the past several years built up a portfolio of larger-than-life works using the interior or exterior walls of buildings as a canvas. In contrast, the ATLAS mural measures only about a third of the size of the actual machine it depicts. The 7,000-ton detector sits 100 meters, or about 330 feet, below the mural in a cavern underground, where it captures data from collisions between the highest energy proton beams humankind has ever sent spinning around a particle accelerator.

The artist said that the idea to create the mural came to him in his sleep after he saw pictures of the ATLAS detector online.

“I remember having a dream about being inside the detector as the collisions were happening,” he said. “Everything was brightly colored and geometric, like a multifaceted crystal.”

He painted his first ATLAS mural on the wall of the Redux Contemporary Art Center in South Carolina. His work attracted the attention of ATLAS communicator Claudia Marcelloni, who invited him to visit in 2009. Less than a year later, he was working on his new ATLAS mural within view of Mont Blanc and living near the French-Swiss border in a rented apartment.

“It was clean, and there was a small kitchen where I mostly ate some of the 300 types of cheeses they have in France,” he said.

Kristofoletti gets ready to add color. Image courtesy of Josef Kristofoletti.

Kristofoletti gets ready to add color. Image courtesy of Josef Kristofoletti.

ATLAS provided the walls, the materials and the training he needed to work at the laboratory. A private donor covered Kristofoletti's travel and living expenses.

During his time at CERN, the artist was thrilled to see his childhood hero, Stephen Hawking, give a lecture on the origin of the universe. He also met a cast of characters that could have come straight from one of his paintings.

“There was a man who always wore a cape,” he said. “And I met a couple, man and woman, who were both way over 7 feet tall. I thought of them as the giant lovers.”

He said he met a man who could not remember faces, even his mother’s, but could visualize complex hardware from any angle in his mind.

“I asked him one day to come by and look at the mural,” Kristofoletti said. “After staring at it for a while, he said, ‘This means nothing to me.’”

But Kristofoletti received plenty of encouragement. He said that as he was working hoisted on the lift, passers-by would shout, “Good work!” or give him a thumbs up.

Perhaps most energizing were his more in-depth talks with the scientists.

“I had some great, actually some pretty unforgettable conversations in the cafeteria with some of the physicists,” he said. “It was great to see the excitement of people who have been working on this experiment for years, and now they are perhaps on the verge of some huge payoff.”

Kristofoletti said he thinks the ATLAS mural is just the beginning of his work translating particle acceleration into art. “I am already working on a few new techniques and ways that events could be shown for other physics-related murals,” he said.

His other current project involves acceleration in a different form. He is designing a mural for Formula 1 racing that is meant to be viewed at 200 miles per hour.