“I always wanted to [create] a character that would live forever and ever, that everyone knows,” Patty Sjolin says. “I want it to give that feeling in your heart.”
Sjolin is an artist who started out in a small town in Texas, but whose concepts have reached around the world and been loved by millions of young girls. During the 1990s, Sjolin worked at Lisa Frank Inc., one of the world’s most creative and successful design companies at the time, known internationally for its school supplies, toys, and clothing for girls with colorful, whimsical designs featuring cute animals.
Sjolin came to Miami last March to be near her daughter and grandson, and has been establishing a new career here as a painter and muralist.
“Art has always been part of my life,” Sjolin says. She started drawing and painting when she was still a young child. “I drew all the time, all the time,” she recalls.
In high school Sjolin was known for creating posters and signs for school activities. She left home at 18 and began to travel around the country looking for a new home. Unable to afford canvases, she painted on saw blades and giant catulpa leaves in Arkansas, rocks when she lived in Utah – whatever was at hand. When she found herself in Flagstaff after her truck broke down, she earned extra money painting murals all over the bar where she worked.
She eventually ended up in Tucson and discovered that her self-taught style was not enough to land a “real” job – she needed a college degree. She signed up at the Art Center in Tucson and graduated two years later with a portfolio and a diploma. When she went to look for a job, her first – and only – stop was Lisa Frank.
Friends in school had told her, “I hate to tell you this, but you have to go to Lisa Frank.” Sjolin’s colorful style was perfectly matched to Lisa Frank’s product line – but the company was notorious as a difficult place to work.
Sjolin says, “I loved it. I got to wear headphones and I sat there and drew and drew and drew and drew.”
Putting in 12-hour days, Sjolin worked her way up the ranks to become a concept artist – one of the three artists at the company who created new ideas. “All the magic started right there, with the concept artist,” she says proudly. Sjolin created the characters of the Teddy Rappers, Max Splash the Whale, and Rory the Polar Bear, among others.
She once made a concept drawing of a birthday gift with a little bear sitting on top of it. Sjolin remembers, “I had one of the artists that was good at sewing make up a little bear and fill it with rice so it sat on this package. Lisa wouldn’t go for it, and it never made it off the drawing table.” The next year, Beanie Babies hit the market. “I still have that little bear,” Sjolin says.
“Lisa Frank was notorious for not trying anything new,” Sjolin recalls. “If it got out on the market and it was successful, she would copy it.” She’s completely serious when she says that once Lisa Frank “wanted to put a trademark on the goldang rainbow.”
Sjolin does both large, bold paintings that she can complete in a few hours, and complex, detailed work, such as a pair of fanciful roosters where every tail feather is intricately painted. Her favorite way to work is big and bold; she says she likes to be able to paint with her whole arm.
Soon after arriving in Miami, Sjolin met Ray Figueroa, proprietor of the Miami Emporium. She helped Figueroa design and build displays made of doors, and began to create paintings on tin for sale in the gallery. She set up a studio in the back of the gallery where she could paint and meet visitors as they came in. More people discovered her this way.
After Elizabeth Eaton posted a photo of Sjolin’s work on Facebook, commissions began to come in. Sjolin started a collaboration with Donna Chapman, owner of Donna by Design (located across the street from the gallery) – she paints flowers, animals, or scenes on vintage furnishings like dining room sets, cedar chests, doors, and deck chairs. Sjolin has custom painted pieces ranging from a peacock on a wooden chair to a swath of flowers on a chest of drawers.
Sjolin’s customers include the vintners Tim and Daisy Flores and the Copper Hen restaurant. She has created signage, murals on both interior and exterior walls, and logo designs. Sjolin enjoys creating custom murals, when she works closely with a client, looking at photos for ideas, developing a concept, and then taking over and creating a one-of-a-kind painting. For two large murals at the Cedar Hill B&B, Sjolin brought 20 to 30 ideas for sunflowers and irises to Linda Gross. Linda selected the images she liked, and Sjolin used those as a guide for the murals.
Some of Sjolin’s paintings have Western themes, while some feature large-eyed, brightly colored animals, similar to her work with Lisa Frank. There are shaggy buffalos, blue alpacas, and luminescent birds and butterflies that look like they’re pieced together in stained glass.
Sjolin’s work is currently available at the Emporium, but this fall she plans to open her own shop. It will be housed in the pink house at the end of Inspiration Drive in Miami, and she’s already picked out a name: the Bubblegum Boutique. The boutique will sell home decor, including handmade and handpainted items, and might offer classes.
Sjolin hopes to bring more public art to Globe-Miami by painting murals in public spaces and perhaps helping develop a unique series of sculptures, like the painted horses in some Western towns. She’s looking for walls to paint on, and anyone who would like to offer a wall is encouraged to get in touch with her with ideas for subject matter. She can be contacted through www.pattysjolin.com.
“I love small towns,” Sjolin says. “You connect with people right away. … You get in touch with the whole town, and it’s available for you to reach out and be part of it. You can be as much as you dream of being.”
For more on Patty, visit her website atwww.pattysjolin.com
Patricia Sanders lived in Globe from 2004 to 2008 and at Reevis Mountain School, in the Tonto National Forest, from 2008 to 2014. She has been a writer and editor for GMT since 2015. She is currently traveling long-term and researching a book on dance. You can follow her writing on the website medium.com, under the pen name SK Camille.