Kind Gestures by S. Webster

Chapter 7

Sue – 10:30 am

Sue Putnam is opening the front door to her shop across for the diner. She came here from Michigan without the usual detour through Florida. So many like her and Joe go as far as they can in one direction to get out of the long grey days of a Michigan winter that arrives too soon and stays well into Spring. They end up in central Florida, spend two years being too hot and realize that they missed the mark and head back to North Carolina. “Halfbacks” is the local term for them – retirees who get all the way South and then settle half way back home. In the mid-nineties it was still fairly easy to find land with a view and small stream flowing through it. And if you could buy enough, there was no need to be looking at a trailer, rusting cars and farm animals crowded onto a space just below the driveway on the neighbor’s property.

It took two years of renting a cabin and keeping their belongings in storage before the new house was finished. Sub-contractors are hard to come by and even harder to keep on the job. When the Certificate of Occupancy was finally granted the champagne had been on ice for just under a year. Like almost everyone who comes from somewhere north of the Tennessee Valley, Sue and Joe miscalculated the pace of accomplishment here in the hills of North Carolina.

After building their house and settling in, they both found they had too much time on their hands. Maybe if they could find a place to renovate, they could put all they learned about building in the area to good use. It could be a shop or studio for them to work in away from home and among the locals they were anxious to get to know better. Their opportunity came by way a vacant store right downtown Oliver – one of many that come with the addition of a Walmart in the vicinity. It was just the right size for the framing shop they were now quite sure would be a perfect business to have. Sue had a good eye for art and how it should be presented and Joe could make the frames to keep up his woodworking skills without having to turn part of the garage into a shop. Sue would manage the books and take care of the shop. They kept their new business small and the name simple, .Framed.  A few well-framed works of Sues as well as some commissioned pieces from members of the local Art League hung prominently on the walls. On the shelves locally made craft items for the home and art supplies made up the rest of their inventory. Anyone who came in knew at a glance that the Putnams had taste and knew how to make their business a success, a perfect addition to the Chamber of Commerce of Oliver, North Carolina.

Most of their clientele were hobbyists lulled by general kindness into thinking their Sunday efforts needed to be framed, entered into shows, presented to family members or priced and hung at the local diner. These paintings were usually watercolors of something just outside the window, a potted plant, garden scene, mountains in the distance.  They wanted to see what they already had framed by windows, framed again on an interior wall. Some of it was done well and some of it was dreadful. To Sue it was mostly just boring.

Without ever having been in their homes, she knew the rooms where the ‘art’ would hang, rooms painted in dusty shades of blues and greens with lush magnolia wallpaper somewhere in the peripheral vision. Small pictures hung in foyers, medium-sized floral paintings in the dining room and large landscapes over the couch facing its inspiration. Boring as she may think it is, Sue is happy when they show their efforts to friends and family and get the praise and encouragement needed for them to bring it in for framing.

Very few of Sue’s customers think their work should stand alone in an off-white mat and simple black or natural wood frame. They are their own interior decorators and the colors of sofa and wallpaper play a major part in choosing how their paintings will be viewed. Sue Putnam has paid careful attention to her customers and their tastes. She keeps a good supply of mat board on hand in all colors – especially a wide selection of soft blues and greens. As for the frame molding that needs to be stocked, that also is predictable. An aged barn wood for landscapes with the ornate gold leaf reserved for the still life that has been carefully arranged by the monthly Art League instructor. Most of the members are using watercolors but once in a while there is the brave or more experienced painter who uses oils, and it is they especially who will require the rich, heavy art museum look when the painting is ready to be hung in their wallpapered dining rooms.

A typical monthly painting session will go like this: A person well versed in the still life will set up a variation of one shiny copper or pewter vessel with two, just two, pieces of fruit and a few flowers tossed down on an old linen cloth. Or at any time a porcelain tea pot can be substituted for the metal pieces, the flowers removed and a crust of bread on a plate is added. Keeping in mind of course that there should be no noticeable even numbers of objects and the eye should be directed around in a triangular path through the “canvas”. Once they have had a quick bite of the cookies brought in and opened a bottle of drinking water the instructor has settled on her arrangement and they are ready to start shuffling their easels around to their best advantage. Sue knows all this because she is a regular at these painting sessions.


Sue has been dusting and rearranging pottery in the shop for the first hour after opening.  The coffee she brought with her has gone cold and Joe is not in the back,. So she can’t very well run across the street to Marty’s to get another one. It won’t be long and she will be meeting Lydia there for lunch. She appraises her efforts and goes back to her stool behind the counter and reviews again the routine she follows when her customers bring in something that needs framing.

First she carefully lays the piece on her carpet covered counter and brings out the almost endless selection of colored mat corners to be placed just the right distance from the subject. ‘Don’t crowd that geranium, tree, front porch swing or golden retriever’, she reminds herself. She will make sure the mat samples cover the torn, spiral-holed and pencil-smudged areas along the outside edges of the artwork. Then seeing how the captured corner now looks in the appropriate color, the customer will usually smile at how well they did on this piece and are glad their friend or relative convinced them to have it framed. It’s true. Framing can actually make them look better than they are if it is done right, and doing it right is what the Putnams know how to do.

Most of what they frame is tradition-based and instructor-assisted artworks. But lately newer pieces done in mixed media are becoming popular. Papers, glues and paints all stuck or sewn together on a paper or canvas. For the more adventurous members the Art League was now offering workshops in this new expressive art form. And if the town’s artists don’t want to take a class, and instead go at their own pace, all they had to do was buy one of several how-to books by someone who did take a workshop and went on to become an authority in gluing, pasting and paint smearing. And the results were pretty much the same. Layers of smudged papers that include pages from old books (with only a few meaningful words exposed to reveal the artists intention), photos (old black and white ones collected at random from antique shops and flea markets), used tea bags and crumpled tissues is what seems to be the basic formula. All of it dry brushed with gesso or in lieu of gesso, house paint would do. This recent interest in mixed media was followed quickly by workshops in encaustic so the entire piece could be covered in wax to look even more mysterious and meaningful.

Jesus, Sue had to be careful not to frame them upside down or sideways. The good thing was that most of their “art” required deep shadow-boxed frames to house all the meaning being put into them. And really, Sue and Joe liked trying to figure out not only what was in them but why? They were so much more interesting than another red geranium in a green mat with a barn wood frame.