Character building

Artist's traveling cartoons reflect vacation wackiness

Lawrence artist Constance Ehrlich will sell her handcrafted mosaics and what-not boxes decorated with toys at this year's Bizarre Bazaar. She's one of more than 100 artists slated for the 18th annual art fair. She's pictured at her home in front of a wall where she displays artwork created by herself and friends, as well as pieces purchased while traveling.

In Constance Ehrlich’s universe, Cap’n Crunch can visit the Eiffel Tower as easily as your Aunt Ethel.

And Gumby can stand in for your nephew who’s pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the cheesy family vacation photo your brother included in last year’s Christmas letter.

For about three years now, Ehrlich has been documenting the imagined journeys of her favorite characters – from cartoons, advertisements and toy store shelves – as they travel throughout the United States and abroad.

“I think of them as people, with their personalities and everything,” Ehrlich says.

Among her circle of pals are Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, Rocky and Bullwinkle and the Pillsbury Doughboy. Although most people associate these characters with play dates, Saturday morning cartoons and breakfast rolls, Ehrlich knows they enjoy taking in historic sites, art museums and other wonders of the world.

She paints the subjects from “life.” That is, she owns plastic-toy versions of them that she sets up in her studio.

“They make for very nice, quiet portrait sitters,” Ehrlich says, laughing. “People always ask, ‘Do you do portraits of people? Could you do one of my child?’ I go, ‘Is she made of plastic?'”

In addition to her Vacation Series paintings, which she works on during the day, Ehrlich also creates mosaics.

“I like to keep my hands busy in the evening, so I just started doing those about a year ago,” she says. “You can’t paint 24 hours a day.”

‘Cultural wackiness’

Ehrlich will sell mosaics and what-not boxes decorated with toys during the 18th annual Bizarre Bazaar. The aptly named sale of zany handmade specialty items runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.

This will be Ehrlich’s eighth year hawking wares at the bazaar. She leaves her paintings at home in favor of smaller-ticket art that sells for $50 or less.

“When you’re making art, it’s pretty solitary,” she says. “That’s why I like to do the Bizarre Bazaar, because it’s a group of people getting together and artists that you get to meet and look at their work and get to know them.

“They just have such a wonderful attitude, the artists and the people who come. It’s just so much fun.”

Fun is a characteristic that marks Ehrlich’s work these days. But it’s not the first time humor has colored her canvases.

She attempted to lighten the mood once while working on her MFA at Kansas University.

“I actually did a painting back in graduate school of this little rabbit at a museum,” she says. “At school they thought it was kind of ridiculous, so I threw it away.”

Rick Mitchell, gallery director at the Lawrence Arts Center, where Ehrlich has exhibited, says her work is playful but also edgy.

“The paintings in her Vacation Series are comical in the same way that many TV situation comedies are, or such movies as ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’ – they show us how silly or shallow we are sometimes,” Mitchell says. “In that way, the paintings are also serious.

“The work is ironic. It uses one kind of cultural wackiness – cartoon characters – to reveal another kind of cultural wackiness – group photos in front of landmarks.”

Back to her roots

Ehrlich, 43, hails from a long line of creative women; her mother and grandmother are both painters. She grew up in Lewis, a town of fewer than 500 people in Western Kansas, and got a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design at K-State.

She dabbles in drawing, printmaking and mosaics, but she mainly considers herself a painter. Recently she has exhibited her work at galleries in Kansas City, Mo., and Santa Fe, N.M. She also shows at 6 Gallery in downtown Lawrence.

The city has been her home for 17 years, and she’d like to start focusing more on Kansas attractions, such as the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, in her Vacation Series.

“My first one was Huckleberry Hound and Astro by a barn and silo,” she says. “I’m kind of getting back to my Kansas roots.”

For a while, Ehrlich worried about being sued over her use of copyrighted characters, but she did some investigating and determined that she’s in the clear as long as she doesn’t create multiples of her work. At least she’s never been contacted by an angry Hanna-Barbera attorney.

“I don’t think I’m famous enough for that yet,” she says.

Miles to go

Ehrlich is usually concentrating too much on the mechanics of painting – color, shape and form – to crack herself up in the studio. But she gauges her success based on whether the pieces incite giggles in the gallery.

“Art’s always supposed to be so serious,” she says. “I like that sometimes it’s not quite so serious.”

Before the Vacation paintings, Ehrlich had worked on series that featured women’s undergarments and rubber gloves. She figures eventually she’ll move on to another subject.

“But for a while I’ll be doing this because I have so many ideas,” she says. “They haven’t gone to enough countries yet.”