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A Folk Art Success

An artist keeps his dream of painting for a living alive through motivation and prayer. 

David paints angels in his folk art

People and equipment filled the kitchen. Photographers, editors, even a stylist to fix everything up just right.

The homeowner was a friend whose converted old-time schoolhouse was being featured in a decorating magazine. I was at the photo shoot because I’d painted her kitchen cabinets.

I pressed myself into a corner, out of the way, glad I was able to spend the day here instead of at the store I managed. That’s what kept me afloat financially, but folk art was my real love. I worked long into the night in my basement studio painting benches, table tops, wooden ironing boards—you name it!—with whatever scenes came to my mind.

The stylist came over and introduced herself. “You painted the cabinets, right? Your work is fantastic,” she said. “Have you always wanted to be an artist?”

I found myself telling her about the day back in third grade when I handed in a picture to my teacher, Miss Burriss. The picture showed the house where I lived, with a gaggle of geese in front and my name printed in the corner in big block letters. “She seemed to think it was something special,” I said. “I went home and told my parents I wanted to be an artist when I grew up.”

I could still hear my dad’s voice when I told him my dream: “That’s impossible, David,” he had said. “Art might be okay for a hobby, but no one makes a living doing it. It’s impossible.” But I wouldn’t go into all that.

“Mom always encouraged me,” I said instead. “If we had a yard sale I set up a table to sell my paintings. And she drove me to just about every art class in the county. She even got me a band saw for my tenth birthday so I could make wooden pull toys. And I painted anything I found in my grandparents’ barn—furniture, old windows, saws.”

“And here you are, an artist just like you hoped.”

Not quite, I thought as the stylist hurried back to the photo shoot. My life wasn’t the one I’d imagined as a boy poring over art books at the library. My favorite artist, Rufus Porter, had traveled all over New England painting folk art murals, living in the houses with the people he painted for. The perfect life!

The peace I felt when I painted, the joy when my work brought happiness to others—it all seemed to assure me I was on the right path. Like a promise, I thought on my way home after the shoot. A promise from God that this was his plan for my life. God always kept his promises, didn’t he?

A couple weeks later I got a call. “Remember me? Roberta, the stylist from the schoolhouse shoot.” She’d sold a magazine on doing a story on me. A magazine story on me and my art! I called my parents. “This could be the break I’ve waited for,” I said.

“Now, don’t go getting your hopes up,” Dad warned.

Dad was only trying to protect me. Expecting the impossible would just get me hurt. I was never going to be my hero, Rufus Porter, living with the folks while painting folk art on their walls. My life so far had proved I should take Dad’s advice and quit all the wishful thinking.

But when Roberta gave me the details on the magazine piece, I was over the moon. “We’ll visit historical homes and decorate with your paintings.” The photographs would show them in an authentic setting! I never felt closer to my dream as I did driving through the Ohio countryside with my artwork. “This must be what Rufus Porter felt like,” I told Roberta when we left another home. “He actually lived with people and painted in their homes.”

“Wow!” Roberta said. “Let’s do it! The magazine would love to chronicle you actually painting in someone’s home. Mine!” We decided we’d tackle her kitchen cabinets.

Walking into Roberta’s home that first day and finding lemonade angel food cake waiting was like living in a dream. As exciting as it was to sell a finished work of art, watching Roberta’s face as the scenes took shape was better. I did a spring scene of an herb farm in lavender, yellow and pink. Summer was a window boxed log cabin with a tire swing surrounded by bright blues and greens. Scarecrows and pumpkins filled the fall cabinet in mustards and russets.

“I’ve always wanted to live in a log cabin,” Roberta said one day, gazing at the one I’d painted. The winter cabinet reminded her of sleigh riding with her husband when they were dating. I painted in a sleigh.

One afternoon Roberta burst into the kitchen. “You know what I hate more than anything?” she said. “My husband’s old rattletrap red truck. It nearly broke down on me just now.”
“Let’s put it in the winter scene with a flat tire,” I said. Roberta laughed and suggested I paint the truck into every scene. “Why not a truck for all seasons?” she said.

My time with the couple was over too soon. “When I was a kid I was sure this was the life God had waiting for me,” I said as I packed up my art supplies. “It meant everything for me to have it even for a little while.”

“I think God does mean for you to have your dream,” she said. “I believe you will make it happen.”

Impossible, I thought. But Roberta sounded so sure.

Roberta’s cabinets weren’t only featured in the magazine, they wound up on the cover. It led to more work for me, including a licensing arrangement that put my work on framed prints, wallpaper and greeting cards sold all over the world. All signed with my name in block letters, just like I’d done back in Miss Burriss’s class. The impossible had happened right before my very eyes.

Sometimes I take out a copy of the magazine story. It brings back happy memories of those days in Roberta’s kitchen. But my favorite picture in the spread is a piece I’d painted earlier, a Noah’s ark scene. A pair of whimsical giraffes dance in the foreground, along with four simple words: God keeps all promises. 

See photos of David’s angel artwork.

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