By Jim Roberts
Erin Wendell is a self-taught artist under no pretense that her work will ever hang in the Louvre—but she’s OK with that. To be sure, when asked to describe her style, she smiled and said: “Almost so bad it’s good.”
“It’s definitely not sophisticated,” she continued. “But arrogantly, I like it more than most anybody’s.”
Her favorite painting is a cross between Buddha and the TV icon “Fonzie” saying: “Namast-AYYY!” Another is a long-striding Waldo from the “Where’s Waldo?” books saying: “Why is everyone always searching for me, when they can’t even find themselves?”
Her colorful, simplistic style and dialogue bubbles are reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein’s famous pop art, but Wendell’s reaction to the comparison reveals the motivation underlying her work: “My eyeballs like his stuff,” she said. “It just never really made me laugh.”
Truth be told, she is influenced more by “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson than she is by any artist.
Wendell’s artistic journey began only two years ago. One day, after searching for a print of a shark online, she just decided to draw one herself. “When I was done with that, I drew an octopus,” she said. “I realized I could kind of draw, and then I just started drawing every day.”
She started out with colored Sharpies and posterboard but has moved on to acrylic and oil paint on canvas and wood. Most of her pieces were (and still are) created between 4 and 7 a.m.—after working a closing shift at University Pizza in Norfolk.
In fact, “U Pie” is where she sold her art for the first time. One day, she posted a note on Facebook saying she would bring six pieces to work and sell them for $50 each. “I made $300 that day, and I paid the power bill,” she said. “It was pretty sweet.”
Jon Miller was one of those first customers. “I started of buying art from Erin because she’s my friend, and that’s what you do,” he said. “It first started as a cool hobby/outlet for her that she developed into her everyday lifestyle. I’ve enjoyed seeing her grow as an artist and seeing her art work evolve.”
Wendell continues to display original work at U Pie, but she’s printed many of her pieces and sells them on etsy. Most recently, she sold a piece now hanging in a restaurant in Key West. (Two fish are huddled around a light bulb, and one of them says: “Find the light they told me. The light is good they told me.”)
The simplicity of her work has occasionally led to self-consciousness. “I honestly feel like it annoys some people,” she said. “You know, like real artists who have gone and honed in the craft and gone to school and stuff. … In the same regard, somebody who wants to become an artist or something could look at my stuff and feel like they have a chance.”
Fellow artist John Hickey, well known for his Norfolk murals, calls it “an undented childhood enthusiasm.”
“Sometimes people look at art, and they’re mesmerized by stuff they can’t accomplish themselves,” he said. “It’s nice when you can be inspired by someone who puts out her material simply. It can be overlooked, or it can be celebrated.”
Wendell has started branding herself as The Whirling Dervish and has plans to market her work to be printed on everything from T-shirts to cocktail napkins. New ideas come every day. “I know my art’s real campy, but there’s a place for it,” she said. “It’s not like I’m going to have some years where I’m cutting off my ear, drawing water lilies and stuff. It’s not going to be like that.”
She paused and started to laugh, adding: “It’d be more like a circus monkey and a midget.”
Erin Wendell will host an open house from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Oct. 2 at University Pizza in Norfolk. Her etsy page is www.etsy.com/shop/whirlingwendell.