It’s said that if you love something you should stick with it, and few people have put that advice to work as consistently over the course of their lifetime as South Kingstown artist Julia Riordan Scherer.
From the time she was a preschooler, Julia always had two main passions: art and animals. “Animals, children and old people are what I like, but I don’t paint children or old people,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve tried to paint something else, but it always turns into animals,” pointing out one painting that morphed, Transformers-like, from a drawing of a flower into Proud Peacock, one of about 24 works she sells to the public on her Animal Art website.
Julia began taking painting classes at age four, and was soon filling notebooks with drawings of elephants, birds and other creatures – often where her teachers expected to find math problems being solved or essays written. “I was in my own little world,” says this self-described “terrible student” who nonetheless would go on to become an educator in Cranston, teaching art to middle and high school students. “I knew from a young age that I wanted to become an art teacher – I just had to get through school to do it.”
Julia found teaching rewarding despite the constraint of having to work from a syllabus, and continued to share her gift with children even when she left the Cranston schools five years ago when her son was born. Her husband, Jared, built her a studio in the basement of their home, and soon Julia was tutoring home-school students in a space where not just easels but the walls and floors are covered in paint.
All the while, Julia continued drawing her animals, usually giving away her large-format paintings of elephants, giraffes, bunnies and other creatures to friends and neighbors. “Almost every person I know has one now,” she says, especially friends with children who find Julia’s work a bright, friendly and whimsical addition to their nurseries or kids’ rooms.
Considering that no people appear in her works, each is deeply personal to Julia. A painting of sheep in a field, for example, is named for her daughter. “Mama and Her Sponge,” a painting of a baby giraffe nuzzling its mother, refers to Julia’s son, who she calls her “sponge of love.”
“I did that painting when I was nine months pregnant,” she explains. “It was the last time I was solely me.” Yet Julia’s works are not her “babies.”
In fact, she’ll frequently paint over her originals – not that she doesn’t like them, but because she loves the textures the technique imparts on the new works. And, while most artists abhor the idea of people buying their paintings because the colors happen to match the walls of their homes, Julia actually sells monochromatic prints to meet that precise desire.
“I love painting but I never wanted to profit from it,” she says. “I’d much rather have the old lady down the street say, ‘I think about you every day because I have your painting in my kitchen.’”
That generous attitude made Jared a bit leery when Julia decided to stop tutoring and start making a living selling her artwork. But with the help of some web-savvy friends, Julia soon had an online store up and running, and a supplier in North Carolina who produces, packages and ships her framed and matted giclee prints (produced on inkjet printers) to customers all over the world. In an unexpected boost of commercial success, the art director of the movie Spy Kids 4 bought four of her paintings and used them to decorate a nursery in the film.
Julia’s originals are big – 24x36 or 28x28 - but customers can buy 11x14 or 11x18 reproductions for about $25-35, and nursery-friendly low VOC (volatile organic compound) giclee prints for around $60. The artist has even developed a little ambition: “I want to have everyone learn my name and want one of my paintings,” she says.
The artist who as a girl walked the streets of Chariho with her four-foot pet iguana on a leash also donates a portion of her income to the ASPCA. Ideas for new paintings now pop into her head when she’s reading a book to her son or rocking her daughter to sleep. “My creatures have multiplied since my kids were born,” she says.
For Julia, painting isn’t just part of life – it’s a necessity. “Painting is my music. I’m not thinking when I’m painting,” she says. “I’ll go a month where I don’t know what I’m painting next, then when I do know, I’m painting every day. My brain hurts when I’m not doing art.”