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Our house in Winona, Minnesota, sat on the corner of Baker and Broadway streets. The house was brown with darker brown trim. Unfortunately, the houses on either side and several more places nearby were also the same color. So boring! There must have been a sale on brown house paint when all this happened.
The old brown paint was faded, chipped and peeling. We planned to give the house a whole new look that would stand out in the neighborhood. When people drove past, they would say, "Now that's a beautiful home." But, unfortunately, before repainting, we decided to sell the house.
Brenda, our realtor, raved about the home's interior; its soft, warm colors and beautiful hardwood floors were inviting to all who entered. "What are you going to do with the outside of the house," she asked?
It was almost September, nearing the end of the house buying season, and my schedule was full. I didn't see where I would find time to paint the house. I told Brenda, "We'll give the buyers a five-thousand-dollar painting allowance; they can have it painted whatever color they'd like."
"That's not a good idea," Brenda said, then explained, "The interior of the house is beautiful, but I can't sell the house if I can't get prospective buyers inside."
"We'll leave the curtains open," I replied in jest. But, having just met Brenda, she wasn't sure how to take my sense of humor.
"First impressions and curb appeal are everything," Brenda said. "The exterior paint will drive potential buyers away. People want a house where everything's finished and ready to move in." I tried to reason that the interior was ready to move in, but my wife sided with the realtor.
Brenda and Melissa started talking about colors. Meanwhile, I started trying to figure out how I would make time to paint the house in the next couple of weeks. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a professional house painter on such short notice, but I still made a few calls.
A day later, I got a call from a painting company. He had a job cancellation and could start our house on Saturday. Unfortunately, we'd be out of town that day. "No problem," he assured, "Just pick your colors, and we'll take it from there. Perfect! We gave him a deposit and shook hands.
We chose a soft, buttery shade of yellow at the paint store. With white trim, it would look great, and it would be the only yellow house in the neighborhood. So, with that decision made, we loaded the car and headed out for the weekend.
While we were driving home Sunday, Brenda called. "I just drove by your house," she said. "Please tell me you're not painting your house that color." Melissa and I were taken aback by her comment. We thought it was a pretty color. We told Brenda we'd get back to her.
It was nearing sunset when we turned north onto Baker Street. As we got closer to home, we were nearly blinded by the extremely bright sun in front of us. "Wait a minute; we're going north; the sun sets in the west." I was confused.
Melissa, also blinded by the same intense phenomenon before us, blurted out, "Good Lord! That's our house!" We were shocked. "They must have got the wrong color paint!"
Before us was an obnoxiously bright, neon yellow house, like lemon-twist yellow, but worse! The sight of it made my mouth pucker as if I'd been sucking on a lemon slice.
Melissa called Brenda to assure her this was not the color we ordered. I called the painter and told him to stop painting until we talked. Monday morning, I met Ray.
Ray was an old hippy who worked for the contractor. He had a laid-back demeanor and an appreciation for everything in life. I liked him right away and he was very knowledgeable about painting. Unfortunately, the three-quarter by two-inch sample didn't represent its final appearance when applied to a house.
Ray was an artist who also painted houses for the past fifty-plus years. "House painting pays the bills," he said. "Art is hit and miss. I gotta eat, man. You know what I mean?"
Considering his wisdom, I had to ask: "Ray, when you saw the color of this paint, did it occur to you to call the homeowner and make sure this is what they wanted?"
"No way, man. I never question anyone's taste," he said. Ray moved his open hand through the air, making an arch. "The rainbow's hues are infinite, brother; there's someone who loves every shade in the spectrum." He looked at me as if I should feel what he said rather than hear his words.
Still, I challenged Ray, "But lemon-twist yellow? That didn't raise any red flags?"
Ray looked deep, "I think this color is pretty, man. You don't like it?" I assured him we did not, at least not on the house. I told him we'd be changing the color, knowing it would understandably cost us more. "Whatever you want, man. I just swing the brush. You know what I mean?"
Being gun-shy of anything yellow, Melissa and I opted for a new color scheme: Cavern Moss Green with Adobe White trim. The problem was that I now couldn't get ahold of the contractor.
A few days later, I ran into Ray in a store. I told him I couldn't get ahold of his boss, "He's not returning my phone calls."
"He's an old friend of mine," Ray said, "but he can be kind of shady, too. If I don't get paid at the end of the day, I don't come back tomorrow. You get me, brother?" I asked Ray if he would paint the house if I paid him. "No way, man. I was just trying to help my friend. I'm getting too old to be painting two-story houses."
Ray gave me some advice. "If you want your house painted before it snows, you better get on the ladder and do it yourself. You know what I mean, man?" I fully understood everything Ray was saying. I had to change many things at work, but the house painting was complete about a week later.
Brenda stood on the sidewalk with a realtor's yard sign. "Now, this is a beautiful home." Brenda had the house sold in a couple of weeks.
Before I set out to paint the house myself, I ran into an old friend and artist, Richard Dutton.
Richard was an art history instructor at Indian Hills Community College. He also taught painting, drawing, and other art-related courses. He was an amazing artist – his watercolors were spectacular.
I told him about my issue, "I can't believe Ray didn't call to make sure we wanted that wild color."
Richard was wearing a fiddler's cap, an open collar shirt, and a tweed sports coat. He smiled, "Why would he call you? It was the color you picked, right?" He had me there. Richard explained, "There are a lot of colors in the rainbow; there's somebody out there to love each one of them."
I asked Richard if he was still painting. "Yes, sir," he replied. I wondered if he would like to come to Minnesota to paint my house. "I'm not a house painter," he said. But I argued in jest, insisting he was.
"You painted Mom and Dad's house." (In 1983, Mom commissioned Richard to paint our farmhouse, which became a famous painting within our family.)
Richard smiled, "Thomas, I did that painting because I liked your mom. There's a big difference between painting a house and a painting OF a house. Besides, watercolors don't hold up well in the weather – especially Minnesota's harsh weather." We shared a good laugh about that.
Years later, Melissa and I had moved to northern Minnesota, where we bought a house to remodel – inside and out. One day I called Richard, "How would you like to paint my house for me?"
"Are we really going to have that conversation again," he asked, laughing. I explained that I had planned to have our house done by Melissa's birthday. But unfortunately, I had overestimated my ability and was so far behind schedule there was no way it would happen.
I explained, "I commissioned a local artist to paint a picture of our house as it would be when finished. They had six months to do it and kept assuring me they would have it done on time. Then, three days before Melissa's birthday, they bailed on the project, saying, 'I can't visualize what I'm supposed to be painting.'" I asked Richard if he could help me out.
Richard liked Melissa, referring to her as one of his many favorite students. I knew she also held him in the highest regard. "Richard, I don't think a twenty-dollar Walmart gift certificate would mean as much to Melissa as having a Richard Dutton painting of our home." I was really buttering him up.
Richard had questions: "When's her birthday?"
"May twelfth," I replied.
"That's in three days," he said. "Why can't you have the house painted by then?"
"Because it's still snowing here in May," I justified.
"Tom, I've told you before, I'm not a house painter," Richard said, then sighed. "But I'll do this because I like your bride." We shared a good laugh about that then discussed the details.
I emailed Richard a photo of the house from the angle I wanted. The picture showed an absolute construction zone. The house covered in white house rap lacked a front door, and there was no siding. The yard and driveway were a muddy mess. "This is what you want me to paint," he questioned? "Would you like me to fix the ruts in the driveway?"
"Yes," I replied, "But I also need you to install the front door and the siding. Then, put in the new garage doors, and landscape the yard." Richard kept laughing. "While you're at it, build the steps on the front porch, and can you pour a concrete driveway and sidewalk?"
"Now I have to finish building the house, too?" Richard chuckled sarcastically, "I'll see what I can do." I felt better knowing he was on the job. "What color is the house going to be," he asked.
"Cavern Moss Green with Adobe White trim." I sent him a photo of our Winona house. "It's the same colors I wanted you to paint our house a few years ago." We shared another laugh about that.
A couple of weeks later, the painting arrived. I planned a special dinner that night and presented the framed artwork to Melissa. She loved it. Her face really lit up when she saw in the bottom right corner, 'R. Dutton.' "Mr. Dutton painted this?" I knew right then I had given her the best birthday present. Even though it was belated, she hung it on the wall of our (unfinished) north shore home and would treasure this for years to come, as the house progressed around it.
For my sixtieth birthday, Melissa contacted Richard and purchased a painting called Lake Wapello Trail. Although he painted this award-winning piece in southern Iowa, the scene looks very similar to a road near Devilfish Lake, out on the Arrowhead Trail near Hovland. One of our favorite camping and canoeing spots.
I suspect other people along the north shore may have some of Richard's paintings, too, as he's participated in Plein Air events in Grand Marais.
I was saddened to learn that Richard had recently passed away. I cannot fathom how many lives he's touched as a teacher, an artist, and a friend. Let alone as a husband, father, and grandfather.
Although he will be dearly missed by so many, I will always envision his round glasses, mustache, and mischievous grin. He would want us to remember him and smile rather than mourn. Richard would encourage us to always seek joy and beauty in life.
When sunlight reflects through raindrops, it creates a beautiful rainbow; therefore, it must be watercolors. Whenever I see one, I will look for the end of the rainbow; not seeking a pot of gold, but to see if I might find a signature: R. Dutton.