Maybe it was winning an art poster contest with a free trip to Topeka when she was in 8th grade…maybe that is when her journey into painting and creating began. Maybe it was that McCall’s magazine ad for correspondence courses in acrylic painting. No matter how and when, the artist turned a hobby into a much loved craft business…painting with lots of primary colors…colorful.
It was the late 1960s, and a young housewife wanted to expand her horizons. Setting up a makeshift studio in her basement, she first learned to paint leaves and roses. She practiced on wax paper so if she made too many mistakes, her papers would land in the trash. My goodness, she had a knack with the painting! Then, she practiced on bottles so if she made too many mistakes, her bottles would land in the trash. As her experience and expertise with the paints and patterns grew, she knew it was time to pick a medium on which to create her version of colorful kitchen decor.
Having grown up as a Kansas farm girl, she never stopped loving old kitchen utensils, coffeepots, wash boilers, and such. This would be her medium…she would be a tole painter. (Tole is the decorative painting of tin and wood.) She determined that she could find loads of old utensils at farm sales in the Pennsylvania countryside where she now lived with her family. Auctioneers would sell boxes of utensils for a quarter which she scarfed up. Her favorite auctioneer would call out at a sale, “Hey, Merna, here is a box with your kind of stuff!” In her own way, her paintings were becoming popular with the locals.
The time came when she wanted to set up a craft business and needed a name. Being a Kansas girl and loving college basketball, she decided to call it The Jayhawker. (Jayhawker is a nickname for Kansas plus the mascot for University of Kansas.) She began setting up at craft fairs and gaining loyal customers. She set up a shop in her basement with hours by chance or appointment. She loved meeting people and making new friends. Credit for the success of her business also extended to her husband Ed who primed tin items for painting and accompanied her to craft shows.
She joined the National Tole Painters Association, an organization that she truly enjoyed. Each spring, a national convention was held in a major city…a chance to take daily lessons with nationally known artists. The conventions also featured tours and outings in the cities with travel right up Merna’s alley. When she returned home, she brought along fresh and colorful ideas. She flourished in her talent and craft.
The Jayhawker was in business for 30 years. She painted each day until midnight so she could have inventory for her next show. She estimated that she earned about a quarter an hour! But…she was ecstatic about her colorful creativity. She had found her artistic niche…Merna Mae (Storer) Slabik, tole painter!
That colorful painter was my mother. When we talked on the phone, she spent most of the conversation telling in details what her new pieces looked like. One day while on the phone, she said, “I have decided to put my paintbrushes away and retire…I am going to be a socialite!” Thus, began another chapter in her colorful life.