EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY. AND FOR THOSE WHO can tell a good one in images, the government is painting a rosy job picture. Over the next decade, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects at least a 25 percent increase in the number of jobs for artists and designers.
That economic prospect sounds promising to Peri Pfenninger, 40. This is because the Arcata woman, who makes a comfortable living at telling stories with interior wall murals, believes the job choice is a hard one. It can be "very hard" in Humboldt County, she said, standing alongside her next decorator piece on canvas for a professional firm in San Francisco. Dressed in paint-splattered jeans, Pfenninger avoided the same look in her long, red hair by softly brushing it away from her face with her wrist.
Even with the county's well-known art roots, her medium's grand-scale nature requires a high-end clientele that's limited here.
So when Gingerbread Mansion innkeeper Ken Torbet called a year ago asking to create a five-wall classical masterpiece in one of his rooms, Pfenninger put most everything else aside and "cranked" on a mural that captures the dreamy essence of the Italian Renaissance.
"Sometimes I would spend the night there (in the inn)," she said, recalling those long days last summer that engulfed her life. Pfenninger said a comparable job can run a buyer $10,000 to $15,000.
From walls to ceiling, the "Veneto" based on the mainland region of northeast Italy that encompasses the capital city of Venice was completed in June after two months of hard work and cooperation.
"Veneto was a total collaboration with Peri," Torbet said. The two had even used a sculpture in the inn's garden as inspiration in the room, which has transported at least 100 couples to another world since it opened, Torbet said. The Ferndale inn promotes the Venetian-style room on the Internet.
One pair with an apartment in Venice delighted in the room's design, making the two feel at home away from home, he said. Though many of the elegant room's visitors come from all over, one future guest will only have to walk blocks from her work.
Curley's Grill waitress Rickie Klimachuski plans to spend her 50th birthday in the Veneto room March 12. She toured the inn days ago.
"I knew that's where I wanted to stay the minute I saw it," she said.
The McKinleyville woman was inspired by her customers, who often enter the restaurant wielding pictures of themselves in the room.
"They must have them developed overnight," she said, noting one man flashing her a picture of his wife in the bathtub. That's where Klimachuski wants to spend the majority of her special day.
"I can see myself lying in the bathtub with a glass of champagne surrounded by angels (on the mural wall) with my husband catering to my every whim," she said.
Pfenninger applauded the woman's permission to treat herself, saying Klimachuski has captured the fantasy of many.
The artist said she's often inspired by fantasies and dreams.
"Images come to me a lot," she said. "I'm lucky that way."
One could argue she's lucky in life too. Her own personal life in the last decade had culminated in a fairy tale romance July 4, 1994, with her husband carrying her over the threshold of the house he remodeled for her.
The New York native met her husband, Charlie Peling, while she attended Humboldt State University to work on a bachelor's degree in fine arts in 1980. Years later she returned to New York, where she completed her educational goals with teaching credentials and launched her career in the Big Apple.
Across the continent, the two kept in touch by writing letters to each other, until one summer Pfenninger returned to Northern California because she held a special place in her heart for the area.
"I always felt homesick for Humboldt County," she said, but further admitting she was caught up in her blossoming East Coast business.
Pfenninger, who used to pay the bills teaching art, was heavily encouraged by Peling, her friend, to make a living as an artist. On her birthday he traded visits to the city, with flowers and a "gorgeous" dress in hand.
"I was dating real jerks (in New York at the time)," she said. The two companions with similar interests and history fell in love over that "very romantic weekend," she said. They dated over a year before he asked if she would "accept" his life in Humboldt.
"How could I say no?" she asked, despite the thought of leaving a growing client list in New York.
But she chose love.
"If I moved to San Francisco or Marin, it would've been easier," she said, adding "no regrets" over her choice.
Five years from that fateful time, Pfenninger said she's now experiencing her business "come into fruition." It hasn't been easy.
"It's rough. Most artists either teach or get work out of the area," she said, relating what she's heard to her own experience. Still, the arts community is "the most wonderful thing" about living in Humboldt County. Pfenninger is a member of the Humboldt Arts Council and Ink People, an association of artists celebrating 20 years in the making.
Many Humboldt artists that Pfenninger knows share a dual life the art of passion and the art of feeding oneself. Pfenninger understands the dual image. Though she often juggles between 20 to 30 clients a year in the art business, she's usually whittling away at her own personal oil paintings and other pet projects in her leisure hours.
"I started drawing when I first could hold a pencil," Pfenninger said, reflecting on life at age 5. She honed her skills taking art classes, much to the encouragement of her parents.
At the time, "I drew what I saw," she said.
Now, Pfenninger's "bored with realism," preferring the freedom of abstract art that unfolds as she goes.
"I like a little sense of mystery in whatever I do," she said. For example, progression of the Veneto a tromp l'oeil piece designed to "fool the eye" left some unknowns that appealed to her creative sense. Pfenninger often taps into her subconscious to reveal these mysteries and the reality of her experience to share a wisdom of the world. Pfenninger received a sense of culture from her trip to Europe.
"I really think before I paint," she said. While she's painting, she opens herself up to her intuition. "I love the tie-in between what I think and feel and what I paint."
But there is a methodology to the mystique. Indeed, she paints a small scale model first, so a large canvas isn't lost on an experiment. Some canvasses cost $200.
"Everything excites me about painting," she said. Pfenninger started painting, including murals, when she was 18. Her mother, an interior designer in New York, "influenced" Pfenninger's love of art and desire to run her own business.
However, the combination can be an unruly monster if not controlled or turned off to strike a balance in life, she admits. Sometimes the mother of two finds herself sitting up at night, writing down ideas or agonizing over small-business decisions.
But Pfenninger has learned to compartmentalize her personal life from her work in the Arcata studio she shares with Joyce Radtke, another artist who takes those dealing with terminal illnesses on spiritual journeys. Pfenninger, who's for the most part worked alone, enjoys the companionship and insight of rooming with another female artist. The experience has taken her back to her first solo show two years ago. Pfenninger recounted hobbling in to the memorable show a "Woman's Inner Journey" with a back injury.
Since then, Pfenninger's work, which she says appeals to many women as clients, has held up to scrutiny. It's a common scenario for a woman to hire her and her husband to stay detached halfway through the mural work, she said. But once she's earned the men's respect, they "flip out" with excitement over the work. "They have to be warmed up," she said.
Has she always been taken seriously as a mural artist? "I take myself too seriously.
"The person hiring you has to give some element of trust," she said. As much as the nature of the work, clients vary in demeanor. Experience has taught her to read the signs of a problem client.
Who's the worst? Without hesitation she replied wannabe artists.
Pfenninger's convening with the real thing outside Reno, Nev., over Labor Day weekend. Each year, hundreds of artists from around the world descend on the desert region with their burning passions for the largest art installment in the nation. For her ritual display, she's bringing earth's elements, as in fire and water, in a cluster of lifesize paper sculptures.
The "Burning Man" event, as it's called, in September isn't the first time Pfenninger has created an outdoor display. She's worked on outside murals but now prefers the controlled climate of the indoors because at least one Humboldt County element wreaks havoc with the working surface rain.
Duane Flatmo, 40, of Eureka agrees, admitting he's spent weeks waiting for the weather in Humboldt to clear. The rainy season can easily dictate the well-known outside muralist's working schedule here. It helps to have work going outside the area, he said, listing Boston, Indio, Palo Alto and Santa Clara as places where motorists and walkers can see his murals. For his latest local project, he managed a young group of muralists on an E Street display in Eureka.
The Eureka Chamber of Commerce issues literature highlighting a walking tour of the town's murals. On the list is Flatmo's design tribute to Keith Haring on the Lost Coast Brewery building.
The late Haring, who died of AIDS years ago, captured a signature style of graffiti art on benchboards for viewers taking the subways in New York before police would have time to capture him. Though not to the degree of Haring's exploits, life as an artist can be a tough way to make a living, Flatmo said, echoing Pfenninger's sentiment. .
"You have to be very diverse here," he said as one in only a handful of mural artists living and making a living in the county. Flatmo, an artist of 20 years, said he's encouraged by the optimistic employment projection for artists, of which the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 40 percent are self-employed.
Top photo: Patrick Cudahy Other photos: Brandi Easter
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