Local artist recreates wallpaper with paint at The Elms

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 12, 2008

NATCHEZ — Specialty painting has been Esther Carpenter’s career for over 20 years, but her latest project isn’t just work. It is a labor of love.

Almost a year and a half ago, Carpenter began work restoring her family home, The Elms, in Natchez. When work began she knew she wanted to put her own creative touch on the house that has been in her family since it was originally constructed.

“(The house) has been passed down on the female side of the family for many generations,” Carpenter said. “Each one has left something of themselves on the family and I wanted to be a part of that.

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“The main thing I want to do is leave my touch while respecting what they did and the house.”

To leave her touch, Carpenter is stenciling at least three rooms in patterns reminiscent of wallpaper.

Her plans include opening the house as a bed and breakfast. She expects the rooms to open within a couple of months.

Carpenter returned to Natchez after living and working in the Los Angeles area for about 20 years. It was during her time in Los Angeles that she turned her love of painting into a career.

“I was working on my own apartment when a friend approached me about painting a floor for one of his clients,” Carpenter said. “He said that if I could do the project for $2,000 then I could do it. Otherwise he was buying them a rug.”

She successfully completed that project — her first time doing marbling — and word of her skills traveled quickly and allowed her to turn passion into a career.

From an early age, Carpenter discovered a love and talent for drawing.

“Since I was probably 6 or 7, I loved to draw,” Carpenter said. “I never expected to make a career out of it. No one ever expects to be an artist, a starving artist.”

In the years since that first project, Carpenter has done projects for several celebrities including Ozzy Osbourne, Michelle Phieffer and Andy Garcia.

One room, which is already complete, features a pattern from antique French wallpaper. Carpenter saw the wallpaper in a magazine on the wall of an old French chateau.

The intricate pattern of a parrot, a bouquet of flowers and a basket of flowers tied together with ribbons and bows took more than 25 different stencils to create.

“You can’t put two different colors right next to each other,” Carpenter said.

Because of that, each component of the design becomes a separate stencil. Carpenter said the most time consuming portion of the process is designing and cutting the stencils.

The bedroom that is stenciled with the French wallpaper design took Carpenter about a month to complete, but the time a painting project requires depends on the intricacies of the desired pattern.

One of the other projects Carpenter will begin working on is the restoration of her grandmother’s former bedroom. She said that during an earlier renovation project, wallpaper depicting animal scenes from Aesop’s Fables was put in the bedroom.

“My grandmother slept in that room one night and said that it scared her. She never slept in there again,” Carpenter said. “She called it the wild animal room.”

When undertaking the current restoration project, she wanted to save that paper but it had become too brittle to be saved. Carpenter then hunted for a matching paper but couldn’t find one in the right color palette.

So she decided to end the hunt and do the project herself.

Although there are just a few steps involved, a project the scale of the Aesop’s Fable project takes at least two months to complete.

After selecting the pattern — from wallpaper, rugs or anything else going on around her — she wants to duplicate, Carpenter determines the scale of the design.

“It depends on the size of the room,” she said.

After that, it is time to draw and cut out the stencils. For her stencils, Carpenter uses a clear Mylar that is thick enough to keep paint from seeping under the stencil but still pliable enough to be cut with a X-acto knife.

After the multitude of stencils are ready, it is time to get paint on the wall. Carpenter typically uses latex paint and flat-head brushes, which she “pounces” when she stencils.

“It gives you a softer finish,” she said of her brush of choice.

After the stencil work is done, Carpenter goes back to the design and paints by hand to achieve just the right shading and shadows.

“You could do it all with a stencil but I prefer to do it by hand,” Carpenter said.

Next she does something that most wouldn’t expect.

“I go over all of it with a piece of heavy duty sandpaper.”

She does this to take the new look out of the design.

“It isn’t supposed to jump out at you. I don’t want it to look cartoonish.”

Although her handiwork is striking and beautiful, Carpenter hopes that it is not the first thing that someone notices when walking into a room.

“It should blend with the rest of the room,” Carpenter said. “I would be insulted if someone walked into a room and said ‘Oh, you painted your walls.’”

“I wouldn’t think I had done my job.”