In Victoria B.C. artist Bill Blair creates whimsical, kitschy art

Mar 19, 2012

There's the type of art that hangs in museums, roped off to the public and well-guarded.

Then there's the kind of art that someone like Bill Blair of Victoria, B.C. creates. Art that's whimsical, kitschy, and suitable for places as distinguished as your home Tiki bar.

Exhibit A: His series of photomontages about fish, created after he became fixated with salmon puns.

"There was everything like 'Salmon-40-salmon,' a giant salmon with a nose cone of a Boeing 747.

" A love duet between two salmons: 'Salmon enchanted evening.'

"And 'Salmon Ella,' which was basically an Ella Fitzgerald salmon with a wig on it."

Blair's got an imagination as wild as his house which is non-descript fromt the outside but inside, it's a curiosity shop of tchotchkes and knickknacks and collectibles like  stuffed frogs playing in a band; a bird/Ken-doll looking thing; and a stuffed squirrel.

And, of course, his art.

One of the things Blair is known for is making paint-by-numbers hip again.

He collects vintage paintings to turn them into new things. He creates his own paint-by-number art and even writes stories about them.

Last fall, he showed his work in Seattle as part of a large Paint by Numbers show at Bumbershoot. The show, called Bumber by Number, was curated by art collectors and paint-by-number connoisseurs Marlow Harris and Jo David.

Paint by Numbers came in kits with those tiny containers of paints. They were co-created by an artist named Dan Robbins who worked for the Palmer Paint Company in Detroit.

The kits were first sold in the 1950s and they were regarded as America's "first leisure-time activity."

With a paint-by-number, anyone could become a Rembrandt.

And many bought in. Paint by numbers was a bonafide craze.

Blair wasn’t much of a paint by numbers fan as a kid. But as an artist he began incorporating the pictures into his work.

He’d find an old paint by number, like a scene of a riverbank, and put a tiny canoe in front of it and take a black and white photo of it. And then, color it.

Then things got grander.

Exhibit B: Life-sized Paint-by-number montages.

Blair loves referencing iconic Canadian imagery in his work. He’s into nostalgia, but he takes nostalgia and gives it a pop culture twist.

When he started looking at work by some of the most famous Canadian painters from the 1920s and 30s, painters known as the "Group of Seven," he got inspired:

"The trunks of the trees or the leaves and parts of the lake or the sky had almost the look of a paint by number because they seem to be distinct color pieces," he says.

Using a vintage scene as a jumping off point, Blair made his own paint-by number pictures. Then he put them out on a sidewalk and asked pedestrian to pose for photos.  Sometimes he handed them a prop, like a stuffed beaver or plastic duck.

He called the project "A Weekend in Canada" based on a lyric in that song, "Canadian Sunset."

"Some people were point blank, a little confused. They would be like, 'Well, there’s trees. Why do you want me to stand in front of the paint-by-number trees when there are some nice trees over here?'"

Blair's day job is doing multimedia work for a local hospital. He used to do medical photography -- shooting autopsy and forensic photos. He agrees that yes, the heaviness of that work did contribute to his inkling to create a more kind of light-hearted art.

The "Weekend in Canada" backdrops have been used as window displays for a Victoria men's clothing shop. A couple of them are used as wall hangings in a clothing store called Smoking Lily, which is where an example of Blair's latest work can be found.

Exhibit C: A Bill Blair paint-by-number guitar shrine.

It’s an actual guitar but there’s a paint by number painting of a nude woman glued onto its back. Blair then draped the guitar with a mink stole and strand of orange lights.

It looks like one giant, very sexy night light.

He's created dozens of these shrines, mostly out of old guitars but sometimes, ukuleles. The paint-by-number painting always drives the theme.

There's "The Last Supper" that features a portrait of Jesus and his disciples as well as a tiny porcelain cup in the guitar's sound hole. There's a guitar with antlers poking out. A guitar with a cardinal and artificial flowers on top of it. And of course, the classic paint-by-number clown except the clown has an actual red light bulb for a nose.

A huge collection of Blair's guitar shrines can be viewed in the upstairs lounge at Ferris' Oyster Bar. It's best viewed at night.