Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Honoring the artist behind a cultural art phenomenon April 8, 2019

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DAN ROBBINS DIED, my husband texted.

Who’s that? I replied.

 

My Great Grandma Anna painted this paint-by-numbers, one of a pair. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Robbins, it turns out, invented paint-by-numbers pictures. And Randy knows how much I love vintage paint-by-numbers art. Enough that I own several pieces. I am a bit of an art collector, securing my art primarily at garage sales and thrift shops. It’s the only way I can afford artwork.

Back to Robbins. He died a week ago at the age of 93. According to info I sourced online, he worked as a package designer for Detroit-based Palmer Paint Products when he came up with the paint-by-numbers idea. Leonardo da Vinci inspired him. That master Italian painter apparently used numbered backgrounds to teach his students.

 

I purchased this stunning 24-inch x 18-inch paint-by-numbers painting several years ago at a Wisconsin second-hand/collectible/antique shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

If it worked for da Vinci’s proteges, why not for the masses? I expect that was Robbins’ thinking when he crafted his first landscape paint-by-numbers art, soon expanding to subjects like horses, puppies and kitties.

 

I painted this paint-by-numbers ballerina some 50 years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

This painting option evolved into a bit of a cultural phenomenon beginning in the 1950s. I was part of that, painting a pair of ballerinas from a paint-by-numbers kit gifted to me one Christmas in the 1960s. I still have those paintings, which I need to pull out now in honor of Robbins. I rotate my art to keep my home art-gallery interesting. And because I have such a wide collection of mostly original art. I have more paint-by-numbers than shown in this post.

 

The other ballerina in the pair I painted as a child. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I realize not everyone appreciates paint-by-numbers. But I do. There’s something down-to-earth kitschy and appealing to me about an art form that allows anyone to paint art. Talented or not. Just brush inside the lines with the appropriate numbered colors and you’ve got art.

TELL ME: What’s your opinion of paint-by-numbers art? Have you crafted art this way and/or do you own any paint-by-numbers artwork?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

How I became an artist March 30, 2012

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MY SKILLS AS A PAINTER are limited. I can paint a wall. I can dip a brush into a kid’s watercolor paint set and swirl colors onto a piece of paper. But I won’t promise a masterpiece.

Oh, no, if you want to see my best paintings, you will need to step back in time to more than 40 years ago. Imagine me hunched over an oilcloth-draped kitchen table in a southwestern Minnesota farmhouse dipping a thin brush into miniscule pots of paint. With great care, I brush shades of blue and brown onto cardboard as a ballerina emerges.

I have never seen a real ballerina. Her dainty features and fancy dress and perfect posture seem so foreign to me as I slump at the table in my rag-tag clothing that smells of the barn.

I imagine this ballerina smells only of flowers, like the ones I paint into the bouquet she clutches and into the wreath encircling her hair. Her bangs sweep in a fashionable style across her forehead, unlike my slanted, too-short bangs.

The paint-by-number ballerinas I painted as a young girl during the 1960s.

This ballerina’s life in New York City is so much different than mine on the farm. For the hours I am painting the flower-bearing ballerina and her sister, the twirling ballerina, I escape into their world. I dance on my tiptoes and spin and bow with grace on the stage of an opulent theater.

If not for Dan Robbins, though, I never would have experienced ballet. The Michigan artist created the first paint-by-number patterns in 1951. That led to a nation-wide obsession that allowed non-artists like me to become painters. The magazine American Profile featured Robbins in its March 25 issue. You can read the feature story by clicking here.

That story prompted me to remember the paint-by-number ballerinas I created as a child. Because my mother saves everything, I have those paintings today and they are among my most treasured childhood possessions.

TELL ME, HAVE YOU created paint-by-number paintings? Or do you collect these paintings? I would like to hear about your experiences and/or interest in paint-by-number kits.

You can learn more about the paint-by-number craze that swept the country during the 1950s by clicking here onto the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling