Sunday, April 01, 2001

Art and a chuckle


Local painter/cafe owner likes to put a little humor into her work

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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B.B. Hall (aka Betsy Cunningham) shows off one of her paintings.
(Joseph Fuqua II photo)
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        This is how highly people regard artist B.B. Hall's work: An acquaintance called recently to RSVP to an art opening, then asked what she was working on. After Ms. Hall described the painting, the acquaintance said, “Don't sell it. I'll buy it.”

        Sight unseen. And not cheap.

        B.B. Hall, 47, is actually Betsy Cunningham (Hall's her maiden name). She and husband, Terry Cunningham, former owner of Chapter XIII and one of the original owners of Howl at the Moon Saloon, own Newport's York Street Cafe, a 122-year-old four-story building with a restaurant on one, night club on two, art gallery on three and an unheated studio on four.

        Until recently, that studio didn't get much use: “Starting a restaurant doesn't leave you much time. I had this idea that Terry would run it, and I'd flit around like Loretta Young a while, then disappear into my studio.

        “That never happened. For almost four years, I've been fill-in help when somebody didn't show, emergency bartender, kitchen help, even bookkeeper, and I don't do numbers.

        Now, she says, they “have the perfect staff, so I'm getting my life back.”

Loves to paint

               That life is, well, painting. “It's what makes me happy. It's the reason I moved here (from Cleveland), so I could attend the Art Academy, the reason I waited tables at J's and the Waterfront for years, and the reason I worked so hard to get York Street going. So I can have time to paint.”

        It's something she's been doing since the day during her childhood when she walked into her family's freshly painted kitchen and noticed something had scratched the new paint. The old yellow paint was showing through.

        “What an opportunity! I started with that scratch and scratched a whole drawing around it. I was hooked.” She also got a spanking.

        Today, she gets money instead — $500 to $2,500 for the mostly 3-foot by 4-foot works. Almost all done in shrieking colors — reds and turquoises especially — that impart a tropical feel.

        Oh, and works that are a bit different. Like the one her acquaintance bought sight unseen:

        It's an elegant woman in a red dress and only one high heel walking up steps. The 3-D frame she envisioned, and which Terry created, continues the steps out of the painting. The woman's other shoe is lying on one of the steps.

        Or the one looking into a room in which a funky old lamp stands on a side table. Attached to the custom frame is, you guessed it, the funky lamp and side table.

        “I'm starting to put more found objects in my paintings and then using them as accessories.”

        Found objects are something she knows about. She haunts flea markets, garage sales, and never misses Burlington, the antique mart on the third Sunday of every month at the Boone County Fairgrounds.

        “I collect things.” No kidding. There's an extensive collection of nodders, the little dolls with bobbing heads. A collection of small, sculpted heads (“we serve them on Cornish hens at dinner parties”). And funky lamps, most with figures on the base. Oh, and vintage tablecloths. Charlie Weaver dolls, too.

        “That's the beauty of York Street ... there are shelves all over the walls, so there's a lot of room to display things.”

        Yeah, right next to the mounted moose head wearing a $1,500 Chantilly lace wedding gown with 10-foot cathedral train and lace blush veil held in place by a pencil shoved up the moose's nose. The gown was a gift from a friend who wore it at her ill-fated first marriage and thought it would look better on the moose.

        “It happens all the time, she says. “People find things and say, "Boy, this is weird, bet Betsy and Terry would like it.' Then they bring it in.”

They know lots of people

               It doesn't hurt that the two of them know everyone in town. Besides Chapter XIII, Howl, J's and the Waterfront, their history with local bars includes Zips, Hot Shotz, Crosley's, Mike Fink, Celestial, Victoria Station and assorted sports bars.

        Nor does it hurt that a hefty knot of regulars keep coming in to see the art. The second-floor gallery shows off a new artist every six weeks. In addition, there are usually six or so of her pieces hanging around.

        People who don't buy what's there often commission something.

        Like the woman who wanted a portrait of six dogs and told Betsy to be creative. So, Besty dressed one as a king, one as a queen, one as a princess, one as a harlot (“found a wonderful bustier”) and two as slaves fanning the king and queen. All of them sipping a martini or a cosmopolitan.

        It's that touch of humor she keeps injecting — her bull terrier Lucy turns up in lots of paintings — that people seem to love.

        “I really do belive art should make you happy. There's so much negative out there, if my art gives you a chuckle, I've done my job.”

       



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