Her polar bear prints, Loretta Bradfield says, sell like hotcakes. Can’t keep them in stock.
Like all Bradfield’s artwork, the colors in “Spirited,” as the bear is titled, are cheerful and extraordinarily vivid, and there’s good reason for that — the 26-year-old White Lake artist paints with melted Crayola crayons.
Bradfield likes to joke that she's "the world’s only melted-crayon artist,” She adds, “it produces pretty much the brightest artwork you’ll ever find. Crayon holds pigment better than oil paints.”
Her originality and talent won Bradfield a blue ribbon at Detroit’s Maker Faire in late July, a coveted award that honors what the DIY festival website calls “unusual creativity, ingenuity and innovation.”
It was gratifying recognition for the young artist who specializes in a particularly sunny strain of pop art, and works in a medium often dismissed by the gallery elite. Even more, it vindicated the approach she seized on four years ago while struggling with a temporarily disfiguring illness.
Bradfield’s fine now, but for four years in her early 20s one whole side of her face turned blotched and bloody.
“It was bad,” she says. “Think ‘Phantom of the Opera’ bad.”
Working at Subway years ago, a customer asked to be served “by someone without leprosy.” “I felt like a talking zombie,” Bradfield says. Her husband, Charles, took down all the mirrors in their house to try to protect her.
Every dermatologist said it was rosacea, until a new doctor last year — her seventh — identified the affliction as a rare case of facial ringworm. She was cured in less than a week, though her skin’s taken months to get back to normal.
Bradfield, who also works as an illustrator, started painting with melted crayons when things still looked hopeless. The work and the intense colors pulled her through, she says, and helped with her psychic recovery.
“Having been sick, I’m not afraid to be who I am,” Bradfield says. “I use rainbow-like colors as much as I can. My trademark is whimsical, bright, happy and different.”
Her 4-year-old, Brooke, tells friends her mommy paints in rainbows.
Bradfield did the illustrations for a forthcoming children’s book by WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) news reporter Tara Edwards, who calls her brilliant.
“I knew Loretta was a great artist before,” Edwards says, “but when I saw her new work — she’s sort of created this new medium with melted crayons — I was blown away.”
Bradfield works mostly with animals — bears, frogs, whales and two specific wild mustangs named Picasso and Van Gogh from a herd in Sand Wash Basin, Colorado. When painting the latter, she placed him right in the midst of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”
A lover of horses, rainbows, and whimsy, White Lake artist Loretta Bradfield demonstrates her technique for turning Crayolas into colorful canvases.
You can see why her work would attract attention. At The Henry Ford, senior manager of national events Shauna Wilson notes there were 2,000 participants in this year’s Maker Faire, but only 60 won blue ribbons, adding, “Loretta did a really nice job at the Faire!”
Bradfield, who also participated in last year’s ArtPrize and will be at the Michigan State Fair next month in Novi, first got her big idea from an online picture of a box of melted crayons. “I called my mom and said, ‘We can do better than that,’ ” she says.
Bradfield paints with a heat gun, not a brush, and crayons that “me and my O.C.D. friends” peel while watching TV movies. Her work for Maker Faire? That consumed 2,000 crayons.
Technique is everything. A heat gun set to 70 degrees, she says, will melt white crayons, while dark blue and black require up to 140 degrees.
“Put the slightest bit of heat on white crayon and it turns into water,” she says. “You have to understand it’s going to go crazy on you.” Inevitably, the paraffin occasionally goes where you don’t want it, but Bradfield says she embraces that as part of the artistic method.
Bradfield says the melted crayon initially looks kind of messy on the canvas. “But then you dry it with blow drier,” she says, “and it turns beautiful.”
Her study of the polar bear at the Detroit Zoo, “Spirited,” bears that out, with its remarkably rich palette of turquoise, blue and reddish-brown.
It got a lot of attention at Maker Faire, Bradfield says. One woman marched right up and announced, “I know this polar bear. I work at the zoo, and this is our polar bear.”
Bradfield laughs. “I was shocked she could tell!”