A Colonial Art Form Resurfaces in Fairfield

Two young schoolgirls sit at the kitchen table, their long skirts covered with full aprons, and the sleeves of their crisp white blouses rolled up. It’s autumn of 1860 and while the fireplace blazes, their heads are bowed down as they quietly and seriously undertake their task. Hand-made stencils, woven fabric, and oil paints are lying next to them, neatly laid out on the table. The pieces of wool wrapped around their index fingertips are dipped into paint and then pressed and spread into the stencil
Chris Mallin gives a few pointers to a student in her theorem painting class in her home on  Sasco Hill.
Chris Mallin gives a few pointers to a student in her theorem painting class in her home on Sasco Hill.
holes onto a small piece of fabric from mother’s vast pile of leftover scraps. They are creating small pictures, typically colorful bowls of fruit and vases with flowers.

Six art students and one teacher are sitting around three folding tables that stand next to each other in the basement of a Sasco Hill home. It’s spring of 2007 and the lively and sunny studio where a very gracious Chris Mallin is teaching her class is abuzz with electricity and activity. Over cups of coffee from Dunkin Donuts and amidst laughter and friendly chat, beautiful pieces of art emerge as the women create pictures using a talent they weren’t aware they had.

Originally known as stenciling during Colonial times, where women would stencil furniture and wallpaper, “theorem painting” emerged into a more sophisticated art form and became popular among schoolgirls in the 1880s. Those who followed the method step-by-step were able then to create “acceptable” art. During this time, it was imperative that a proper young lady be well-skilled in needlework, watercolors, and other decorative crafts. Theorem painting was most notably popular amongst the ladies attending private finishing schools.

The word “theorem” is defined by the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary as “a formula, proposition, or statement in mathematics or logic deduced or to be deduced from other formulas or propositions.” Why “theorem” painting, then? As Chris explains, “The term refers to the layering of many stencils, which are the parts of the equation, in order to create the whole, which is the painting.”

As an artist, Chris has painted murals on the walls of Roger Sherman Elementary School and in the First Selectman’s office at Town Hall in Fairfield. She has been teaching theorem painting in her home since the winter of 2002. Chris originally admired a theorem painting at a friend’s home and, after learning more about the art form, thought it would be the perfect technique to teach to those who previously felt they didn’t have true artistic talent. Chris currently holds two classes per week in her studio from 9 a.m. until noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There are six students in each class. (The calendar runs concurrently with the Fairfield Public School calendar, convenient for mothers with young children.) She has beginners, but a handful of her students have been with her ever since she started.

“Each of my students does the same painting for their first piece. In that one small painting, is 90 percent of everything you need to know about the technique, either with or without previous art training.” Chris goes on to explain that after the first painting has been completed, a student’s next project will be to paint from a photograph, from artwork published in a book, or any other printed medium. As they evolve and become more confident in their abilities, some of her students have opted to no longer use the stenciling technique and paint freehand instead.

Theorem painting involves numerous steps, especially when it comes to the preparation of each piece. First, the student must make a color copy of the original artwork (it can be enlarged or reduced to the size the student prefers). The next step is to work with transparent vellum paper: one piece of paper for each major color used in the artwork. As each piece of color-assigned vellum is laid over the copy, the student pencil-traces the main elements in the artwork. One-by-one, the vellum paper is laid down and traced until all colored elements have been traced. Chris has seen as many as twelve vellum sheets used for each painting. Then, with an X-ACTO knife, the pencil-traced sections are cut out one at a time. After all the vellum pieces (which are now, in fact, stencils) have been cut, the painting process begins. Each sheet is laid over a canvas, which can be made of any material—Chris prefers white velvet, but linen or any other medium can be used—held in place by weights. Then, very meticulously with a brush and oil paint, the painting is reproduced color-by-color, layer-by-layer. After all the stencils have been laid down, the piece is then finished by hand. Shadows and highlights are added to give depth to the painting, fine lines are brushed in by hand, and so on until the painting is satisfactory to the student. Some of the students have made paintings that, to the untrained eye, are hard to distinguish from the originals.

Chris takes her twelve students on a “field trip” into New York City every May. After a “delicious repast” at a restaurant near Central Park, the group visits one of the museums. This year a private tour of the painting collection at the New York Historical Society is planned. She also hosts an art show at her home every other year in June, inviting the family members of the artists for wine and cheese, and displaying the artwork throughout her home. The invitation to the show reads “Oh Art…Oh Joy…Ah Adventure”, a theme that matches her vibrant personality, her warm and friendly demeanor, and the passion she shares for art with her students.

Theorem painting requires concentration, creativity and a steady hand.
Theorem painting requires concentration, creativity and a steady hand.
The students are very fond of Chris. Watching her teach, it’s easy to see why. She goes from student to student and closely observes their works in progress, making helpful suggestions or doling out constructive criticism. Halfway through class it’s break time and Chris takes their tea and coffee orders. As she walks away, one of the students remarks aloud, “I wonder if she will serve the same coffee that was made at 6:30 this morning for Bill [her husband].” A ripple of laughter breaks out.
In class, Diana Smola is preparing her materials for a shell painting she is about to start. She admits that before she came to Chris’ class, she couldn’t even draw a stick figure. Another student, Lore Oricchio is painstakingly painting—with the smallest brush ever— the tiniest leaves onto her miniature floral painting. “The little paintings I have created in class make great gifts,” she says. “People love getting these because they are unique.” Christy Ryan, who is working on a series of mermaid theorem paintings, has created poster prints from some of the work she has done and even created Christmas cards. (Not only has she personally used them, but she has sold some in sets as well.)  She hopes to sell these mermaid paintings at venues during the holiday season.

Chris has seen her students’ work evolve over the years and it’s obvious that each student is proud of her work and not afraid to explore new areas. Theorem painting has given them the confidence to do so. As Chris says, “It all starts with a stencil. There are only fortuitous errors.”

Copyright ©2004 Fairfield Magazine Online a Town Green Media publication. All rights reserved. Privacy policy.