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Fantasy Art and Comics: A mermaid in a coral reef observes a hermit crab

The Mermaid's Den


She has come home: my first attempt at a Professional Picture Framers Association (PPFA) competition is back from its New England road trip and is currently on display at the Framemakers. A lot of work went into it, with its hand-sculpted inner frame and outer shadowbox, and the artwork is an original Vigistry creation, too.

Talk of entering the PPFA competition came about in October 2013, after a trade show and lecture on the use of plaster in classical frames. At that time I was just "AK's husband", a tag-along carrying the bags, with no real interest in the trade. But with our own frame shop in our midst and the chance to do something creative for an audience, I thought it would be cool to collaborate with AK: I could design the piece, and the other half could build it with thirteen-plus years of framing experience.

Well, as business owners we learned how the daily affairs of an extremely busy art shop can suck up time and put certain creative visions on the back burner. My 2014 plan to continue working in the printing industry was cut short; I joined the Framemakers crew in March to work on databases and maybe help with basic fitting. Suddenly it was late April, and I was reminded that we had just a month to get going on that competition piece!

Drawing the Mermaids Den

For this open competition, the framed object could have been anything: an art print, magazine clipping, photo— but I wanted it to be original artwork in the event that if it didn't excel in the PPFA, I could enter it into other art shows. See, there's a method to this madness! That October lecture wasn't as boring to a non-framer as one might think; it did inspire me to do something creative with plaster, but since I'm not a sculptor I needed to think of something quick and imprecise that I couldn't possibly screw up— how about coral! And from coral I envisioned a mermaid, a staple among fantasy pin-up artists such as myself.

The artwork, depicting a coral reef, with a mermaid observing a hermit crab, was drawn completely in graphite then colored over with Prismacolor pencils. Halfway into the coloring, I spent a weekend at the shop to start working on the coral frame. By this time I had a bit of experience in our workshop to build the frame out of wood scraps. The plaster was made out of toilet paper, joint compound, and pipe cleaners. Some seashells were stuck on for extra adornment.

Plaster coral frame in progress

Not knowing how well the plaster would hold up, I had envisioned the artwork and coral frame to be contained inside a shadowbox. With nearly two weeks before the delivery truck coming to pick up the finished piece, I was looking over our sample wall for the frames that would compose the box. A thick graphite-colored moulding turned on its side forms the depth of the box, while a glossy, aquatic blue frame accents the top. Note that two kinds of cuts were used on these frames: a regular 45-degree angle cut for the aquatic blue, and a sideways cut to turn the wide graphite face into a tall box— more on this later. These two mouldings were ordered from our suppliers and a few days later came in the form of "chops", bars cut to size and ready for joining.

With our business's workload still wonderfully relentless, I was learning more aspects about the shop and heading a new department every week it seemed. With AK constantly immersed in administrative duties, it was becoming apparent that I was taking on this competition piece solely. I certainly appreciated the input from AK and veteran coworker Pat, but I found myself taking initiative on many things. Some after-hours were spent constructing the shadowbox and its precise turquoise lining. It figured, my final week was obstructed by nightly meetings, some of them fun. A work log describing my intentions, procedures, and equipment used on the piece was required for submission; this I wrote on an hour-long trip to Bangor for absinthe tasting with the mayor. On the way back, AK proof read it in a somewhat giddy state! It was a hustle, but with the mermaid finished, the coral frame painted in opalescent acrylics, the box built, and the writeup descriptive enough, everything was ready to be pieced together and packed in a shipping box the next morning. I had four hours until the delivery truck arrived!

The Mermaids Den finished

Fitting a custom frame consists of many steps, including securing the artwork, polishing the glass, pinning on a backboard, and adhering a dust cover. All of this I took care of in over two hours while juggling regular shop tasks. The final step was to attach a hanging wire, which is easy enough— just drill some holes and screw some hangers into the back of the frame. I drilled in the first screw, then the last, then— ever get the feeling that you're drowning in air? I bore a hole right through the side of the shadowbox and in my mind, my grade suddenly plunged to F. It figured, the very last step of an otherwise lucky project would be my downfall. It doesn't get any worse— unless, of course, the job spontaneously combusts as it's being placed in the customer bag.

AK made an emergency call to the event organizer who said that the week's deadline was an err on the side of caution. Officially I had one more week to get the piece on the truck! Another set of chops were ordered and, of course, came in the day of a major rush job, so I had to wait until closing on the day before the deadline to construct a new shadowbox. I opened the carton and— remember that part I mentioned about the two different cuts? The moulding that should have been cut boxwise came in flat; in other words, too short for me to work with. This project was looking cursed. However, with AK's wisdom and resourcefulness, we were able to recut the long bars and break apart the old box to salvage the two adjacent sides— an entire geometry session to start off the night! I didn't want to rest and resume the next morning like last week; by 9:30pm, the entire frame was constructed to perfection. Reinforced wire hangers were used as an improvement over the last model because of its weight. This meant that twice as many screws were needed. I really don't remember how I felt during that double jeopardy moment of drilling the holes; I was way too tired.

The Mermaids Den on display at the PPFA show

Seven framers competed in the PPFA show; it was a pleasure to see my submission on display among them. My simple idea to just "build a box" was rationalized by AK as a very ambitious project; I eventually had to agree. I've only been framing for two months, but relativity doesn't apply to the PPFA, though. There were too many masters and too many subtle impracticalities that counted against my work to keep it from placing. I did, however, get a nice ribbon for participating, and a few helpful critiques. Most of them had to do with the backing. It's amazing the importance of the work that isn't seen. Framing is such a perfectionist's art. The winners will move on to nationals in Las Vegas with their classified pieces, but guess what? I don't have to keep mine a secret anymore! Stop by the Framemakers in Waterville, Maine, and see "The Mermaid's Den" in person!