Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Reflections on Christmas Windows (Beware, It's a Nostalgic Post)

Holly and red berries with white swirly outlines,
the staple of the holiday window painter.
This time of year makes many people reflect on Christmasses past. I hope you'll bear with me on a little trip down memory lane. My holiday memories are a little more commercial than most. When I see store and gas station windows painted up with fluorescent tempera holly and snowflakes, I cannot help but think of my childhood winters.

My mother ended up raising four children by herself. While she had a varied skill set thanks to some fine art schooling and her work as technical artist for an aerospace company, it would have been impossible to hold down a full-time office job while we were very young. With no grandparents or relatives in town to help with child care, I remember it being very tough for her to cobble together an income while also making sure the four of us didn't burn down the house or wander into traffic (and if you know my youngest brother, you know there was a high probability of both those things happening). This was well before federally subsidized child care was made widely available to those who needed it, and, with four of us, private day care would have been a huge expense. Mom was exceedingly creative in her approaches, however, and brilliantly resourceful. Along with the part-time secretarial work, the custom vehicle painting, the paper routes, the holiday centerpieces sold on consignment at flower shops, the medical illustration, and the reselling of items at swap meets, she also took on Christmas window painting as a means of making ends meet.

Though we were all close in age (the four of us were born over a five-year span), I was often her main helper because I was the oldest. During the holiday season, helper meant "brush-washer," as I got to accompany her on early-morning painting trips. Did I say "got to"? I meant I HAD TO. She liked to start at sunrise so that she could be done by the time a business was open. This meant it was FUCKING COLD, and I was sleepy and probably a big sack of whiny attitude. But I also was aware that this was how we could earn some money, and money was a necessary thing, and in hindsight, I think that's important for a kid to see--and even to participate in. I guess my mother was pioneering "Bring Your Daughter to Work Day" way back in the early eighties. Except instead of learning how to file tax paperwork or operate a copier, I learned that through sheer necessity, improvisational learning, and hard work, one can indeed use artistic abilities to piece together a living.

It was a lesson she often tried to undermine, and with good reason. "Don't ever become an artist!" she advised me on many occasions. People will undervalue your work, people will expect you to work for free because they see it as fun, or something you have a natural ability for, and not the result of training and dedication to a craft. Maids and garbage men are better off, she would say--they have unions, they get a guaranteed wage, and people see their work as actual work. People saying "Oh you're so talented" is a bunch of bull, they're just giving you lip service, and that's worthless. Try getting a good education and a good job with a good paycheck instead.

Being the rebellious little twirp I am, I suppose I ignored all that. Well, not really. Not at first. I got decent grades, entered a great university on scholarship, graduated, and found steady, well-respected work in academic publishing. I definitely did not have my sights set on being any sort of artist.

But I knew by experience that it was possible.

And I knew to be wary of all the pitfalls, the dangers of thinking you're special because you can draw halfway decently, and the very real, everyday occurrence of artists being ripped off by people who undervalue their work. In fact, as I began taking on freelance art projects, I carried this baggage from childhood with me almost as a generational vendetta. I approached many client interactions like I was an artistic version of Inigo Montoya, always on the lookout for some cheap, unappreciative six-fingered man who would compliment my work only to rip me off later.

Allo! My name ees Celestia Ward, you ripped off my
mother . . . prepare to pay!

Which is not to say my mother's artistic endeavors were a sad tale of constantly getting ripped off. Oh, there were times! But there were also well-earned rewards and clever bartering deals. My memory isn't perfect on this, but a few bright spots certainly come to mind. Christmas windows were fairly easy to execute, and there was a hungry market for them when late November rolled around. Half her jobs were simply the result of walking around the local strip malls, paint tray in hand, and asking managers if they wanted her to paint their windows. Shop managers would then want her the next year, and the year after, and it grew kind of organically from there. 

In the shopping center right by our house, there was an independent record store where she painted a masterpiece of a Christmas window featuring Eddie, the ghoul mascot featured on Iron Maiden album covers. The shop owner was so impressed (and savvy enough to see the opportunity for some publicity) that he called the local paper, and the result was a neat little published photo of my mom, in her puffy but warm down coat, hard at work putting on the finishing touches. She told me later that she'd quoted a low price on that window and stuck to her original pricing, even though that job clearly took on a life of its own and the client received far more than he paid for. I also got to brag at school that my mom had painted that cool Eddie image on the record store.

Holy crap, this was in 1983? I was ten years old.

But I was just a kid, and record stores weren't as exciting as some other places. My mother painted the windows and some interior glass panels for our childhood Mecca, a delightful wonderland called Chuck E. Cheese's (the one on Vegas and Decatur, which was just a short walk from our home). This place no longer exists, and the Chuck E. Cheese joints that are around today do not hold a candle to the mega complex that existed back in the day. This palatial wonderland had the biggest video arcade a kid could imagine, with a fleet of skeeball machines, several different dining rooms with animatronic singing animal robots to serenade you as you scarfed down greasy pizza, a huge central pavilion to hold parties, and an obstacle course funhouse that featured the largest ball pit I have ever seen, then or since. For a token you could activate music and a strobe light in a tiny room for kids that served as a junior rave. My brother later commented, wistfully, that he remembers a lot of "inappropriate touching" going on in that room, which always filled up with random kids whenever anyone dropped a token into the wall slot.
Right to left: me, my little sister, and my childhood friend Michelle hang
out under a Santa my mother painted at Chuck E. Cheese's.

Anyway, we were by necessity a bargain-hunting family too, and we took advantage of the Chuck E. Cheese's fan club, which on Tuesdays allowed each member to get a foot-long hot dog, a bag of chips, and five tokens all for $1.25. Cheaper than groceries! Well, Tuesdays were pretty awesome for us. And I guess, over the course of all those Tuesday visits, my mother got to know the manager and they worked out a deal for her to paint Christmas windows. Again, I have no idea what she was paid, or if she worked out a deal to trade goods and services, but I remember the manager was beyond pleased with what she created. I also have a memory--one I am pretty sure is reliable, considering the adrenaline spike I experienced probably cemented it to my long-term databank--of the manager coming to our table and dumping a giant pile of game tokens all over it in a dramatic, noisy flourish. Shiny, golden, valuable Chuck E. Cheese's tokens, all for us, all as a grand gesture of appreciation for my mother's efforts. Four squealing kids nearly peed themselves when that happened.

As time went on, I learned a lot from my mother's Christmas window painting. I helped mix tempera, and I was allowed to draw a bit of our blueprint (using a washable marker that we then painted over). Eventually I wielded a brush and learned the quick, circular strokes, blotting, and white highlight line that produced holly and berries. I learned the importance of measuring and how to use tape and string to level out sections of large lettering. My mother deconstructed the work of other window painters, so I was able to see where someone had used a sponge or a stamp, and how to appreciate the difference between quick, sloppy work and quick, expert work. Though our aim was always to produce quality, I felt like my mother never actually belittled or dismissed the work of quicker window painters, even the sloppier ones--rather, she reflected on the fact that someone got paid for that, and she considered how she could take similar steps to quicken her painting sequence without sacrificing the level of quality she wanted to achieve.

That's a wise approach with any kind of commercial art, one I try to apply when I look at the broad array of caricature work out there.

Later on, mom put me in charge of my own window-painting project. It was for a little store down the road and it was for the 4th of July, not for Christmas. I was in junior high at the time, and I was well aware we were doing the window as a freebie so that I could get some experience. I remember being nervous but also pretty proud of myself. My mother swears she has pictures of it somewhere--I sort of hope they never surface, as I'm betting it was not exactly expert work. But it was experience! And experience does wonders. When I needed a job the summer before college and fell into a sweet opportunity to paint murals at a local school, it was my early experiences helping my mom with Christmas windows that made me think "Sure, why not?" rather than being intimidated and thinking I couldn't possibly do such a difficult thing. Windows, walls, tempera, latex paint, what's the difference, really? Even now, seeing windows painted up here and there in my neighborhood, or seeing the great windows my "Okie Artist" friend Teresa Farrington paints and posts on her Facebook page, it all makes me think back to chilly mornings washing out brushes.

As you can guess by the faded look of the photos here, my window-painting days were back in the time before cell phone cameras (no, those aren't tinted with an Instagram filter--they are the real deal). Therefore, I don't have many photographs of my mother's Christmas windows, but I am happy to have these few, and to share them with you. And, even better than photos, I got to have early experience as an apprentice that truly did help me wrestle a career out of a few skills, a bit of ingenuity, and some luck. All you parents out there who are wondering about the perfect Christmas presents to give your children . . . remember that experiences, and passing along skills, can be far more valuable than an expensive trinket or educational toy. We seem to be entering an age where a parent apprenticing a child and teaching them valuable skills is rapidly becoming an anachronism. That would be a damn shame. I think that, for the most part, kids understand when they are getting valuable knowledge and tuck it away--even if they are a sleepy sack of attitude at the time. 

And a note to any clients reading this: please don't tip me by dumping a bunch of Chuck E. Cheese tokens onto my desk. My tastes have changed a bit since then. Thanks.


  1. Now Tuesdays are awesome for your readers!
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Oh, and the caption on the newspaper photo clarifies even more your paragraph about artists' work being undervalued, in the sense that someone else gets the glory. The store owner's name is shown, not your mom's, (LOL she is that ubiquitous "an artist") and he is standing there watching her create something unique, yet the caption says he's "supervising"...

  3. A truly delightful story! Thank you for sharing these memories. You are such a "talented writer", ha ha... no kiddin! Happy Holly Daze.