Retro-realist painter Robert Townsend is celebrating a woman's life — someone he never met. Townsend knew this woman would keep his career busy for a few months, but he never imagined she would inspire an 18-year project to produce 100 paintings of her life and become the subject of My Indiana Muse, a short documentary that is amassing accolades and tears.
The film just won the Audience Award for Best Short Documentary at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival and will be shown in the Beverly Hills Film Festival on Friday, April 6.
In 2014, Townsend, a Los Angeles native born and raised in Downey, was browsing eBay for vintage Kodachrome slides to source material for his next oil painting when he found her. She was “Mod Woman in Hawaii” and “Mod Woman in the Snow” and “Mod Woman at the Beach,” a nameless, middle-aged woman photographed with a friendly smile, '60s bouffant, cat-eye glasses and heels — always wearing heels. She was the epitome of everything Townsend loved and was known for painting, a 1950s American dream life lived to its fullest.
When Townsend realized the Mod Woman appeared in eight listings of individual slides, he contacted the Chicago-based seller to ask if she knew the family and if more slides from the collection existed. The seller explained that she had purchased 30 carousels of slides from an estate sale in Highland, Indiana — nearly 3,000 slides. Townsend's proposal that he travel to the seller's home in Chicago to view the entire collection and make an offer was declined.
After a year of waiting for the seller to post more listings, Townsend had finished two paintings based on the slides he had already purchased. He contacted the seller again, this time offering to purchase the entire collection, sight unseen. The seller agreed after Townsend explained why he wanted the slides.
“I pay respect to people's lives from another generation,” Townsend says during a phone interview with L.A. Weekly, echoing what he told the seller: “Even though we don't know who these people are, they took the time — over 30 years — to document their lives, their travels, their family, and kept it all together. They passed away but their story is still intact. If you sell the slides separately, their story disappears forever.”
The purchase was a risk, but even if there were only 10 more usable slides, Townsend would gain two more years' worth of work. Instead, he found a lifetime. With the slides in hand, Townsend knew the paintings of the Mod Woman would be some of the largest he'd ever painted, measuring 6 feet by 9 feet, on custom-made canvases weighing more than 150 pounds.
“These scenes are so mythic that it feels wrong to paint them small,” Townsend says. “I want people to feel the physical presence standing in front of these paintings. I want to paint the people in the paintings as close to actual size as I can so when you're standing in front of them, there is an emotional connection, looking into someone's eyes who is almost life-size.”
While reviewing the slides, Townsend found an image that helped him identify his muse. It was a slide of the Mod Woman and her husband wearing Hawaiian shirts and name tags with their full names. The nameless woman (whom Townsend had dubbed Kay in his first painting of her, Just Kay and Patty!) was Helen and next to her was her husband, Roy. After a quick internet search, Townsend was able to find Helen's obituary. He contacted the funeral home that had handled Helen's services and asked that her next of kin contact him. Two hours later, Townsend received a call from Helen's niece, Cheryl Berea.
The more Townsend revealed about his project, the more Berea shared with him about Helen's life. “It was kind of a fairy tale,” Townsend said. “Helen was born in the Great Depression. Roy was in World War II. They got married. Were married for 69 years. Traveled extensively.”
Townsend was even more delighted to learn why the couple was wearing name tags. Berea explained that her aunt and uncle had gone to appear on The Diamond Head Game, a short-lived game show hosted by Bob Eubanks and taped on location in breezy Hawaii in 1975. Roy won a mattress.
By now, there was more to Helen's story than Townsend could paint, so he enlisted filmmakers Ric and Jen Serena, the husband-and-wife duo behind Serena Creative, to document his journey, which included traveling to a few of Helen and Roy's road-trip destinations and to their hometown of Highland, Indiana, to meet Berea — a impromptu offer Townsend couldn't wait to accept.
“Our initial interest was definitely Robert,” Ric Serena tells L.A. Weekly by phone. “I was curious to know what is it about Helen that is so inspiring to him. That was our motivation, more so than Helen. There was such an exuberance in his voice — that was what was so endearing to us — and that quality never left in the two years I was working with him.”
“The big thing for me was that Robert is willing to spend so many years of his life painting just this one person,” Jen Serena says. “That intrigued me immensely.”
Despite the compelling and photogenic life Helen led, the success of the documentary is due more to the master than the muse. Ric was surprised to see that Townsend, a self-proclaimed introvert who had never been on-camera, was so natural during filming.
“Honestly, you could sit down with Robert and you could spend that same time — that 44 minutes — watching the film or just sitting talking with him and be enchanted,” Jen says. “I feel like every time we sit down with him, there is something beautiful he has to say.”
Townsend initially thought he was embarking on a 10-year project, but after the documentary was filmed, he decided to extend the number of projected paintings to 100, instead of 80.
Ric and Jen began filming in Townsend's Los Angeles studio, unaware of the direction and length of the documentary, which hinged heavily on Berea's involvement and on-camera presence. But thanks to Townsend's charismatic sincerity, Berea's interview could not have gone better. Her scenes breathe life into an unknown past and, frankly, make us cry. The unveiling of serendipitous events surrounding the project, coupled with the film's original score (composed by Paul Bessenbacher of Opus Orange and Matt Bowen), also tugs at viewers' heartstrings. The story touches on inspiration, connection and the journey of our belongings after we're gone.
“We are consistently getting tears and smiles,” Ric says of the audience reactions to the documentary. “For the most part I think they're happy tears and nostalgic tears.”
Townsend witnessed an emotional reaction to the documentary after he gave two women who were standing in line at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival a pair of extra tickets to his screening. The women approached him after his Q&A session — in tears — and explained that they were sisters and were in town sorting their recently deceased mother's estate when they decided to take a break to attend the film festival. They had no prior knowledge of the documentary and said the coincidence of relatable events in the film was cathartic. The women were touched by the story of Helen's life, as told by her niece, and the decisions Berea had to make as the executor of Helen's will.
Aside from sentiment, My Indiana Muse also displays Townsend's incredible work ethic. Townsend treats his career as a painter like any other 9-to-5 job, except he usually puts in 10 to 12 hours per day. Each Helen painting takes Townsend an average of three months to complete. First he must project the slide onto his canvas and selectively trace the shapes and details he will paint, a process that requires up to 30 hours. The documentary shows Townsend's entire process through a combination of real time and timelapse, allowing viewers to see the sometimes contorted physical labor required to paint canvases so large and detailed. Townsend's level of skill continues to impress those who already know him and his work well, like his former high school art teacher, Doug Andrews.
“If you were to ask me back in the '90s about this kid Robert Townsend, I would have said, 'Yeah, he's really good but…,'?” Andrews laughs. “I'm just floored. He's a master at what he does. A lot of techniques that he does now are things he developed himself. He thinks so differently than everyone else with his use of colors and patterns and everything. [In high school], he did a colored pencil drawing of a little wind-up toy that back then was like, 'OK, there's something special about this kid.' You looked at this drawing and it stood out. It was incredible what he was doing with just colored pencils. I still have the drawing.”
After Townsend graduated high school, he and a friend, illustrator Paul Wallace, painted murals for local businesses and homes, a side venture that lasted 10 years. Townsend also kept in touch with Andrews, bonding over burgers and bowling.
“I have a whole little library of Robert Townsend stuff,” Andrews says. “I even have images of all of the murals he did. Over the years, he's become really close to my wife and I. We think of him as a part of our family.”
Townsend's collegiate art experience was less positive. He took his first art course while attending Cerritos College and was told by his professor — the first professional painter he'd ever met — that he would never make it as an artist. Townsend heeded the teacher's advice and quit the class; he took a seven-year hiatus from both art and college during which he worked a series of day jobs delivering televisions and medical records, eventually working at Sunset Aquatic Shipyard in Huntington Beach.
One night at a party, an acquaintance encouraged Townsend, then 24, to take a watercolor class with a different instructor. During the first week of classes, the professor told Townsend he was too good for the class, gave him an A for the semester and told him he didn't have to attend any more classes because he already knew more than the professor could teach him.
For six years, after his shifts at the shipyard, Townsend would work on watercolor paintings in his studio apartment with what he called “serious intent,” honing his style and technique. Townsend credits YouTube tutorials by artists such as Sean Cheetham for teaching him the basics of oil painting, a medium he surprisingly started only 10 years ago.
Once Townsend had created a portfolio he deemed technically proficient, he approached Los Angeles painter and muralist Kenton Nelson — whose work is collected by Steve Martin, Diane Keaton and Dean Koontz — for advice. Townsend brought five of his best watercolor pieces to Nelson's Pasadena studio — and left without them.
“[Nelson] asked if he could keep them to show to a few people,” Townsend says. “He called me back a week later and was like, 'All right, I sold one. Where should I send the check?' So I gave him my address, and it was $8,000. Then I knew I could be an artist because these are serious collectors. I was used to living in a world where friends were giving me $100 to paint portraits and I was making $10 an hour at the shipyard.”
Townsend was able to work flexible shifts at the shipyard while pursuing painting until he was able to land gallery shows and eventually carved out a career solely based on art, a profession he says he never takes for granted. Over the years, his subject matter has included an array of vintage Americana turned still-life: rusty cars, matchbooks and bottle caps, as well as sweets like doughnuts, cupcakes, lollipops and candies. Townsend, a loyal follower of Wayne Thiebaud, shares the same philosophy as that well-known painter: Art should be light, art should celebrate.
“That's why my paintings are sunshine and lollipops. Maybe it's a little too Pollyanna, I don't know, but why not wake up every morning and feel cheerful? How could that ever be a bad thing?” Townsend asks. “Not that I'm always able to pull it off, mind you. But if people are really inspiring and excited about joyful things and celebrating and grateful for their lives and grateful for everything they have — it's just contagious and it spreads that joy to other people.
“That is Helen.”
Helen continues to spread joy and travel the country. Her next stop is Altamira Fine Art Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona, for a show that runs April 16 through May 5. Four of the nine completed Helen oil paintings will be on display — the other five have already been sold. The opening reception is April 19.
My Indiana Muse will be shown at the Beverly Hills Film Festival on Friday, April 6, at 7:15 p.m. Learn more about the project and view more of the paintings on Townsend's website: freecolortv.com. Additional upcoming film festival screenings can be found at serenacreative.com.myindianamuse.