By Nancy Oakley
Turquoise swimming pools, palm trees, beach cabanas, motels, diners, pink flamingoes, rocket ships, Airstream trailers . . . Welcome to Mid-Century Vacationland writ large — or rather, painted small — on the vivid canvases of Linda Tillman. In her world, every day is a day in paradise, devoid of rainy days, traffic jams, lost luggage or interminable TSA lines. Her pristine houses with straight edges, swooping roof lines and glass walls never require paint jobs or repair; yards are lush and manicured. This carefree spirit of the postwar period is paying dividends in the 21st-century marketplace: In four years, the Greensboro-based artist has created a substantial fan base on Facebook, eBay and Etsy, where she sells her colorful paintings, most of them as limited edition prints. “What does somebody want to look at all the time?” Tillman posits. “I see stuff all the time on eBay and they don’t sell it because it’s all this self-serving kind of ‘my emotion’ sort of art. It’s like, really? Who cares?”
Though she holds a B.F.A from Syracuse University’s School of Art and an M.F.A. from New York University’s School of Art, Tillman considers herself a “decorative art painter,” owing to her career as a textile designer, a good portion of it spent in L.A. During her seventeen years in SoCal, where, as the song goes, it never rains and there are swimming pools and palm trees aplenty, the artist frequented flea markets and acquired pieces of Mid-Century furniture and accents before they became trendy. Palm Springs, the epicenter of the period’s aesthetic, was a trove of finds. “You get all this movie star furniture. Really cool, custom stuff. You could find, like, Vic Damone’s end table,” Tillman says with a laugh. Now, however? “I couldn’t buy back any of my furniture at this point,” she says, noting the current popularity of 1950s and ’60s style.
Tillman’s California dream ended in Y2K, not because of any predicted cyber calamity, but because NAFTA sent shockwaves through her corner of the textile industry. With friends in the Gate City from a stint working at Guilford Mills in the 1980s, Tillman packed up her Mid-Century artifacts and in 2003 left the Left Coast for Greensboro’s more affordable housing market. The artist wore various hats to find ways of paying the bills — as a substitute teacher and a paralegal. She designed labels for awhile, painted in watercolor for a bit, and then one day, she had an epiphany. “I saw a couple of other people who’d sold things on eBay that were kind of amateurish in that style,” Tillman recalls. “They were doing this very cartoony Mid-Century stuff with cats — stylized-looking animals, more Disney-looking but apparently selling pretty well. And it kind of kicked me,” she says.
With the Mad Men wave behind her, Tillman started California dreamin’ again, with paintbrushes, canvases and gouache over acrylic. Gouache is a water-based paint frequently used in textile design and its smooth texture allows her to paint the precise, clean, hard edges and fine detail that characterize her style. Her paintings are realistic in scale and perspective, but fanciful and playful in subject matter. “I started out doing some Hawaiian/Tiki- looking paintings,” Tillman recalls. Indeed, her early images of bikini-clad gals lounging in hammocks by palm trees and Easter Island heads look like scenes lifted from Gidget Goes Hawaiian — except for the rockets and spaceships nearby. “There’s a sort of weird outer-space element to the Tiki stuff that I never understood,” Tillman notes, adding that as a fair-skinned person who doesn’t swim, the beach vacation phenom mystified her. But it sold well. “I surmised that people wanted to be reminded of their vacations,” she observes.
Tiki soon grew tedious, so Tillman began exploring other aspects of Mid-Century life and culture: Vegas-style motel signs, pink flamingoes, diners, abstract fish. Then she turned her attention to Mid-Century houses and interiors, “People are buying the old architectural drawings to build the houses. Or they’re buying the houses, older ones,” she says. What better décor than a print of a pristine white house, with sharp angles, sweeping curves, or a kidney-shaped swimming pool and a lounge chair, or an interior with blocky furniture that looks as though it came from Rob and Laura Petree’s living room?
And what better way to ramp up its appeal than by adding a dog? Just as people like to be reminded of their vacations, they also like to be reminded of their pets. So Tillman’s vignettes often feature canines lounging by the pool, in an Eames chair, watching a rocket take off; in another scene, a pack of them are gathered around a TV set, watching an episode of Lassie. Goldens and Labs figure frequently, and while Tillman will not take commissions to paint owners’ specific dogs (or houses, or anything else, for that matter), she will take suggestions for painting other breeds.
Typically, she will do a lot of photo research on actual houses, maybe Photoshop in a detail — a dog, or a car — to achieve that realistic scale. Once Tillman sits down to paint in her comfortable basement studio, with Flat-coated Retrievers Oona and Traveler lounging nearby, she might alter some of the architectural detail — swapping a bland cement wall for a stone one, for example, or replacing “schmutzy-looking” foliage with what else? Palm trees, for their “clean, flat look, because that’s part of the modern feel,” Tillman says. She usually paints on 11-by-14-, 12-by-12- or 8-by-10-inch canvases, each taking roughly a day to complete. These, she’ll photograph and sell as prints on Etsy. She also sells original paintings, on Etsy and exclusively on eBay. Tillman prefers the smaller size canvases, she says, because she can lay them atop her simple worktable with enough space for her gouache paints within arm’s reach. What, no easel? “It’s fairly strenuous, and people don’t realize if you do this with your arms all day,” the artist explains, moving her limbs about, “standing up, it’s hard to be precise with a lot of hard edges.” All told she does about 250 paintings a year, and usually keeps that many on her Etsy store, rotating them out if they don’t sell.
And just who is buying her works?
“I would say I ship 80 percent of my paintings west of the Rockies,” Tillman says, naming her old haunt of Palm Springs as a common destination. “But to Texas, also. There’s a lot of Mid-Century in Austin and Dallas. And a lot of people buying up those houses and redoing them,” she adds. There was the fellow in Alta Dena, California, who wanted a batch of her paintings for a tour of homes. And than there’s a French couple with a house in Tahiti, who are partial to the beach cabana scenes (replete with a LaCoste–ish alligator as bartender). When Tillman started adding cars with fins to her paintings, she started attracting a younger, male clientele, typically in their 30s and 40s. “Younger people are interested in the old cars, I think because stuff now has a sameness about it,” she reflects. She recently sold a 20-by-30-inch painting of airplanes with vintage livery on their tales — Piedmont, PanAm, Delta, among others — crowded on a runway; an air-traffic controller’s nightmare, but an aviation buff’s dream. And Airstream enthusiasts have reason to celebrate, too: Tillman’s series of vintage RV parks (yes, including dogs), was used in Amazon retailer Hennessey’s line of jigsaw puzzles. (Another Christmas-themed puzzle is expected to be released during the holidays.)
Meanwhile, Tillman stays busy painting houses, pools and dogs. “I try to introduce new things here and there,” she says, citing a guitar motif that she’s recently started exploring. Like a Van Gogh in Vacationland, she expects the demand for everything Mid-Century to continue and evolve. And as long as it does, she’ll ride the trend’s wild surf, with Oona and Traveler along to keep her company. OH
To see what Linda Tillman is releasing each week, check her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/artist.linda.tillman/ Or follow her on Etsy and eBay: https://www.etsy.com/shop/LTillmanArt) or http://stores.ebay.com/ALT-Gallery
Though her aesthetic is a far cry from Mid-Century Modern, Nancy Oakley is fond of Labs and Golden Retrievers.