Sunday Drivers of Thrift Store Art

I saw Elvis at the Goodwill. A five-foot-tall velvet Elvis, that is. He was in profile, crooning into the microphone. Young Elvis with an unnatural chin. Wearing an Old Elvis jumpsuit…

“Bubba Ho-Tep” Elvis, really.

And the next time I returned to the store? Elvis had vanished. Clearly, someone was all shook up by the opportunity.

Yes, thrift store art is growing in desirability. Velvet Elvises (Elvii?) are not as common as they once were. Prints of big-eyed children are rare commodities. And vintage paint-by-numbers actually show up for sale in antique malls.

But me, I’m more neo-Victorian in my tastes. So while good Bad Art certainly does bring a smile, I figure the shortage of velvet Elvii and sad-eyed urchins is probably something I can endure. Instead, I will simply have to carry on in my quest for Sunday Paintings.

Sunday Paintings, you probably already know, got their name because Sunday was when Victorian ladies would have the time to spend on leisurely activity like art. Subject matter during this time leaned heavily toward still-lifes and landscapes.

Today, work in this spirit will occasionally show up at thrift stores. Think of your Aunt Tillie who took that art class in the 70s. Or your Grandma Esther who always had artistic flair. These are the masters of current Sunday Paintings-- and the products of their labor can work beautifully with vintage decor.

Like the best thrift store art, a Sunday Painting’s charm is often in what the artist felt she needed to express but couldn’t quite perfect. The missing shadow. The skewed road. The barn which defies all proper safety regulations. These weren’t the paintings that the artist and her family decided to keep, cherish and pass down for generations-- for whatever reason. No, these are the ones she used to hone her craft and fill a creative need. Thrift store paintings are the love of art and the learning process laid bare.

But like velvet bullfighters and paint-by-number kittens, Sunday Paintings are becoming harder to find. My last great discovery happened about two months ago, when I stepped inside the back room of a Salvation Army, wholly unaware of the treasures that awaited me.

And there, propped in a far corner, was a painting of a castle. “Unusual subject matter for a thrift store painting, and clearly embracing the perspective techniques of medieval scribes!” I exclaimed.

I was making my move to secure this little masterpiece when my sharp-witted shopping buddy gasped and caught my attention, pointing to the opposite corner of the room. I was awestruck.

“A still life! Note the deft brushwork and classic composition! Also, it will match my dining room.”

I thanked my friend for her acute understanding of my style, and seized that painting, too.

And over here what was this?

Swans! A landscape with swans, whose slender necks turn, as they contemplate just who installed the overhead lighting under that natural bridge. I was in my glory!

There were about three more paintings-- some children with balloons and a rural scene-- which I did not buy, mainly because, unlike the ones in my arms, I didn’t know just where I’d display them. Dolores Sinay was clearly a prolific painter with a flair for the romantic! I had not had such a day since the Tapestry Chair Score of 2005.

Then as I was checking out, the cashier explained how the artist herself had come in to donate them. And the gist of the story is that Ms. Sinay felt that while her skill had improved significantly since painting them, these works of art were simply not good enough to give to family and friends.

Me, I display them proudly, as delighted with their quirks as with their obvious promise.

And that’s the beauty of thrift store art, isn’t it? Thrift stores are the places where everything gets a second life.