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Walkerville's Prolific Water Colourist

Photos & Story by Carl Morgan

She's five foot two with a fan of creamy blonde hair and an infectious sense of humour. Her quiet, almost self-effacing confidence camou-flages a goal driven ambition that has made her one of Western Ontario's most successful water colour artists.conlon2.jpg

Meet 39 year old Julia Conlon, a mother of six children as well as a very savvy businesswoman whose paintings are sought after throughout Canada and the United States.

Julia describes her watercolours as illustrative and representational of Canadian family lifeň a collection of vignettes drawn from everyday experiences. "I try to capture the mood and emotion of the principals in each painting rather than simply producing a series of portraits," explains Julia.

The inspiration for her work is all around her - across the street, over the backyard fence, down the alley. It springs from watching her own family and neighbours at work and play; seeing how a warm summer wind toys with freshly laundered clothes on the line, kids skipping to school and splashing through rain puddles. Her paintings are replete with dogs, cats and cracker crumbs.

Some of the settings for her paintings flow from memories of her own childhood years. In fact her very first work, "Julia 1", a self-portrait, was inspired from those memories. Her 1992 catalogue, "Expressions of Life" embraces the essence of her work.

Born on Windermere Rd., Julia has spent all her life in Walkerville except for five years when the family moved to Michigan. She now lives at 447 Kildare Rd. in a 110-year-old home which she and her husband and business partner Marty, renovated after buying it in 1984 from her parents, Donald and Carole Wilson.

Julia and Marty also own the adjacent Century home, which serves as their gallery and framing shop. Initially, Julia even shoehorned her popular art classes into part of that building. They have since rented quarters on the top floor of a one-time factory across the street which houses her studio as well as the art school where Julia teaches up to five classes of 24 students each week.

To really know Julia Conlon, it's necessary to crank the clock back 23 years. At 16 and with $134 in the bank, Julia announced to her mother that she was going into businessconlon1.jpg as an artist. She converted her seven-by-twelve foot bedroom into a makeshift "studio", installed a business phone and paid for a small ad in the Yellow Pages announcing that she would take on artistic commissions including portraits, pets and business card designs.

Her first real "paying job" was as a quick-draw portrait artist on Boblo Island. Julia worked at Boblo for five summers and figures she "did" 8000 faces. During the winter months, she set up shop at Devonshire Mall. Reluctant to dip into her hard-earned savings, she sold the Mall on the idea of letting her play the Easter Bunny for two years in exchange for free space!

If she was going to be serious about this art business, Julia figured she needed a "real" studio. She found a space for $25 a month on the second floor of a building at University and Pelissier.

Of course, an artist needs more than a studio: paper, for instance. Since she didn't have paper or much money, Julia went looking.

"I walked into Herald Press where I met a man by the name of Fred, told him my story and asked if he had any scrap paper or card stock that I could buy cheap. He picked up a box of blank wedding cards and handed it to me ­ no charge!"

Hurrying back to her new studio, Julia scooped out a handful of cards, taped a dozen of them in a strip along a table she used as an easel ­ and began painting.

"I had a real assembly line going. I began painting simple vignettes ­ animals, forest scenes, and birds. As I finished one, I started on the next."

When she had 30 finished, she walked into Weeper's Jewellery where she announced to a much surprised Harry Weeper that she would let him have them for $2 each and he could give one as a gift to every customer who bought something. He loved the idea and so did his customers.

Fast forward to 1988 and the day Julia held her first solo exhibition. Taking a chance that her larger paintings would sell, she rented a hall for $800. The show was a complete sell-out.

"One man came in, looked around and asked what I would charge for everything on one wall! I was shaking so hard I could hardly breathe. Finally I said, $2000 and he wrote the cheque!"

Julia's husband Marty, who manages the business as well as the framing, crating and shipping, marvels at the way his wife is prepared to spend money to make money.  "She is simply not afraid to take chances!"

Demand for Julia's work grew so she moved into the numbered, limited edition print market in 1988. Today the prints (no more than 500 to an edition) range in price form $25 to $240 while originals carry price tags of between $300 and $12,000. Most hover around $1800. Julia has 60 limited editions and 20 are sold out.

Measuring success in the world of art is dangerously subjective, but between the two of them, Julia and Marty manage to keep food on the table, take care of the needs of six children and pay five part-time employees.

Julia Conlon's Gallery is open
Monday to Saturday from 12 to 5.
Phone 973-7243

 

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