Lady shrimp plays the trombone, & other art flights of fancy

It’s been a busy summer for Sideways Gaze Signs!

Café Zydeco invited me back to finish the theme I started back when it was snowing – sea creatures playing Cajun music:


The catfish whiskers should make it perfectly clear: NOT a dolphin!
A lady shrimp plays the trombone. As they do.
A lady shrimp playing the trombone. As they do.

A new client, the adorable clothing shop Sora, had me paint their hours on the door, and hopefully there’ll be more creative work to come… I was grateful for the shade, painting on the north side of the block on a blistering afternoon.

Vinyl vs hand-painted.
Vinyl (top) vs hand-painted (below).

Here’s Johnny Townmouse, carrying his picnic basket to the market on the window of perennial client, Red Rooster Home:

Thank you again, Beatrix Potter!
Thanks, Beatrix Potter!
But no thanks to this nearly-new brush!
But no thanks to this nearly-new brush.

The businesses on that same block commissioned me to paint a dozen oak barrels, front and back. They are “branding” their block, North of Broadway, as “NOBO.” (I suppose it should be NoBro, but that would discourage about 25% of the clientele.) So I ordered a stencil – not something I usually do, but given that I’d be painting the same thing 23 times, it seemed worthwhile.

This job was a technical challenge – thanks to Sign Pro for the stencil, and Sherwin Williams for mixing and fine-tuning the paint and primer! The most popular passerby comments as I sat cross-legged on my dropcloth and painted logo after logo were:

  1. What does NOBO stand for?
  2. NOBO… don’t you mean HOBO?

My “uniform” of paint-spattered clothes lends a workingman’s invisibility, as people who would normally ask me for money, don’t, and many people who would normally greet me, don’t. I get a lot of positive comments, since sign-painting is a spectator sport, but my favorite reaction is a child watching transfixed, unashamed to stare. People are kind. “Hey sis, you got some paint on your cheek,” a homeless man points out. An Oxford regular, frequently plastered, offers to pick me one of the sweet red strawberries growing in the top of the barrels, hidden among the flowers. And I’m on a first-name basis with Troy, the local mailman, who is always interested to see where I’ll pop up next.

It took some gymnastics to reach all the barrels, which were filled with gravel and dirt and plants, thus impossible to move. A couple required me to weave my trunk through bike racks to get the necessary angles…

Plus, people had the nerve to lock their bikes to the racks.

I also took a drawing class this spring, again with Bob Phinney at the Lifelong Learning Center. The homework was a sketch every day. I wasn’t quite that diligent, but here are a few favorites among dozens of sketches.

Osprey nest, skatepark loungers
Osprey nest, skatepark loungers
Observing the observation tool.
Observing the observation tool.
Logpile with unexplained square. Looks like a book cover?
Logs with unexplained square. Book cover, maybe?

A couple approaches to a still life.

The class included techniques for drawing people without staring at them and hence creeping them out. The most fascinating tactic: look at your subject for a second, shut your eyes and stare at the afterimage burned into your eyelids, then look down and draw FAST – everything you can remember from the hovering, ephemeral shape. Drawing from memory is handy, especially for objects in motion – animals, little league players, hipsters.

Dog not included.
Oh, there's the dog. By the dreadlock hippies.
Oh, there’s the dog. By the dreadlock hippies.

Soon I’ll be branching out into sandwich boards, metallic copper paint, and perhaps some earthy interior work for a massage therapist… stay tuned!

Monsters and Spacemen

First off… as promised, here’s a copy of the comic strip that ran in the Missoulian‘s Comix Issue:

If you’d like to see the rest of the comics, here is a link to the full issue online. I heard from an editor of the Missoulian that the Hip Replacement Strip was one of people’s favorites. Given that many of the comics bent toward doom and gloom, thanks to the theme of “Missoula in the Future,” that’s less of a surprise. But still gratifying! And I loved having my strip next to that of Theo Ellsworth, whose super-creative illustrations are the bee’s knees.


In other news, it’s time to get furry, drooly and unintelligibly excited, because here comes the…

And who doesn’t love Monters?! [sic]
From the ZACC website… “Originally conceived by nine year-old Asa Smetanka, this show is a collaboration between children and adult artists, working together to create monster art based on monsters dreamed up by the children. Kindergarten classes from three Missoula County public schools will create original monster and assigned local adult artists will  interpret the child’s monster using his/her own unique style and medium. The results will be displayed in a September 9th, 2016, art show, featuring both the original child-drawn monsters and the artists.

“This project’s purpose is to bring more art into the public schools! In an effort to foster that, a minimum 50% of the earnings from this show will go towards bringing MCPS (Missoula County Public School) kids to the ZACC for art classes.”

So cool. As one of this year’s adult artists, this is my match, a monster in need of a friend:


“Here are some facts about Monster 79: My monster likes to play with other monsters, feels like playing in the dirt, eats earrings, and thinks about playing in garbage.”

Oh fer cryin’ out loud. That is freakin’ adorable. How can I ever create a worthy pal to this rainbow rocket of teeth? My work is cut out for me.

By the way, it’s not too late to get in on the action, if you’re a Missoulian! Here’s a link to the art call. Have fun!


On the side, I’m taking a “Drawing for Fun” class from Bob Phinney at the Lifelong Learning Center. He makes us draw something every day, so I’ve sketched landscapes, Little League games, still lifes (which I then eat), and diners in the GFS deli. (That last spot is a great place to practice drawing from memory, wherein you look at your subject for one moment, then blink and let the after-image burn into your eyelids, then rapidly sketch as much as you can remember. Because nobody likes it if you sit in the corner with a sketch pad and stare at people.)

A lot of the class concerns perspective drawing, something that generally comes easily to me. I finally realize why: as a kindergartener, I learned the 3D drawing principles of foreshortening, shading, contour, surface, size, overlapping, and density… from, god help us, TV. It was a PBS show called The Secret City, starring a dude in a fake spacesuit, who called himself Commander Mark. Anybody remember it?

I sent away for the special kit with a cube eraser, some pencils, and a little guidebook. I think it was seven dollars. As a result, though I did not draw many monsters, I drew an awful lot of robots. It was a solid investment: despite not having formal art instruction until taking a couple post-bac classes at the University of Montana, I was on firm ground as a renderer.

The gaps, of course, were design and content. Pretty big gaps that I could spend my whole life trying to fill! That is the curse and the beauty of a good vocation. The more you learn, the more unknown spaces open up before you in every direction.


Finally, the latest sign work, a logo on the exterior of the new Drum Coffee on South Ave:

8 drum coffee complete

This is one cool coffee shop. They have a turntable and were spinning classic R&B and Prince while they brewed. The in-house bakers make delicious brioche and other pastries. The staff is awesome and took great care of me on the beautiful spring day when I was painting. This assignment was a new challenge, as it was on rather textured siding, eight to ten feet up. I decided to give myself a break and have Staples make me a giant printout to use as a template.

2 drum pattern
Is this cheating?

I cut out the shapes bit by bit and traced them onto the siding with a pencil. I washed the wall, then used Sherwin Williams Resilience paint in Toque White to fill everything in. Here are the results from below:

7 drum complete
Although at this point, “Coffee” still needs its second coat of paint.

Next challenge: delicate, two-toned logos on curved oak barrels for the North of Broadway shops… and, of course, a certain monster. Stay tuned!


Mudpie misbehavior, mini jitters

The “Outrageous Watercolors” class is done– ahh, free time at last! Its seven weeks made my schedule just a tad too full, but every so often, it’s worth it. Here’s why.

For a session or two, the class veered into delightful chaos as we spooned drywall mud on masonite, sculpting ridges that would later receive paint, dropped from above, slid wetly, spattered. We dragged classroom tables off the carpet and onto the tile, and made a tremendous mess, this group of middle-aged women plus Bob and me – but no: we were just kids that evening, stirring science projects, poking our paws into every drawer while the adults were away. We took turns pressing patterns into the mud, scooting pigment around with palette knives and fingers and rubber ribs, flushing the extra goo down the sink. Minor misbehavior, miles away from the stuffiness art can acquire through excessive judgment and competition.

My masonite abstraction, containing about four ounces of pure pigment, I reckon.

Over the weeks, I’d learned that many of my classmates are professional artists with impressive portfolios (like Janet Sullivan and Elloie Jeter). I’m glad I didn’t know this at the start. It would have intimidated, maybe paralyzed. But these skilled artists muddled around too, making every kind of mistake and experimenting with strange media. The results were often wonderful, but I wouldn’t necessarily have guessed at their expertise. Their willingness to goof reminds me to have no shame in creating something unframeable, repeatedly. It is how we learn. It is where the magic happens.

The last time we gathered, we brought fruit and desserts along with our paintboxes and tools. We arranged the sweets under bright lights, and recreated them with paint. For two and a half hours there was nothing but silence and the smell of sugar. At the stroke of 8:30, we packed up our brushes, and ate our models. Here’s all that remains:

cupcake3 cupcake
(Hmm, perhaps Bernice’s Bakery might like to sell these as cards…? I should do a few more, then bring them a paper smorgasbörd. Which would entail purchasing a few more delicacies, which J. and I would have to consume afterwards, I suppose… oh darn!)

Speaking of peddling art, one of these weeks I am going to get up an online gallery of works available for purchase. It is time some of these paintings found good homes where they can spread joy, or at least rhino appreciation:

The bird on his back is an oxpecker–it’s a symbiotic relationship.

Fortunately, one of the paintings that came out of the watercolor class is headed to a good home later this month. It is being donated to the…


…which is a silent auction to benefit the programs of the ZACC (Zootown Arts Community Center). The annual event is called {mini} because each piece is smaller than 12″ x 12,” including the frame. I’m excited to have had a piece chosen for the show! This time, I won’t tease you with just a snippet. Here’s the whole piece, called Counter Balance:

2 counter balance

My aim was to put as much motion as possible into a still life, to play with that paradox.

Tangentially, painting it wasn’t the hard part– framing was the challenge. Here’s a quick tutorial: First, buy a used shadow-box frame from Goodwill, tear it open and put the mass-produced, faux-Japanese art it contains out of its misery. Next, rough it with sandpaper, wipe clean, apply about fourteen coats of spray-paint (some will blow onto the glass, so factor in a few minutes of frantic scraping), and reassemble, making sure that not even the minutest speck of trail mix gets on the inside of the glass, which is a considerable feat in our apartment.

(Shout-out to Frame of Mind, the source of the beautiful, nubby green mat. Amy there is always ready with assistance and suggestions, and she gives a 10% discount to people framing their own art. There are piles of gorgeous, colorful mat scraps on the cheap, and blessedly, she matches prices from the big box stores, even when they have sales.)

The {mini} show could be a good chance to meet lots of artists and patrons… provided I can rustle up the courage. The auction occurs at a fancy gala at the Wilma Theater with a 1920s/”Chapel of the Dove” theme. As an artist donating 100% of the proceeds of my auctioned piece, I get to go. So now my task is to find a flapper outfit, go to the dinner and auction, and not hide in a corner all night. This is also a chance to practice watching my art be auctioned off without getting too emotionally invested!

For everyone who is not willing or able to cough up $60 for a ticket, good news: the donated works are not cloistered in the Wilma yet. Any ol’ ruffian can preview the art for free at the ZACC’s Second Friday opening on March 11 – that’s this Friday:


Hope to see you there!

P.S. Seriously, though, anybody local have flapper gear for the borrowing? Fresh-baked muffins if you do!

Breaking the rules, and a gift from the Big Sky

Seven other students and I are taking a couple of months of watercolor classes with local artist Bob Phinney. He started as a freehand signpainter, so I feel a connection to that. He’s a fan of working fast and loose, sprinkling grainy stuff into your gesso, and knowing the rules… but also knowing when to break them. The other painters bring talent, encouragement, community, and a fondness for purple. Three cheers for the Lifelong Learning Center; Missoula is lucky to have one!

My first piece, still in progress...
Study in progress: un hombre cubano, with a stogie and a bass, da un paseo.

On the signpainting front, I joined the local barter network, WeTrade, because I believe in supporting alternative currencies and independent businesses. (Also, folks may be more likely to hire a plucky signpainter if they don’t have to pay her in cold cash on the spot.) Here’s a taste of the Cajun holiday art that I did as a trade with Café Zydeco, if you haven’t yet seen it on Facebook:

zydeco lobster

zydeco wreath lobster

zydeco balls

An uncommonly bad photo of one of my doodles
Blurry photo of a meditative doodle

Burnout is a concern, especially after several weeks of regular work plus art work on top. I am being gentle, taking days to just doodle and paint leisurely. Figuring out this livelihood and lifestyle includes making up new rules, not only breaking established ones: what to do next, what is important. It necessitates a bump in trust, in faith… which is good!

And fortunately, I’ve had little victories to keep me going. Some are self-created, like using goofy emojis to check off items on my art-to-do list. And others are external, like landing gigs: the next half-warm day we get, you’ll find me painting bluebirds and heart-shaped ribbons on the glass of a fine jewelry store smack in the heart of downtown. I so appreciate the people who hear my spiel and say, “Sure!”

Thanks to Janice
Like Janice, who hired me to do her hair salon in a fun, Art Deco font. Thanks, Janice!

And one more little victory: the Zootown Arts Community Center, in collaboration with the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, accepted one of my paintings in its Art Activism show.

Details, and more art, soon!