How Kodachrome Slides Became Robert Townsend's Life's Work

Painter Robert Townsend has brought his biographical painting series to Scottsdale.
Painter Robert Townsend has brought his biographical painting series to Scottsdale. Courtesy of Robert Townsend
Robert Townsend had no way of knowing that a couple of Kodachrome slides he ordered off eBay a few years ago would end up becoming his life's work.

"I had done some painting on amateur slides where I had no idea who was in the slides or who took the images or anything like that," Townsend says. "Once in a while, I would find a really cool image of people from the '50s and '60s and make a painting from that."

The painter with pop art-like sensibilities "met" his muse in 2014 when he stumbled upon a collection of photos detailing the life of a black-haired, snappily dressed woman. Eventually, he found out that her name was Helen and accrued 2,968 slides of her. Now, he has plans to paint her for at least the next 20 years.

"I thought she was just amazing," Townsend says. "This wonderful woman with this big smile, these great colorful, floral print dresses, always wearing high heels. She was really playful-looking, with a big beehive hairdo and cat-eye glasses. She had this quintessential style of that time period. I was kind of enamored by her right away."

The seller on eBay had purchased the collection of slides at an estate sale in Highland, Indiana. That's all she knew about it. Townsend asked if he could come out to look through the slides. The owner said no, but told him to watch her eBay page for more listings.

Townsend began painting his first image of the mysterious, welcoming woman. He still didn't know anything about her, but he continued to watch the eBay profile, hoping for more inspiration. Soon, the eBay lister became less invested in selling slides, leaving Townsend discouraged.

"She kind of gave up," Townsend says. "I couldn't contact her again because she already said no, so I forgot about her and started doing the paintings. I did the first painting, and it was like 8 feet wide, and my gallery sold that painting. And, because it is a lengthy process, it takes months to do one of the paintings; literally, the months started ticking away."

A year after, Townsend swallowed his pride and sent an offer to the eBay lister for the entire collection, sight unseen. She agreed and handed over the collection of slides, estimating that 70 percent featured the subject whom she referred to as "mod woman."

Upon his first inspection, Townsend found 30 to 40 slides he wanted to paint.

"It was a daunting task, a challenge," Townsend says. "Could I really do 30 big, big paintings of this family with a lot of detail? It was the project I wanted, something that would really push my limits and see what I was capable of or not capable of."

The project only grew from there. While looking through the slides, he discovered that "mod woman" and her male partner were wearing full-name name tags on one slide. Townsend then knew that he was painting Helen and her husband, Roy. He was easily able to find them online.

"It came up as an obituary of Helen's dated like a month or two before I bought the first slides," Townsend says.

He discovered her whole life, which he described as "fairytale-esque" and details in the documentary on his artistic encounter, My Indiana Muse. He eventually met Helen's niece, Cheryl. After some skepticism, Cheryl shared moments, photos, and some information about Helen's life.

Now, Townsend has found even more photos and has around 100 photos selected for the future and expects to paint Helen for at least 18 years longer. Each of the paintings take him a couple or few months. Townsend can't exactly predict where the Helen project will take him; he acknowledges that his styles and interests may change in the future.

But for now, his current exhibition, "Wanderlust," at Altamira Fine Art, 7038 East Main Street, Scottsdale, contains four of his first Helen paintings. Having started on April 16 and running through May 5, "Wanderlust" also features some of Townsend's earlier, more poppy work: It will also be his last exhibition in a while with non-Helen work, he figures.

"It's kind of a last hurrah for me, for a certain type of painting," Townsend says. "For 15 years, I did mostly that pop kind of imagery. You know, lollipops, candy, and math books, and all that kind of stuff. There's a bunch of that still included in this show, but from now on it's going to be all Helen paintings."

"Wanderlust" is on view at Altamira Fine Art through Saturday, May 5.
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