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Published: Sunday, 10/3/2004

Young artist's works focus on hope, inspiration

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Amanda Dunbar's first painting was <i>Mother's Touch</i>, created for Dunbar's mother when the young artist was 13 years old. Amanda Dunbar's first painting was <i>Mother's Touch</i>, created for Dunbar's mother when the young artist was 13 years old.
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In May, Amanda Dunbar graduated from college with a degree not considered as marketable as nursing or computer science: art history.

She plans to earn master's and doctoral degrees, perhaps at Yale, but will take off time to paint and exhibit, travel, and do charity work.

"I've always had to balance school and artwork, and it hasn't been easy," says Amanda, 21. "This is probably the first time in my life I've been able to focus on my painting."

But no starving artist in a chilly garret, she.

Her large canvases fetch up to $100,000; small ones, about $2,000. "For better or worse, it seems most of my paintings get sold as soon as I paint them," she says

With lustrous auburn hair and a milky complexion, Amanda seems well-grounded. She realizes she's forging new ground. "Try to think, off the top of your head, of a young woman artist in the history books," she challenges.

She lives in Allen, Tex., near Dallas, with her parents and sister, Meaghan, 20, and dates her high-school sweetheart, an engineer.

Amanda and her mother, Judi Dunbar, were in Toledo for last month's opening of the Hayes Center for the Arts at Tiffin University. They were guests of South Toledoans Patty and David Hayes, who own six of Amanda's early (mid-teens) paintings and lent them for the Hayes Center's dedication.

Good things, it seems, just keep on coming to the vivacious beauty.

In the summer, she captured the interest of the owner of a celebrity hideaway in Fiji called Turtle Island. He built a studio for her, to which she'll return to do a residency.

The planners of the Grammy music awards asked her to be their official artist and to design posters, tickets, and key chains. She declined.

"I want to be in museums," she says. Instead, she donated art for the Grammy's charity auction.

She said yes to toy maker Mattel, which included some of her paintings in a Barbie as Rapunzel DVD. The animated movie is followed by a profile on Amanda.

But most stunning of all, she has what many artists fantasize about - a patron, who has given her more than $1 million with which to create as she sees fit. She won't say who he is, but she admits that the golden paintbrush she's been handed seems too good to be true. Over an open-ended period of time, she will paint "big, colorful stuff": abstracts, landscapes, figures, from which he will select favorites.

Says her mother: "It's someone who wants to see her grow into a Monet one day."

Much of Amanda's figurative art inspires nostalgia, as if Norman Rockwell mixed it up with the Impressionists: a girl leaps through a water-sprinkler, a toddler is transfixed by a butterfly, a streetscape in Provence beckons.

Key to her popularity may be her aesthetic philosophy: She aims to give hope, spark a memory, trigger a smile, and to make art accessible. Uniformly absent is angst, despair, or drama.

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Amanda's remarkable ascent was overseen by thoughtful parents, who fed her passion while reminding her she could quit whenever it stopped being fun. Theirs was a different playbook than used by the parents of some wunderkinds.

"One of the first things we did was create a team of people to protect her - even from us," says Judi. The seven-member group of lawyers, accountants, financial and tax planners meets annually to adjust her business plan. "They're all very strong women," says Judi. "You learn to surround yourself with good people. And to give back."

Judi is a nurse who also operated a small interior-design business. Ken Dunbar, Amanda's father, is an electrical engineer. They moved from Canada to Texas about a decade ago.

Born in Thunder Bay, their elder daughter was a bookworm whose earliest art was of the refrigerator genre.

Amanda's calling occurred when she was 13. She signed up for an after-school art class. "It looked like fun and a bunch of my friends were doing it," she says. Her first painting was a tender portrait of a mother drying her little girl after a bath.

Within weeks, the teacher told her parents he had to see them.

"I was a little upset," says Judi, not knowing what to expect.

They entered a classroom filled with charming paintings they assumed were the teacher's. "And he said they were my daughter's," Judi says. Amanda was, the teacher said, beyond anything he could teach her.

She began painting obsessively, sometimes into the wee hours, producing a large painting every week.

"We were happy she was playing with paint instead of going to the mall or getting in trouble," says Judi.

The next summer she looked for a job, and the Dunbars devised a plan they figured would make or break her nascent passion. They had recently built a studio onto their home for Judi's interior-design business. If Amanda would paint there 40 hours a week, purchasing and cleaning her supplies, they'd pay her $150.

"I thought she'd get sick of it," says Judi. But Amanda was diligent, and did the same thing the next summer, amassing a collection of work.

"Again, my mom's ingenious," says Amanda. "She said one of the things you need to do is know how to handle a show, get comfortable talking to people about your work." They invited neighbors and teachers to an open house.

The event the Dunbars think started the domino effect was a school assignment to incorporate classical music into a visual medium. Amanda was chosen to paint during intermission at the Allen Symphony Orchestra, where a crowd gathered around her.

A musician later spoke about her to a Dallas gallery owner, who invited her to show her work. Amanda, then 16, was eager to give it a go, "with the understanding she may never do it again," says Judi.

They were dumbfounded when art experts priced her 72 paintings at $2,000 to $10,000, based on size, complexity, and medium. When the show closed six weeks later, only two remained unsold.

"My thought was, 'Yay! College!' " says Judi.

Newspapers wrote articles. And then, the great and powerful O summoned. Oprah Winfrey was doing a program on prodigies.

"I don't think I slept or ate for two or three days," Amanda says.

Knowing they were in for a fast ride, the Dunbars fastened their seat belts.

"We sat down as a family and said how do we want this to go, and how do we want to run this as a business?" says Judi. "With two teenaged girls being exposed to this strange world where you have TV cameras in your living room." They decided to follow their instincts.

"We would have fun and when it's not fun anymore, we'll just stop tomorrow. It's not that big of a deal."

From Oprah, (who has a painting by Amanda in her Chicago penthouse) Amanda learned not to get swept up in what others tell her to do. And shortly thereafter, the Hayeses, of Toledo, saw her on television.

"I saw the Bubble Maker (Amanda's 1999 oil) and the whole family. I said Amanda's very, very special, and if we can afford that painting, I'd love to have that," says Patty Hayes.

They telephoned the gallery and purchased three. (David Hayes' purchasing strategy is this: after explaining that he collects several pieces by artists he likes, he asks for a 10 percent discount, plus free crating and shipping.)

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The Dunbars wonder at the turn their lives have taken.

"We're very spiritual people, not religious," says Judi. Guided by Angels: Divinely Inspired Paintings by Amanda Dunbar (Longstreet Press, 2000), is a 134-page hard-cover book featuring her early work. "There's no other way to explain why the doors have opened and the people who have come into our lives have come. We feel Amanda is the vehicle."

Amanda says she has worked hard, been disciplined, and made sacrifices. She's donated $500,000 to children's charities and plans to make that $1 million by year's end. She's opened Galerie Papillon in Dallas, and exhibits her paintings in a handful of carefully selected galleries where the Dunbars trust that the owners will support her no matter what direction art, and the angels, lead her.

"I've been extremely lucky," she says. "I've had an amazing support system."

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com or 419-724-6075.



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