Entering the Lovin’ Spoonful Cafe in Clarksville, TN, I stand speechless (and that doesn’t happen often!). Transported back to my childhood and the smell of oil paint in our New York apartment , I can see my dad carefully painting by numbers. There’s the old mill, a German Shepherd, and the Asian farmer hanging proudly on the walls and surrounded by hundreds of others.I can’t wait to explore , but given that it’s past lunch time , the tempting aromas lead us to sit at a table presided over by a fifties Blackamoor lamp. Other tables sported fifties and sixties pieces of Tupperware and kitsch.
The menu is an eclectic mix of comfort food and current trends.Green Goddess dressing for my salad and a chicken asparagus casserole make time travel possible. While waiting for the food, I rush to emptying tables to examine and shoot photos of the paintings. My friend and I reminisce over which ones we remember.
The food was wonderful and I was tempted by a dessert that described itself as having a 60’s secret sauce, but I was more curious about the paintings. Having adopted Memphis as home for the past years, I couldn’t understand why there wasn’t an Elvis paint by number displayed . After searching, I eventually found it.
As we left, I realized I knew next to nothing about paint by number paintings and needed to learn more. Dave Robbins is credited with creating Paint by Numbers kits for a toy show in 1951. In an interview with Egg on PBS, Robbins said the idea came from a process used by Leonardo Da Vinci to help his students develop their design skills and to complete large paintings. Robbins never expected the idea to become a cultural icon – so much so, that in 2001-02, the Smithsonian Museum of American History held an exhibit of paint by number paintings. Dave Robbins also didn’t expect the controversy that arose as to whether the kits were art or craft. Packaged and presented as craft, affordable to a large segment of the public, people did see them as their masterpieces. He also was surprised that the Last Supper was the overall biggest seller. There was more than one at the restaurant.
The paintings have regained popularity today with collectors and artists. There is a Paint By Numbers Online Museum at which you can view, search or learn more about the paintings.I came across an Alice and the Mad Hatter painting at an antique mall and was able to determine the date and manufacturer.
Artists have also used the paintings for inspiration or as part of new creative work. One such artist is Trey Speegle. His collection is large and there is an interview available with him as well.
In case you want to create your own pieces, a blog, Under the Sycamore Tree , offers a DIY tutorial on how to change old Goodwill prints into paint by number type art. Using acrylic paints , it will certainly smell better. and looks like fun. If you want no mess, there are several APPS, one is Fingerpaint by Number for iPhone and iPad. I found the iPad version easier to manipulate.
It’s amazing how now I am seeing Paint by Number pieces almost everywhere I turn. I learned that the Alice is much less expensive on Ebay, only $ 5.00, but that the Asian Farmer is $115.00. Maybe I should start a collection?
By the way, the Green Goddess dressing dates back to 1923 in San Francisco and the Palace Hotel. The chef created it to honor an actor, George Arliss, who was starring in a production of The Green Goddess.