Super walls More unique than wallpaper, textures and playful designs by a small cohort of painters are dressing Ottawa homes
Sheila Brady, The Ottawa Citizen Published: Saturday, November 22, 2008
Terry Stevens and Tish Smith wield a mean paint brush. Jan Bohus is no slouch, and then there is the original woman of paint, Susan Whitham.
The four are members of a small Ottawa community that works magic with a brush, a trowel or a piece of simple cheesecloth, using the walls of a house as their canvas and turning flat surfaces into pieces of art.
The art can be as subtle as a delicate venetian plaster finish, safeguarded against stains and wear with a glaze. Or the art can be --boom! bang! -- in your face and a comic book character swooping out of the corner of a child's room.
Whitham remembers back to 1990 when she met Donna Correy and Shelley Levin, the spunky brains behind KISS Interiors and the creative energy behind decorating model homes for the biggest builder in town, Minto Developments.
"Man, time flies," says Whitham, who recently hung up her paint brush to take a new direction and launch a new business, Room of Her Own. It's a design company that helps boomers reconfigure their home spaces.
Eighteen years ago, Whitham got a call from Correy to bring along her paint samples because she had a Minto model home in Centrepointe that needed a design edge.
Before the fateful meeting, Whitham remembers painting her dining room 11 times to perfect the dragging technique and to impress Correy.
It worked. The women hit it off, leading to a partnership where Whitham created murals in countless Minto model homes over the years and even a papier mâché woman walking out of the wall of a laundry room, lugging a laundry basket.
It was Whitham who hired Tish Smith, a young talent who caught her interest in 1999 after working on a backdrop for a church drama. The two women worked together until 2004, creating acrylic magic on walls of Minto's models.
Circumstances changed, and in 2005 Smith dropped off a flyer advertising her talents at Randall's Paints on Bank Street. Two weeks later, she got a call from Terry Stevens in Bolton, Ont., wondering if she was interested in helping him do murals and painting techniques for a big contract at the new embassy of Saudi Arabia on Sussex Drive.
Six months and 60 rooms later, the partnership was solid and a romance blossomed between Smith and Stevens, a former musician and now a master of faux finishes.
The two got glowing letters from contractors overseeing the construction and finishing of the embassy. By then, Smith and Stevens had also connected with Correy and Minto.
During the past year, Stevens and Smith have dressed up 28 Minto model homes, adding cartoon characters to children's rooms and marble finishes to pillars.
The two are also the paint smarts behind several of Minto's lottery homes for the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, including the spectacular red- and-black 2008 home on Tradewinds Drive in the upscale community of Winding Way beside the Rideau River.
It was Stevens who used his brush to create a slick illusion of stone surrounding a fireplace in the great room, using paint to stack stones from the base of the floor, sweeping around the fireplace, and then stretching up 20 feet to the ceiling.
"It looks like stone, but it is only drywall," said Correy during a tour of the lottery home. "It is subtle, yet people walk up to it and assume it is stone."
It would have been prohibitively expensive and likely overwhelming to use real stone.
Downstairs in the sports-mad playroom, it was Smith who accented the walls with Sens and 67s hockey themes. On the second floor, she created a rainforest of playful monkeys and colourful birds in a bedroom designed for a little girl, while next door, Batman swoops down the wall between twin beds in an action-packed room designed for young boys.
The murals are playful and far more special than picking wallpaper out of a book, says Smith, who graduated from Algonquin College's graphic design program in 1988.
"My aim in someone's home is to bring beauty and inspiration and to leave them with a lasting impression that adds warmth," says Smith, who likes to spend her free time painting in the couple's main-floor studio in their home in Bolton.
The two painters have collaborated on murals and wall techniques in large Toronto homes, including a 7,000-square-foot home where Stevens re-created stone arches and finishes on drywall and Smith produced murals of scenes from the Italian owner's 50-acre property.
"Many of these painting techniques are European. They certainly owe their roots to Europe," says Stevens, who started out as a singer in a jazz group that toured Europe.
"Many Europeans want their homes to be very comfortable. They like to express themselves through the finishings and murals.
"There is a sense of warmth and beauty and excitement and a sense of harmony," says Stevens, who constantly experiments with painting techniques.
He feels his musical connection helps with painting, creating a natural flow as he covers a wall.
© The Ottawa Citizen 2008