Moment after moment, Katherine Bajenova Grimmett stood at her easel by the sidewalk in front of the old Davies Reid store in Downtown Boise, watching and working. Moments that turned into hours — 314 hours to be precise; she kept track — and then days: 43 days in all, spaced over the year and a half that she painted.
The elegant building was built by architect John C. Paulsen in 1892, the last building of his career and, Katherine decides, the hallmark of all of his skill. “Flemish romantic,” she says. “It’s my favorite building in the entire city of Boise.”
She started her painting on a cold day in November 2013, attracted by the architecture and its details — the stonework and black trim, the Romanesque arches and gold accents, the color of the berries in the Washington hawthorn tree boldly echoing the color of the carpet on the Davies Reid sign.
But after all that, it was the people who turned those days of painting — and her painting — into something unexpectedly extraordinary.
“At first I thought, how am I ever going to get my painting done, all these people stopping by to chat?” she says. “But after awhile, I thought I am just going to embrace it.” An easy target on the sidewalk, she decided she would just put down her brushes and talk with people who stopped by, about whatever they wanted to talk about, for however long it took.
She met people with dogs. People with multiple dogs. People testing out running shoes from Bandana around the corner; excited people headed to a flash mob. She met a young man whose parents struggled with drugs; a teen girl whose best friend — 14 years old — had just died. She met pizza makers (“I didn’t know — the official word is ‘pizzaiolo’; crazy word, isn’t it?”), three sisters celebrating one sister’s 40th birthday, a lady with turquoise cowboy boots.
“When you paint outside, your painting is imbued with the wind, the birds that fly by, the cars, the fire engines,” she says. “All the people I met became part of my day, (who) inevitably found their way into every brush stroke on the canvas.”
She met newlyweds and people who were pregnant — and because her painting days were spread over time, she got to see them later with their babies. She talked with eighth-graders riding their long boards and a guy who danced as he walked. She met the parking meter attendants who write the tickets, a guy from Kathmandu whose family lost their business and home in the April earthquake, little girls in Sunday dresses going to breakfast with their parents. A girl named Hannah getting her graduation pictures, a lady going to a baby shower with a three-tiered cake shaped like baby booties and diapers.
“Life and its vitality occurring right before my eyes. … ”
She kept notes on everything and everyone; she took photos of everyone who would let her (only two people declined) and would like to someday have an exhibit featuring the richness of people she met.
“One guy came by in a wheelchair. … He was the most cheerful, upbeat, positive guy — happy with his life,” she says. “The things people can teach you: love and forgiveness and humility and accepting where you’re at in life. I just couldn’t believe the stories people told me and shared. And friendships. … ”
People brought her coffee when she was cold (and not just little cups), and when she was hungry, someone would inevitably come by with a sandwich or gift certificate to a restaurant. She was amazed at people’s generosity. “Things I need to learn in my life.”
One day, though, she was done. “It’s very interesting to finally sign it and say, I’m done, it’s done. I searched every part of the painting until I was satisfied with every brush stroke.” She had learned that some evenings, people would come and sit on the steps of the old building, like they would have when it was apartments; on the evening that she finished, April 14, that’s what she did. She sat there, emotional and reflective.
As an artist, Katherine says she likes to save things and hang on to them, and her intention was to paint the historic building before something happened to it.
“When you’re making a painting, you’re stopping time,” she says. “You like to preserve things that sometimes go away forever.”
But the painting now reflects something even bigger than architecture or history; it’s about Boise itself and maybe something about the bigness of human nature.
“I saw an overwhelming amount of great hope for the future. … People filled with joy, love … full of ambition … passersby who were kind, generous, giving, concerned. ...
“People really shared important things, and I was just a painter on the street. …”