Benicia artist brings Louvre to the Bay

Kali Persall,
Managing Editor

When I stepped into Mernie Buchanan’s booth at the 14th annual Pleasant Hill Art, Jazz and Wine Festival last weekend it felt like I had entered a French museum.

Gold lettering identified the make-shift gallery “The Faux Louvre,” and elaborate paintings and ornate frames, painted to match the picture within, hung on every surface.

The creations ranged from Monet interpretations to portraits of famous queens, refaced with the head of Buchanan’s three-year-old rescue chihuahua, Faun; an original design.

“Come on in, you can save yourself a trip to Paris,” she told passerby.

The festival took place over two days last weekend and featured music, entertainment and numerous vendors and craft booths.

The 29-year Benicia resident also teaches art classes at a crafts store in Pleasant Hill and has attended the Pleasant Hill festival annually since 2004.

Buchanan paints everything from slices of cake to the Golden Gate Bridge. Buchanan’s current series of paintings are inspired by famous works of art hung in the Louvre museum in Paris and museums across the United States, which she visits in person when she has the funds.

Her unique creations are painted with French watercolors, a type of paint modeled after those used by French Impressionists. “The Unicorn in Captivity” a South Lowlands Tapestry dating back to 1500 from New York and Van Gogh’s 1890 piece, “‘Houses with Figure” hung in the makeshift gallery.

Buchanan said she doesn’t discriminate when it comes to which pieces she chooses to paint but if she sees one by one of her favorite painters — Van Gogh, John Singer Sergeant or Peter Paul Rubens — she’ll most likely sketch it. When a piece catches her eye with an artist she’s never heard of, she adds it to the series and later researches them.

Buchanan said that seeing the art in person helps her to connect with the emotion behind the paint.

Buchanan earned her B.A. in art from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, but said she has been painting since she was six years old, when she insisted her mother enroll her in adult art classes.

“I was pretty precocious and I knew this was what I wanted to do,” said Buchanan.

The series of paintings were inspired by Buchanan’s first visit to the Louvre Museum in Paris in 2003.

She first sketched the paintings she connected with and later painted them with watercolors. It took a year to figure out how to incorporate the frames, which she sourced from yard sales, antique shops and sales from art stores. The goal is to match the frame with the styles of the era of the original paintings.

“I look for shapes,” said Buchanan. “If the price is right, I just buy it.”

She buys stacks of frames at a time and refinishes them with acrylic paint. Once the refinished coat is painted, Buchanan said she can see the pattern better, which helps her determine which painting they’ll be paired with.

Buchanan said it is impossible to tell how long it takes to create a single piece, because each one goes through a lengthy process. One frame can contain up to 12 total coats of acrylic finishing before it’s complete.

“To get that richness of the colors in the frames, there’s layers and layers and layers,” she said.

Sometimes the frames are created specifically for one painting and other times a frame is versatile enough to match up to 10 different creations. Often she works on two or three paintings at a time.

Buchanan has created 272 individual paintings over a 12-year span and has sold 180. She decides which pieces to recreate based on the emotions that strike when she walks past a painting in a museum.

Buchanan said it often takes two days to sketch these paintings. The actual watercolor painting often happens during festivals and events like the Pleasant Hill Art, Jazz and Wine Fest, or in her studio-gallery in Benicia, which is open to the public and also doubles as her home. She said living above her gallery is convenient and affordable, and much of her money is spent on art supplies. Buchanan also said that French paints can cost up to $35 dollars for 15 mL of “the right blue.”

“I don’t penny-pinch on the quality of the materials I use, but I cut my own hair,” said Buchanan.

“Whatever it takes to keep going and doing it right.”

Buchanan also creates commissioned paintings, portraits, stage sets and murals for clients, including the Concord Community Youth Center, San Francisco Zoo and the Willows Theater in Concord.