Bad portraits done good

Mandy Stobo’s tweet art is getting lots of face time in the Hollywood Twitterverse

Bad portraits done good

Photograph by Chris Bolin

In Calgary’s Crossroads Market, Mandy Stobo spends her days in the blood pit of a former Canada Packers meat plant. Here in her somewhat spooky art studio, Stobo, 28, paints large neo-expressionist paintings that sell for anywhere from $800 to $8,000. But it’s a different kind of art the self-taught Stobo began creating last May on her kitchen table—a project she calls Bad Portraits—that’s generating, if not art-circle buzz, then plenty of tweets. In the past six months, Stobo has created more than 800 Bad Portraits: stacks of splashy neon watercolour renderings of people, ranging from the famous to pretty much anyone who asks. She spends about 45 minutes on each portrait, and then sells the original watercolour for $100. So far, she has sold about 150, a few dozen of which have been purchased by the “Twitterati”—celebs and lesser-knowns who have large followings on Twitter. But you need not spend a nickel to get your own Bad Portrait. Stobo will happily paint a Bad Portrait for anyone who asks, then email them a free digital copy. Many people use them as avatars on personal Web pages. Bad Portraits is the brainchild of an artist-mother who wanted to spend more time with her five-year-old son and still keep her brush busy. After a divorce, Stobo moved in 2006 with her then-newborn from Vancouver to Canmore, Alta. Canmore had good single-parent support programs and available daycare, both tougher to find 105 km away in Calgary. But Calgary had that dungeon-like studio, which was bigger and cheaper than anything she could find in Canmore. Yet it was lonely in the studio, and Stobo found the twice-a-day, 90-minute commute eating into her time with her child. Last spring, as a lark, Stobo dashed off a few “bad portraits” for friends. Her pals, clamouring for more, loved how Stobo caught something deeper than caricature with a few deft strokes of pen and brush. Soon, Stobo realized she’d created an entirely new “oeuvre,” one that “starts art at the ground floor and makes people giggle.” A Twitter newbie, she began pulling photos of celebrities she admired off the Internet and then painting them as unsolicited Bad Portraits. She then emailed the digital version to their Twitter accounts. Anyone can message a celebrity’s Twitter account, but getting a response is another matter. Suddenly, chirpy reviews were being tweeted by the likes of George Stroumboulopoulos, Conan O’Brien and, oddly, a growing clique of Los Angeles television writers and producers. Stobo now receives daily orders for portraits, and her website gets as many as 87,000 hits a week. “That’s mind-boggling to me,” she says. Los Angeles-based Andrea Seigel, author of the novel Like the Red Panda, first heard about Stobo when her friend Stephen Falk, a writer-producer on the Showtime series Weeds, tweeted about the portrait Stobo emailed him. “I thought it was really funny,” recalls Seigel, who then emailed Stobo a photo of herself, her boyfriend and their French bulldog named Christmas. “Mandy didn’t know the dog’s name when I gave her the photo. And then, in her portraits she does watercolours over ink, and Christmas’s head is bizarrely green and red. She totally intuited our dog’s name through her colour choices.” But can “funny” qualify as art, or must it be relegated to the gutter of kitsch? According to Rob Mabee, owner of Calgary’s Axis Contemporary Art, where, in December, Stobo will exhibit her large graffiti-infused paintings (Bad Portraits will not be featured), “People are not getting a bad portrait at all, they are getting a very good portrait, really fresh and dynamic, from an outstanding contemporary artist.” Nor should Stobo’s Bad Portraits detract from her aspirations to “high” art, he says. “Street art transcended into high art 20 or 30 years ago, with Keith Haring and other New York artists exhibiting in high-art settings.” But art critic praise isn’t what Stobo is seeking for her Bad Portraits. “It’s not about me. It’s about all of us. It’s about joy.” And you can put a face to that.

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