Thursday, March 10th, 2011
By Janie Southard
WPA watercolorists enjoy a well-mixed pallet
SILVER LAKE - It was a dark and stormy night 50 years ago in Akron when a group of professional artists stopped by the Tangiers Night Club for drinks. With rain beating against the windows, the group put together bylaws for a new club named Whiskey Painters of America (WPA).
The late Akron watercolorists and martini fancier Joe Ferriot, owner of a local plastics manufacturing firm, was named president. A fitting appointment it was for Ferriot, who first demonstrated to the group the concept of painting via a mix of watercolors and spirits of alcohol.
Jack Mulhollen of Silver Lake, a suburb of Akron, is the current WPA president and spoke with the newspaper earlier this week about the club and their work. Whiskey paintings are small (no more than 20 square inches) but do not sacrifice mastery of the art, he said.
Mulhollen described the group as "a fun group of serious artists who get together whenever we can."
"We are the only group like this anywhere," said Mulhollen, a watercolor artist whose work has won top awards in many juried shows. "Our membership has always been limited to 150 members and we have a lot more artists than that who want to join. Once you are a member, it's for life, so obviously openings come only when a member dies."
A new member must be sponsored by a current member, and dues are only $10.
In whiskey painting, paint is used and whiskey and other alcoholic spirits are primarily used for the artists' pleasure. The point was never to change or enhance the paintings with alcohol. The art club was and still is about relaxing with other artists who enjoy a drink now and then, Mulhollen said.
The original WPA group, a cluster of artists from the Akron Society of Artists, formed a list of rules, both written and unwritten. One of the unwritten canons says an applicant must paint a watercolor, no larger than 4-by-5 inches, by candlelight after 10 p.m., by dipping his brush in some form of alcohol.
Ferriot, who traveled a lot for his company, got the whole miniature painting idea started as a way to relax on his trips.
"He designed a small palette out of an aspirin box, used plastic strips to hold his paint. He cut a watercolor brush in half and placed a screw in it so it would fold into the box ... everything was designed to fit into his shirt pocket," Mulhollen said.
Ferriot spent evenings in the hotel bar, sipping a drink and painting. Almost always a crowd would gather to see what he was doing.
"Joe delighted bartenders and patrons with his miniature masterpieces by dipping his brush into his glass of booze. He just gave the paintings away, and he rarely had to buy a drink," Mulhollen said.
Eventually, he and fellow artists decided to form the whiskey club.
"They'd get together usually at the Tangiers, get a big round table and have a few drinks. Finally they'd get out their little palettes, dip the small brush in their drink and paint right on the tablecloth," Mulhollen said.
Someone always brought scissors, and they'd cut out all their 20-inch square paintings.
"Of course the bar manager would come out then, and the guys would make Joe Ferriot pay for the tablecloth," he said.
The roster of current and past members includes nationally recognized fine artists and commercial artists from throughout the country.
"Many of the early members were artists for the rubber companies (headquartered in Akron). (The late) Arnold Bodiker was art director for Goodyear. He was the one who designed the company's wingfoot logo. Another was Russ Colley, who designed and built the first space suit. They say he sewed it on his wife's sewing machine. I think he was an engineer with B.F. Goodrich," said Mulhollen, who is retired from his own frame shop and art gallery in Cuyahoga Falls.
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