Sunday Painters

You can see them on any Sunday. Middle-aged housewives, college students, elderly men in bow ties and Hush Puppies, sitting quietly in shopping centers, in parks, on street corners, waiting for the Big Sale.

The Big Sale may amount to $35 cash for a slap-and-dash rendering of Roger Staubach fading back to pass, or $100 for a pair of atmospheric florals carefully color-coded to match any configuration of decorator colors in any North Dallas kitchen.

They are called “Sunday painters”, “sidewalk artists”. Or, simply, amateurs. Whatever you call them, they and their peculiar brand of rhinestone art are as constant a fixture in the world of canvas as Picasso and da Vinci. If Andy Warhol’s pop soup cans are forever, then so are-in their own special milieu-Mrs. Loyce Bower’s sunset-over-surfs.

Mrs. Bower, energetic mother of three and founder and power behind the Richardson Civic Arts Club, is typical of the burgeoning number of Sunday painters in Dallas. She, like the other amateurs, has found a certain safety in numbers; well-oiled organizations of sidewalk artists are cropping up by the day in Dallas.

Some groups focus on a particular neighborhood-like The Arlington 200, the Irving Art Association or Mrs. Bower’s Richardson group. Others, like the Southwestern Water-color Society, concentrate on a particular medium. Still others are designed to appeal to the more traditional artists-Artists and Craftsmen Associated and the Association of Traditional Artists. A few encourage contemporary work, such as The Texas Fine Arts Association and Contemporary Artists and Sculptors Association.

There are few common denominators among the artists in these groups. They are old, young, black, white, Ph.D’d, un-degreed, pros, spare-time dabblers from North, South, East and West Dallas. What they all share is a parochial, “decorator” philosophy of art, coupled with a distaste (based on ignorance) for current trends in modern art.

Their work is competent and in many cases virtually flawless technique-wise (an inflated standard of quality relied upon among such artists-the ability to reproduce reality photographically). But it is a style founded on cliche’ and predictability, which tends to separate it body and soul from the more important avant-garde art currently finding its way into big museums and perhaps a place in history. Quality modern art traditionally has been measured by its originality, its ability to offer the viewer new perceptions of his world.

Sunday painters, on the other hand, shy away from anything that smacks of the unfamiliar. Their’s is a world of land and seascapes, bug-eyed little girls snuggling kittens, and simple still lifes-anything, so long as it is recognizable, easily understood and inoffensive.

In the words of Mrs. Bower: “The average person doesn’t have the sophistication to appreciate modern art and to them it looks like garbage. If there is a light bulb mounted on a blackboard, what is that? I don’t know how they judge it, I really don’t. This couldn’t be art.”

This distrust of modern art often spills over into a disgust with the policies of local galleries and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Says one association head: “It’s been a big battle to get our Dallas artists in the museum. We have certain Dallas artists represented in other museums, but not our own. It’s kind of sad.”

Another embittered painter observed: “The Dallas museum has the Neiman-Marcus syndrome; it wants to be international rather than local.”

While it’s easy to sympathize with these painters, it’s also important to note that their personal ego involvement in their work is clouding the issue: The fact of the matter is, the difference between the technically proficient, but untutored suburban Dallas sidewalk artist and the museum-acknowledged painter who sells monochromatic abstracts to New York museums for five-figure price tags is more a function of education and exposure than of distance.

But sidewalk art doesn’t necessarily belong in museums; it does belong on the sidewalk, where a hungry public of humble artistic sophistication can invest in a real live painting within its means. And while Sunday painters can fret about a cold shoulder from the Dallas museum, they can’t gripe too much about their sidewalk business.

Business, from all outward signs, is good. Major shopping centers throughout town have one or more sidewalk exhibitions on any given weekend. And while prices are low (sidewalk art rarely sells for more than $1,000; $200 a piece is considered good money on the circuit), some of these “starving artists” actually earn their bread and butter selling their works. Others make enough to pay for the paint and canvas and to salve their artistic egos.

There are a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, what the sidewalk artists lack in artistic sophistication, they more than make up for in marketing acumen. One artist anxiously emphasized that should a potential buyer object to the color scheme of a particular piece because it might clash with her interior decor, he would gladly redo the work. Other artists keep a sharp eye peeled for the favorite colors of this season’s “in” decorator and promptly pump out an inventory of landscapes and florals to match.

Secondly, owning “your own art” has become very chic. In world art centers like New York, there are social points – and profits – to be made from buying up the works of this season’s hot “unknown.” The average, everyday guy, lacking the connoisseurship and money of the bigtime collector, but wanting to keep up with the Joneses, turns to the sidewalks for his “find.” There he finds an abundance of art to match his artistic wants and his pocketbook. Besides, it fills a wall.

Betty Sampson, president of theTexas Area Artists Association, perhaps best described the lure of sidewalk art when she said: “Peoplecontinually approach my shows andexclaim, ’I’ve always wanted a realoil painting.’ “


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