Julia Breckenreid
A Christmas Story
This time of year I get a little nostalgic, but not for reasons you'd expect.  What feels like another lifetime ago, I had moved out at sixteen, dropped out of school and did various jobs until at the age of eighteen, when I began working full time as a waitress, slinging quarter chickens to the masses.  It was a good place to be at the time - the staff was like a big crazy family and after a few years I was able to slowly work on my getting high school diploma bit by bit.

Illustration wasn't even an idea in my head, I just knew that I didn't want to be a waitress forever.  I had constant reminders of this as I watched some of the ladies in their 50's and 60's shuffling up and down the aisles with trays of drinks and heavy hot plates.  It was easy to stay though - we saw each other at our best and at our worst - and became life-long friends.

Through all of this, whenever I heard that someone needed a portrait, a store sign, decorative panels, murals and so on, I jumped at the chance.  I liked the challenge and I don't believe I ever said no, even if I had no idea whatsoever of how to do whatever task was at hand.  I poured over books at the library, but mostly just dove in, trying to figure it all out as I went along.

My boss at the restaurant loved Christmas, loved all things Christmas, and would direct us to decorate every square inch of that place until it looked as though a tinsel explosion had occurred.  I heard him ask a manager if he knew of the person who painted the holiday windows at the nearby donut chain, so of course I butted in and said that I could do it.  And so it began!  For three or four years I painted every window across the front of the restaurant, there were ten I think.  He paid me thirty-five dollars for each one.  The first year I did it was just hideous.  It's a bit of a trick, painting windows.  Depending on how you do it, they either look wonderful during the day with the light coming through the paint and absolutely terrible at night, or vice versa.  We had the most business at night, so after that first round I opted to paint the windows after the restaurant closed.  

Check it out and pardon my photos, they're the only surviving evidence of those holiday windows! And check out the progression of Santa from one year to the next... Pretty hilarious.
It was kind of magic you know, being there, alone in the restaurant, painting on these big glass canvases.  Other than previous high school projects, this was the beginning of my education as an artist, as a painter.  In the quiet, well after my long shift on the floor, with the hum of the industrial fridges, the hush of falling snow, the cold emanating from the glass - I taught myself to see colour, to edit and adjust, to paint... When three or four in the morning rolled around and I was exhausted, I would drive home and sleep for a few hours before heading back, a little rumpled in my uniform for the start of a new day.

Let me tell you the excitement I felt as the light shifted and line-ups for dinner began - people oohed and aahed over each addition as I completed them - one per night.  My first gallery shows - well that's how it felt anyway.  But the designs were not always mine, I copied them from tins or cards, so if one of these is a poor likeness of something you originated, I do apologize.  But whoever you are, I learned from you.

I eventually got pretty good at it, and requests for my windows came from all over the city for designs in people's homes, various businesses and for different events.  Why, my boss even let me push him to pay fifty dollars for each window and for windows elsewhere I was able to sometimes get seventy-five to a hundred, depending on the size.  And somehow, stupidly, I thought myself better than other window painters in the city, who used templates, stencils and rollers to quickly whip up several window designs in one day, where it took five hours or more for me to freehand just one.

I used all the money I made to buy Christmas gifts for my family and friends.  It felt good.  I started thinking more and more about what to do with myself if I wanted to be something other than a waitress.  And I was always a little relieved when the busboys scrubbed them off after the season was over.  A strange beginning, don't you think?

Happy Holidays!
Once in a while I still like to paint windows...
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Breckenreid is teaching at TutorMill, an online mentoring site for students of illustration!