TRIBECA — When Dianne Talan looks at the massive water main project that is tearing up her block of Chambers Street, she doesn't see dirt and inconvenience. She sees art.
Talan, a painter who has lived on Chambers Street for more than 30 years, has spent the past 10 months covering the mesh construction fence with bright, whimsical portraits of the workers and their heavy machinery.
She started doing it without permission, but more recently she's received the city's blessing.
Her mural now stretches more than 1,000 square feet — and it's still growing.
"I wanted the public to be able to see [the construction] in a different way, rather than just complaining about it," Talan, 65, said recently from her apartment, which doubles as her studio.
"If you can take the mundane and elevate it…it makes life better."
Talan started painting the mural secretly last October, surprising city officials and baffling construction workers, who noticed new additions each morning when they arrived at work.
"We were a little perturbed," said Rodney Hew, 42, a supervisor with Judlau Contracting.
"We didn't know who was doing it and how they were doing it. But it brightened up the place."
Talan worked late at night, dodging cars and buses as she balanced on a traffic barrier, carefully painting scenes of the construction site and the surrounding neighborhood such as jackhammer-wielding workers and the lighted subway entrance on the corner.
"My husband said, 'You'd better not do that. You're going to get in trouble,'" Talan recalled with a grin. "So, I didn't tell him."
Talan continued her guerrilla painting through November and December, braving the cold to continue decorating panel after panel.
Eventually, staff at the city Department of Design and Construction started asking neighbors if they knew who was doing the painting, and a friend mentioned Talan's name.
"They were worried I was going to get killed," Talan said. "But I knew what I was doing. I've been living here forever."
Talan was afraid DDC would make her stop working. Instead the agency did just the opposite: Starting in January, the agency began offering her a roll of the green mesh fencing, so she could create her murals in the warmth and safety of her own apartment and deliver them to the site as she finished them.
"We're glad to work with local artists like Dianne Talan, providing space on Chambers Street for pedestrians and TriBeCa residents to enjoy her artwork while we work on upgrading the infrastructure of lower Manhattan," a DDC spokesman said in a statement.
So far, Talan has painted a total of 28 panels, each 10 feet wide and 4 or 5 feet tall. She has at least three more blank spaces to fill, and then she hopes to begin redoing some of her earlier paintings, which look like crude sketches compared to the lush later works that she created in her studio.
Talan is not getting paid for her work, but she said she is thrilled to have the chance to create art that thousands of people see every day.
She also hopes to sell some of the panels once the water main construction project finishes in another two years, but it is unclear if she owns the paintings or if the city does.
Now that the secret behind the mural is out, Talan knows all the construction workers by name, and she often stops by with cookies and dark chocolate to thank them for being her muses.
"At first I thought she was absolutely insane," said Carl Balzofiore, 30, a Judlau worker from Queens.
"Now I've met her, and she is insane, but in a good way."
Nick Quintela, 36, a foreman from New Jersey, said he is surprised anyone would want to paint a construction site, but he's glad Talan does.
"It's beautiful," Quintela said of the mural. "It gives a little culture to the place."