Firewater colors

Metro Spirit | July 5, 2007
Art and alcohol have been thrust together since Bacchus was born. Accurate or not, a romantic image of the artist as an imbiber abides. One group of artists stirs things up and serves it with a twist.

Lou Ann Zimmerman, owner of Zimmerman Gallery on Broad Street, has been a member of the Whiskey Painters of America for seven years.

“There was a waiting list so long that somebody has to die or drop out for you to get in,” she said with a wide smile and a laugh.

Zimmerman had a bit of an “in.” Her father, Marc Moon, was one of the original 14 members and sponsored her.

The watercolorists’ society bled out of the Akron Society of Artists (ASA) in the late 1950s in Ohio. Joe Ferriot, owner of a plastics manufacturing firm, was an avid painter who spent a lot of time in airports and train stations. So he manufactured a miniature palette for his paints out of an aspirin box that fit neatly in his shirt pocket, with a screw-together brush that broke down to fit inside the box.

“While he was waiting for flights, he would take that out and do little paintings and give them out.” Zimmerman said. “He would dip his brush into whatever he was drinking at the time — a highball or whatever.”

A character who rarely paid for drinks, his miniature paintings became quite a commodity.

“Oh, people just got a real kick out of him,” Zimmerman said.

Back among the merry band of painters from the ASA, he prodded the artists to join in when they went ‘round the pub. At the end of the evening, they exchanged paintings by drawing them out of a hat.

Ferriot had his factory design and produce the mini palettes, which he distributed to his friends. But despite the organization’s thriving membership, Tony Cross is the only one of those original 14 members still living. Zimmerman’s father died mere months ago.

Whiskey painters still use the same palettes, and, of course, you can still find them with a wet coaster in front of them. But times have changed.

“Martini meals were a popular thing — it was party of society — but times have changed,” said Roy Beahn, chair of the WPA board. “We still go out to the bars, hang out and paint a bit. But a lot of people don’t drink.”

Whether created in a saloon or a studio, one of the group’s goals is to promote the fine art of painting in miniature. But don’t walk into one of their shows with a magnifying glass unless you want to be the subject of a caricature for their friendly newsletter, “The Watering Hole.” They don’t take themselves that seriously. Their others goals are to have fun and prove that fine art need not be snotty.

Still, the group showcases the art of watercolor — or whiskeycolor, or gin-and-toniccolor — two or three times a year with a grouping of their miniature paintings, no larger than four-inches-by-six-inches.

Zimmerman will host one for the public on Friday, Dec. 1, at her gallery, with a demonstration by Gatlinburg, Tenn., WPA member Tom Cowan. More than 100 paintings will be displayed, and the exhibit will run through December.
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