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Transitory masterpieces

by David Gunter
| December 14, 2010 8:00 PM

SANDPOINT - She paints like she sings, in flowing lines that turn Sandpoint into her canvas and her song each holiday season.

Since 2000, local artist and jazz vocalist Maria Larson has decorated the town with her stylized wreaths, garland, ribbons and snowy trees, all of which spring to life from the tip of her paintbrush. She has been painting holiday windows for about 25 years, assiduously avoiding the use of color - especially for things like red-nosed reindeer.

"No Santa in his sleigh; no cutesy elves," Larson said. "And no Rudolph."

In their place, she creates wintery images that tie the town together like the bow drawn tight around a neatly wrapped present. Maybe it's the retro factor, but there's something about watching Larson at work that makes people stop and share memories of Christmases past.

"I wish the business owners - the people who pay me - could stand on the street and hear what they say," Larson said. "They just go ape. Some of them come back and take pictures.

"I think I have just lucked upon a design that people really react to," she added.

One of the most common remarks Larson hears is that the window art makes the town "feel cohesive." When adjacent stores sign up for painting, she views them as a whole, so the viewer's eye is drawn across the entire composition, not just a single aspect or section of artwork. The outside shops, for instance, might be decorated in garland, while the business in the center gets a tree scene.

Not that Larson plans any of it in advance. The process, she explained, explodes with spontaneity.

"I give an initial assessment and then I just launch and compose as I go," the artist said. "I want to create movement and flourishes so the window doesn't just sit there."

The artist's tools are simple - a small pail of white acrylic paint, a number 4720 bristle-tipped brush and a pair of jeans and purple sweatshirt that double as winter wear and artist's rag and drop cloth. The spots where she has dabbed her brush or wiped an errant drop of white off a black winter glove make her appear to be painted in the same swirls and branches as the windows she designs.

"Someone asked me the other day, 'Did you just paint the window and then throw yourself against it?'" Larson said. "I wish you could see some of the looks I get when I walk into a restaurant with my jacket and jeans just covered in paint.

"It's kind of my two-month uniform this time of year," she went on. "But I always try to wear spectacular earrings."

After moving from southern Idaho, where she and her husband owned an art gallery, 10 years ago, Larson relented when a local businessperson asked her to dress up some store windows for the holidays.

"While I was painting, the business across the street came over and said, 'Can you do ours next?'" the artist said. "It just blossomed from there."

Larson has no succession plan for the day she finally decides to hang up her paint-splattered purple jacket, stating that the one-person window operation was never meant to be anything more than that.

Windows, after all, are just one fathom in the greater depth of the art she creates year-round, including scenic watercolors on top of Lake Pend Oreille topographical maps, oil paintings and regular local appearances as the featured vocalist with an instrumental trio that includes her husband, Lars, on drums, Larry Hanna on bass and 70-year jazz veteran Bill Reid on piano. Beyond that, she has been active in theatre - on stage as well as behind the scenes as a set designer and painter - and as a dancer who nearly went to college on a dance scholarship.

This jumble of creativity seems to find a place on the windows of Sandpoint shops, as ribbons swirl and pirouette around frosted treetops that dot her imaginary landscapes like a festive melody line.

"Hopefully, all of that comes into play and becomes a lyrical mark that's uniquely mine," Larson said. "I don't know if you could ever teach that mark - the rhythm of those designs - to another person."

For Larson, the window-painting season is brief and filled with potential disruptions brought on by the weather. Too cold outside, and her paint turns to a gelatinous mush in the pail. Too wet, and the artwork runs down the windows in streaks and rivulets.

According to the painter, the season is virtually over by mid-December, since business owners don't think they're getting the right bang for the buck after that point. Larson, however, enjoys it when her clients leave the work up into the New Year.

"I think of them as 'winter windows' and I try to make sure they're not passe the day after Christmas," she said. "But when I still see them up at Easter, I think, 'OK, people - it's time to scrape that off.'"

Fortunately, the artist supplies her customers with a scraper and instructions on how to best remove the transitory art when they are ready to make it disappear until the next Christmas season. Larson, though, does not get involved in the clean-off procedure.

"Oh, no," she said. "I don't do windows."

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