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Heaters Give New Meaning to Hot Art

February 23, 1991|PATRICK MOTT

There's no way to prove this, but I've always had a feeling that a lot of artists go into the biz so they can be temperamental.

Back in the days when they were merely a general ed student or a cocktail waitress or a mechanic, they were probably souls of gentle wit, charming, funny, mildly self-deprecating, thoroughly easy-going and relaxed.

But hand them a palette and a fan brush and suddenly they get to cut off their ears and call their old pals "unenlightened plebeians" and be smitten with inspiration and break appointments at any second and moan pitifully about their tortured souls when they can't seem to bring themselves to climb out of bed at noon and squeeze out a few blobs of paint and get to work.

Which is why I've always loved Bill Alexander. Alexander is the amiable guy who shows up periodically on KOCE Channel 50, Orange County's PBS station, and shows the viewers how to crank out a decent oil painting in half an hour. He's slightly dotty in a kind of endearingly bluff Germanic way, a kind of pudgy Uncle Wilhelm in a checkered shirt.

But this guy can paint like Al Unser can drive. He can make an oil painting appear faster than a Polaroid photo. One second it's a white canvas, and by the time you come back from making a sandwich he's putting the finishing strokes on some heavily forested landscape with a barn and a road and a fence and a bunch of fleecy clouds and maybe a stream or a lake or a waterfall.

Smoke rises from his brush.

But could Alexander be up to the challenge of Thermal Art? Could Big Bill be faster than electricity?

Here's the challenge: Alexander has to be able to complete a painting on the face of a Thermal Art room heater before the thing gets hot.

Which doesn't leave him a lot of time. Possibly the most pragmatic piece of functional art ever produced, Thermal Art is made by Thermal Art Manufacturing in Downey, and it is a wall-hanging convection heater that doubles as a painting. The paintings are done in acrylic and are applied directly to the metal face of the heater. The entire apparatus is surrounded by a frame, from which hangs an electrical cord to plug into a wall outlet.

The heat doesn't radiate back toward the wall, but from the painting side of the heater, into the room. At its hottest setting, about 160 degrees, you can touch the painting without being burned, but you won't want to lean on it.

You can't feel the radiant heat from more than a few feet away, but that's not the attraction of the heater, said Bob Young, an Orange County distributor for Thermal Art, along with his wife, Betty.

Unlike a common forced-air heater, which heats the air near the ceiling, the Thermal Art heater warms the air as it passes over the face of the painting in a circular convection pattern. This, said Young, causes the heat to be distributed evenly between the ceiling and the floor. In fact, he said, there is a difference in temperature of less than two degrees between ceiling and floor when the heater is on.

Young says the heaters are approved by Underwriters Laboratories, won't harm paint or wallpaper, and don't generate enough heat to cause combustion.

The paintings/heaters come in three sizes: the 24-by-44-inch, 450-watt model, which is designed for larger rooms and can operate for about 3 cents an hour; the 24-by-31 incher (300 watts), which can heat a bedroom for about 2 cents an hour; and the 24-by-15-inch model (150 watts), which is designed for small rooms and costs about a penny an hour to run.

The prices of the heaters, complete with restful bucolic paintings on the faces, are $295, $260 and $230, respectively.

It is possible, however, to buy a heater with the face blank and paint it yourself, or commission an artist to do it. (Blank-faced heaters cost $35 less than those painted by artists working in the factory, who churn out scenes of the Monterey coast and the Grand Tetons. The factory also can apply silk-screen prints to the surface, or can supply decorative magnets, said Young. One customer, he said, turned a heater into a wall-hanging magnetic chess board.)

The only catch to the paint-it-yourselfing is the use of media. The only type of paint that will work is acrylic, Young said. It alone can survive the 160-degree temperatures without running or fading.

"You're not going to find a Grant Wood or a Rembrandt or anything like that" on the face of the heaters, said Young. However, he said he believes that the factory artists who routinely paint the heaters with six standard scenes are, as a result, "getting exposure all over the country."

Which brings us back to Bill Alexander. On television, he works exclusively in oils, but acrylic is such a close cousin that I imagine he wouldn't have much trouble adapting. So, assuming he's well-armed with paint and clean brushes and plenty of thinner, he ought to be able to do battle with the forbidding blank piece of metal just as easily as he can with a conventional canvas.

But can he create a genuine work of art in about a minute, which is about as long as it takes a piece of Thermal Art to heat up? I say yes. After watching Alexander paint a stately pine tree by smacking a big brush into the canvas six times, I'd bet that he could produce a fairly credible rendering of the Battle of Hastings in about the time it takes to dial 911.

Although I think I'd prefer a nice desert scene, complete with radiating heat. I always wanted to see an object in which function follows form.

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