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Hand-Painted Chairs Offer a Brush With Nature

Decorating: The seating arrangements stand out in an elementary school art teacher's Buena Park home.

March 21, 1998|LYNN O'DELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For most of us, art is something to hang on the wall.

Carol Goldmark would just as soon sit on it.

And she does. The Buena Park artist and Hacienda Heights elementary school art teacher hand-painted the upholstered armchairs in her living room, capturing the time of day she loves best--the half-hour before sunset--and the subject she has painted all her life, flowers.

Goldmark, who has current exhibits in Laguna Beach and El Paso, Texas, simply made the chairs her canvas.

She had the chairs and ottoman upholstered in heavy-duty canvas duck, brought in bouquets of flowers and went to work as usual on what she calls "still-scapes," a combination of still-life and landscape.

The avid gardener likes to bring in fresh flowers. Her hand-painted chairs--covered with tulips, calla lilies, irises, roses and an exotic, ribboned florist's arrangement--let her make the flowers more permanent.

"I view it as a functional piece of art. I can not only live with it like a painting on the wall, but I can [also] live on it," she said.

The painted fabric is surprisingly smooth, and the water-based paint (a mixture of fabric, textile and acrylic) doesn't rub off.

The most common reaction is, "Can you sit on it? It's too pretty," she said.

In fact, the chairs look like new after several years of use and a cleaning regimen that consists of simply wiping off whatever has spilled and occasionally hitting them with a dust rag, she said.

The armchairs and a painted ottoman are the focal point of the living room in the 1950s California ranch-style house Goldmark shares with her husband, Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark of Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada.

Goldmark ensured the chairs' star status by using an off-white carpet, white sheer draperies and a slate blue and white striped sofa to complement the hues in the chairs. Artwork, hers and others', lines the long wall.

The chairs are not identical. Like many things in her home, they go together rather than match. Goldmark uses her artist's eye for color to blend items, from the shades of the towels in her bathroom to the mix of floral and geometric seats and backs on the chairs in her dining area.

"I treat each chair as if it were an individual painting or work of art. It just goes off the easel and onto the furniture," she said.

It wasn't quite that easy. Goldmark had to experiment with fabrics and paints. Some she ironed, some she didn't. Some she pre-washed. And some she poured hot coffee and other liquids onto to see what might happen when art meets real life.

Then there was the problem of where to paint. Should she haul the large chairs to her Fullerton studio or swathe her home in plastic and paint the chairs there? She did both.

She also had to make some artistic adjustments from painting on a flat canvas to painting in the round or three-dimensionally.

The floral theme was a natural.

"At summer camp, while the others were swimming, I was painting flowers," Goldmark remembers.

About 15 years ago, Goldmark began doing detailed drawings of flowers, leaves and plants. A few years later, a serious auto accident led her to a revelation about her artwork. As a trauma survivor who spent 10 weeks in the hospital, Goldmark realized she wanted to incorporate the human body into her work. She became an artist in residence at UC Irvine and attended gross anatomy classes.

Some of her work combines botanical and anatomical art. The center of a flower might turn out to be the delicate bones of the sinus cavity. What at first looks like a drawing of dense vegetation is revealed as a self-portrait with ruffled celosia for brains and an anatomically correct larynx.

Goldmark was inspired to paint on her furniture a few years ago by a newspaper photo of another artist's work: paint squeezed out of tubes in spirals and swirls in closely graded colors was applied all over a sofa.

"It was encrusted with paint. It wasn't functional; it was a sculptural piece. But I had an insight. What if I could do my oil painting on furniture and be able to sit on it too?"

She had painted on T-shirts, neckties, doors and lampshades, so the armchairs weren't such a leap.

Her first experience with hand-painted fabric came when she was going to her high school prom. Her father, muralist Nathan Kredenser, painted flowers on the silk shoes she had dyed to match her dress. (He regularly painted on walls and silk drapes in the New England area. His papers, which include 30 years of mural sketches, have been donated to the Smithsonian Museum's Archives of American Art.)

When Goldmark needed chairs to go with a turn-of-the-century oak table with a white wicker base, she looked for those without backs and seats so she could hand-paint her own. Two of the chairs sport florals; the other two are geometric designs taken from the Persian carpet in the family room.

Many of the flowers on one set of chairs came from her garden--the roses, a pink flowering South African vine and lavender. She added other flowers like delphiniums and day lilies.

Her current "art you can sit on" project is hand-painting the seat on a dressing table stool in her newly remodeled pale pink bathroom. After that, she's tackling the bathroom walls--she plans to paint a flower border near the ceiling.

For Goldmark, hand-painted furnishings are a way to put her personal stamp on her home.

Does she feel she becomes part of the art when she sits in one of her chairs?

Well, no.

But the question could lead her to paint the chairs in a two-dimensional form because "sometimes I think I would like to paint myself sitting in the chair," she said.

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