KALISPELL, Mont. – Yes, they’re real.
People tend to react with skepticism or amazement when they see Pauline Graziano’s artwork. Perhaps that response isn’t surprising; many people never got beyond the ability to draw more than a crude staircase on their childhood Etch A Sketches.
The contrast between those sketches and the artwork on the walls of Graziano’s studio is night and day.
Images of Jon Bon Jovi and Frank Sinatra gaze out from behind familiar red plastic frames with white knobs at two corners. Muscles ripple in a black-and-gray body. A man curled into a ball grips the top of his downcast head.
This is art. It just happens to have been created on a toy.
“I’m trying to bridge that gap between ‘it’s a toy’ and ‘it’s an art,’ ” Graziano said recently from the studio she shares with her husband, painter and real estate agent Roy Grillo.
The studio in the basement of their Kalispell home is cluttered with finished pieces and works in progress.
The drafting table where Graziano works is surrounded by Etch A Sketch portraits mounted in black boxes, ready for sale. Half-finished and barely begun sketches are on the table next to a black frame with a metal stylus attached – the underside of an Etch A Sketch that people rarely see.
Graziano had an Etch A Sketch when she was a child, but didn’t discover her talent for drawing on it until adulthood.
While on a ski trip with friends in 2000, Graziano, then 30, did a “real cartoony” drawing on the toy. It turned out so well that she wondered what else she might be able to create on the Etch A Sketch.
That first drawing disappeared when she shook it, but someone told her that by drilling a hole in the toy and removing the excess powder, the image on the glass would be preserved.
Etch A Sketches are full of extremely sticky aluminum powder. A stylus connected to rails that move horizontally and vertically scrapes powder off the glass, leaving the dark lines that create the image on the screen.
Shaking the toy re-coats the glass and erases the image. By drilling a small hole in the Etch A Sketch and draining the excess powder, Graziano could create images that were about 90 percent permanent.
She experimented with her Etch A Sketch art for a few years, relying on it instead of pencil and paper anytime she needed to sketch something.
After a man from Connecticut asked her to do portraits of his children, Graziano decided she needed to learn how to make her images permanent. When she shipped the Etch A Sketches across the country, excess powder that hadn’t drained from the toy shook onto the glass, fading the portraits.
She called the toy manufacturer to learn how to fix the problem. An Ohio Art employee told Graziano that they sent their official artists unassembled Etch A Sketches, which didn’t have excess powder or a stylus to ruin their drawings.
Graziano asked how to become an official artist, and was told to send in some samples. She has been an official Etch A Sketch artist ever since.
Over the years her technique has changed.
Graziano used to draw on the Etch A Sketch as she would with a pencil, with curved lines and no limitations. Now she tries to “be true to the nature of the Etch A Sketch” and uses the straight lines most people create when using the toy.
This year, in honor of Etch A Sketch’s 50th anniversary, Graziano has committed to creating 50 sketches and writing a blog about it.
Creating 50 drawings is no small task; Graziano estimates her portraits take at least 20 hours apiece.
More intricate sketches take longer, and as a busy mother of two – ages 3 and 1 – she doesn’t have long stretches of time to devote to art. Most of her work is done late at night, after her children are in bed.
“Art has always been something of a luxury that I don’t allow myself to do,” Graziano said. “It’s a part of me that I allow to starve.”
With a challenge and a blog holding her accountable, Graziano said, she is obligated to feed that part of her nature.
She also hopes the challenge will bring attention to – and maybe some money for – Hanna’s Dream, a charity inspired by Hanna Cini, who was killed at age 6 in a car accident east of Kalispell in April 2009. The organization donates art supplies to needy children across the world.
Graziano was touched by the little girl’s desire to help other children create art, and “if I were to make any money doing this,” she will donate to Hanna’s Dream.
“I do think it’s very, very important to give back,” she said.