Art sale recalls Middle America's brush with paintingby Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
In the 1950s, America went crazy over painting by numbers. Paint-by-number kits were all the rage, and people of all ages and backgrounds took part in the hobby. A chunk of that history adorns the walls of the Olive Salon in Minneapolis.
Minneapolis — Olive Salon's part-time receptionist, Laleh, is too young to remember the paint-by-numbers fervor of the '50s. But the paint-by-numbers display that surrounds her at the salon does take her back to her youth.
"I've done a few in the past," Laleh says, "like on road trips and that sort of thing. Like in the RV when I was a kid."
As Laleh recalls, the project really ate up the miles.
"I know a lot of people don't really consider them to be like art, because you didn't do it yourself and you didn't design it and that sort of thing, but they're really tricky to do," she says.
There are more than 60 paint-by-number creations on display at the Olive Salon, and they represent a slice of 20th-century Americana.
There are cowboys riding dusty trails and hunters shooting ducks out of the sky, along with portraits of regal German shepherds and geisha girls in shy repose. There's even a Last Supper a la Michelangelo. Many feature bright colors in such unlikely juxtapositions that they look psychedelic.
The paintings belong to artist and gallery owner Yuri Arajs. Arajs began buying paint-by-numbers art 12 years ago when he was an art student in Detroit.
"It was very, very cheap art," he says. "It had the little kitschy thing to it that people were really into."
And, since Detroit is the birthplace of paint by numbers, Arajs had no problem building his collection.
"Every thrift store had boxes of paint-by-number paintings everywhere," he says. "You could buy them for a couple bucks apiece, and you could have four paintings on your wall for less than 10 bucks."
Arajs thinks paint-by-numbers pieces, in their heyday, broke down a wall between the fine art world and mainstream America. Everybody who picked up a kit could become an artist.
"Buying a paint-by-number kit is that self-gratifying gift to yourself: 'I painted The Last Supper just like Michelangelo. Look at this, it's framed, it's on my wall.' That's a really, really wonderful thing," he says.
Arajs says the pieces in his collection that resonate the most are the ones where the artist went beyond merely following the numbers. Some went outside the lines, did more shading than was called for, or even signed their paintings.
He points to a paint by number of some seagulls, hovering over a rocky shore. The painter's name is written elegantly in the bottom right corner.
"That's a beautiful signature on that painting," Arajs says.
"It's clearly superior to the rest of the picture," interjects Karal Ann Marling, jokingly.
Marling, a University of Minnesota art historian, thinks Araj's collection is pretty interesting. She remembers being swept up as a kid, like millions of other Americans, when paint-by-numbers mania first hit in the early '50s.
"There were quite literally department store riots in major American cities when paint by numbers were delivered," she says. "It was like Beanie Babies got to be."
And it wasn't just paint by numbers. Marling says people were throwing themselves into all kinds of do-it-yourself projects back then, from taking ceramic classes at the local high school to building additions on their homes.
"It was a period of, after a kind of a repression of individuality during the Second World War, suddenly, 'Wow, I gotta be me,'" she says.
In professional art circles at the time, abstract art was almost universally celebrated, while critics spoke of paint by numbers as "the death of the American imagination."
But Marling says ordinary folks rejected the abstract in favor of the images paint by numbers provided.
"New England landscapes, exotic geisha girls, hunting ducks," Marling says. "I mean, this is the origin of duck art. It's right here in front of you."
"And I do believe that the first paint-by-number painting was an abstract," Yuri Arajs says, "which is ironic in all of that."
"I'm not so sure it was the first," Marling says, "but it was the least popular."
Paint-by-number kits are still around, but Marling says Americans' aesthetic impulses have turned in other directions.
The modern-day equivalent of paint by numbers might be an interest in the design world as it's manifested in everyday products, or how people are painting the interior of their homes.
"They're interested in bringing color to their walls, for example. That you never, ever would have seen in the '50s," Marling says.
At Olive Salon, Yuri Arajs is unloading nearly half his paint-by-numbers collection. His gallery, Outsiders and Others, is going out of business, but this sale isn't going to bring him any windfall. Most of the pieces are about $20.
The pricing excites receptionist Laleh, who says so much of the art the salon shows is way out of her range.
"I think in this case people can justify the appeal to them, because it doesn't feel like they're breaking their wallet. But it's still the same kind of luxury," she says.
Which, in a way, brings paint by numbers full circle. It started out by making art more accessible to novice painters. Now, through Yuri Arajs's show and sale, it's making art more accessible to novice collectors.
- All Things Considered, 02/23/2007, 6:20 p.m.