Obama Inspires Artists to Bring the Brushes Out…Online


via NY Times

Mimi Torchia Boothby’s job as a technician puts her outside a wind tunnel every weekday at the Boeing plant south of Seattle, but in her free time two years ago she took up watercolors. Among her favorite subjects are cats, idyllic scenes of Italy — and, of course, Barack Obama, whose contemplative, sun-splashed portrait she completed a few weeks after his election as president.

She was so happy with it she started offering fine prints of it on the Web, her first proud professional act as an artist, and has since sold more than two dozen at $40 apiece. “Talk about viral,” Ms. Boothby, 57, said. “Most of the people who bought them were people I didn’t even know.”

Perhaps not since John F. Kennedy, whose dusty portraits can still be seen in kitchens and barbershops and alongside the antique beer cans at bars like Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta, has a presidency so fanned the flames of painterly ardor among hobbyist and professional artists.

Mr. Obama’s campaign was well known for inspiring art, including Shepard Fairey’s ubiquitous “Hope” poster, a version of which is now in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. Months after the election, with the glow of the administration’s first 100 days dimming, it might have been expected that enthusiasm for Obama art would be dimming, too.

Yet the still-ample offerings of original paintings of the president and the first family on eBay and at places like the annual Affordable Art Fair in New York — along with a crop of presidential-art-obsessed Internet sites including obamaartreport.com, artofobama.com and, inevitably, badpaintingsofbarackobama.com — are indications that it might just be a growth industry.

The phenomenon has been a boon to the near-anonymous painting factories crowded together in the suburbs of Shenzhen, China, famous for cranking out copies of masterpieces, along with landscapes and semitasteful nudes. Another one, seemingly based in Germany, offers stately Obamas amid air-brushy likenesses of Tupac Shakur, Bruce Lee and Al Pacino (in his “Scarface” role), advertised as “real hand-embellished” paintings on canvas.

Market interest has also helped small-time artists like Dan Lacey, of tiny Elko, Minn., a self-described disillusioned conservative who made a name for himself last year in the blogosphere with his inexplicably strange portraits of Senator John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin depicted with pancakes stacked on top of their heads.

Lately, he has turned to Mr. Obama, cranking out both eBay-ready conventional portraits — “I hate to say this, but I can do ones like that in about an hour,” he said — and even stranger works that have tended toward portrayals of the 44th president naked on a unicorn, often performing gallant deeds like wrestling a bear on Wall Street or taking the controls of the US Airways flight that landed in the Hudson River.

“There’s a consistent demand for Obama, both for things that are funny and also for the serious, sort of Aaron Shikler kinds of treatments,” said Mr. Lacey, referring to the artist who painted well-known portraits of the Kennedy family.

Among Mr. Lacey’s eBay customers are Carla Pasley, an administrator for a consumer products company in Kansas City, Mo., who said she is generally apolitical but bought an Obama portrait simply because she found it “really pretty,” and Gary Rogers Wares, a manager at a stationery and gift manufacturer in Culver City, Calif., who has a gold-hued Obama in his office behind his desk and just won another one at auction for $28.

“I wanted a painting because it’s something unique, and as far as I’m concerned it’s unique, just like our president is,” Mr. Wares said. “This is historic and you want something that feels like an heirloom.”

The White House, asked if the president and first lady commonly received gifts of paintings of themselves, responded with characteristic reticence: “On background, I can pass along that among other things, the Obamas are given works of art that include images of the President and symbols from the campaign,” a spokesman wrote.

If Mr. Obama has not yet fixed the country’s economy or solved its security problems, he at least seems to have postponed the withering of original art’s “aura,” or power, in a world of easy reproduction, as famously foreseen by the philosopher Walter Benjamin.

Indeed, a 90-day search by eBay under the category of Obama paintings, most of them original creations, not posters or prints, found 787 works offered for sale from mid-February to mid-May, generating almost $20,000 at an average price of $118 a painting, said Karen Bard, a spokeswoman. Production generally seems to be running well ahead of demand.

High-dollar works by well-known artists seem not to fare as well — an Obama painting by Peter Max listed with a buy-it-now price of $17,000 has had no takers so far. But paintings in a wild variety of styles — Cubist, Pop, post-Impressionist, folk arty, street arty and what might be described as neo-Tolkienesque — have sold in the two-figure and even three-figure range.

Gabriel McGovern, a Web designer in Portland, Ore., who started artofobama.com during the presidential campaign last summer, said he had not intended to continue it past the election but had been receiving such a steady stream of submissions — commercial works, personal works, works photographed on the streets, 300 or so images of paintings and other kinds of art that he has not yet had time to post — that he decided to keep the site going.

“My favorites are the first-time painters,” he said. “It might not even really look like Obama — in fact, not much at all — but they not only paint it, they go out and find a forum on the Web where they can post it so everyone can see it.”

Ms. Boothby said she is now managing to make a little money on the side with her brushes and easel and credits Mr. Obama. “I think that portrait I did of the president was kind of a touchstone for my confidence, painting-wise,” she wrote in an e-mail message. “I’m not sure I would have been able to start doing commissions if I hadn’t gotten as warm a reception as I did for that one painting.”

Mr. Lacey, who admits to parting with paintings for as little as $1 on the Web, said he sold his president-wrestling-a-bear fantasia for $600 and recently received a commission for a unicorn-themed Obama. He intends to ride the surging presidential art wave as long as it will keep him afloat.

During the previous administration, he said, he had also tried his hand at some portraits of George W. Bush but added, in a tone that mingled regret with professional candor, “You really couldn’t sell them.”

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