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Artist finds success without intention
Gainesville resident amazed by popularity of his folk creations
Gainesville artist Chris LeWallwen is a paramedic by day, but the popularity his artwork has kept him busy over the years and allowed him experiences he never imagined. - photo by Michelle Boaen Jameson

What started as minor repairs for his Hot Wheels and Tonka trucks has turned into a regional phenomenon that boggles the mind of Gainesville artist Chris LeWallen.

"My bother and I used to paint our toys," said LeWallen. That is how it all began.

Over the course of 20 or so years, LeWallen developed a passion for painting that extended well beyond Hot Wheels.

Self taught, LeWallen hasn’t given much thought to what he does other than it makes him happy.

"Through the years I drew pictures and I’ve always liked bright colors," he said.

One day while walking through the woods, LeWallen stumbled on a twisted piece of vine that, in his mind, resembled a snake.

He took the vine back and used the simple household paints he had always used to brightly decorate the snake with various scenes.

The snake, given as a gift, became so popular he had to paint more.

And so the story goes.

Like a domino effect, LeWallen’s folksy paintings both on canvas and odd objects began to appear first around town, and then the region.

Before he knew it, his artwork was being sought after nationwide.

"The first time I ever sold a painting was at the Georgia Mountain Museum. I brought in a box of works and a week later, they called and said they had completely sold out and wondered if I could bring more."

LeWallen had the good fortune of personally knowing legendary folk artists R. A. Miller and Howard Finster, both of the region. With their encouragement, LeWallen started traveling the art festival circuits.

His popularity extended to bookcovers, T-shirts, corporate collections and even one piece purchased by Athens-based rock band R.E.M.

LeWallen said he’s constantly amazed by some of the requests.

He once had a woman from New York who had purchased his work for her home send him her shoes and purse to "decorate."

Chickens, lizards, farm vehicles and angels are predominate in LeWallen’s massive body of work.

Much of the imagery LeWallen uses in his artwork, he said, comes from his Gainesville upbringing.

His love of bright, primary colors comes mostly from his childhood and the model paint used to touch up his toys.

His studio consists of a workbench in his basement and a toolbox filled with "Walmart" brushes trimmed for precision.

LeWallen said he likes to experiment with various paints and often picks up new items he finds while at the hardware store.

While he finds his love of painting just something to occupy his spare time — he’s a paramedic by day — others have asked him if he ever considered going to art school.

"I never was like ‘I’m gonna do this,’ it just happened. It was never the goal to get everybody in the world to have (my art)."

Art school just wasn’t something that interested LeWallen. Instead, his love of the medical field became his full time career.

With all of the stress that paramedics encounter, LeWallen doesn’t see his art as an outlet.

"People ask me that all the time. I just paint what makes me happy. I like to stick to positive things," he said.

His personal style becomes very obvious from first glance at his work.

Broad dashes and strokes with blocky figures and shapes give a whimsical movement and feel to his work. And he tends to paint on anything handy.

"I’ve painted on paint can lids, Coke bottles, jugs, pieces of tin and plywood and just scrap stuff."

His imagery has been used by the 1996 Olympic Committee, featured on television shows inadvertently, commissioned for the Atlanta Falcons and may soon appear on a line of children’s clothing.

He’s been featured in galleries across the nation and even overseas.

Regardless of the continued attraction to LeWallen’s fun, energetic art, he plans to maintain his sense of self. He’s nothing if not humble.

He doesn’t get to paint as often as he used to, but he still makes time for the occasional piece.

One accomplishment he would like to have:

"An album cover. I would like to be the cover art for a CD, I don’t even care whose."