Imaginary Jungles: 'I needed an outlet'

CALDWELL, Idaho (KBOI) - The thrum of machinery is unmistakable. Walk in the door of Caxton Printers and it looks and sounds like the robots have won. The printing equipment is the size of a Mack truck, and running full-tilt.

"Six days a week," says Caxton Vice President Ron Gipson," "and double shifts five of those days."

Gipson's family has operated here on Main Street for more than 100 years. And Caxton provides steady employment in an area where the economy crashed and burned when the Great Recession hit. But Caxton suddenly has a tiger by the tail and Gipson is still incredulous.

"The paper mill," he says, "even called our local sales rep and said, 'What's going on in Idaho? You guys are using this paper at a record pace.'"

Yeah, the paper. Everywhere you look are huge stacks of neatly-bundled reams. And all have intricate black-and-white drawings staring back at you. Both the drawings and the story need a little filling in.

The art is the work of Caldwell artist Pamela Smart, a trim woman in her 50's who lives with her family in a rustic cabin on the fringes of town. The house and grounds are oasis-like amid the dry, rolling hills of the western end of the Treasure Valley.

The trees and flowers are the work of Pam and her husband, Ken.

"There was nothing here when we first moved in," she says with pride.

One of the family's seven cats wanders by on his search for a cool place to nap. Birds twitter in the branches of a fir tree. It feels like one of Henri Rousseau's imaginary jungles come to life.

The work of the masters is never not in the conversation. Smart is the first to acknowledge her debt to icons like M.C. Escher and Salvador Dali.

"When I looked at Dali, looked at those guys, I was in awe," she says, conjuring memories of visits to museums as a child.

But her work, spread out on the dining room table, is on a par with her idols, especially Escher. One ink drawing of a lizard has the same transformative quality. As your eye moves from the lizard's head to its tail, you see it becoming the leaves of the surrounding tree; veins in the leaves, in turn, become tiny lizards on their way to meeting a bigger lizard on the ground below.

Lately, though, Smart has put aside dabbling in the fine arts to produce a series of astonishingly successful coloring books.

"I needed an outlet for the art that would be lucrative because we were going through some struggles and I didn't want my husband out there doing construction, so I prayed for an idea."

She started out making a few of the coloring books for friends. Then someone suggested approaching the local Costco store. The managers quickly seized on an opportunity to feature the work of a local artist.

"My family always said, 'Boy, you really turn it into lemonade, don't you,'" she says with a chuckle.

Costco was so impressed that it began featuring Smart's books in a few more stores. Then corporate buyers decided to take a chance and feature her work nationally.

"Including Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico," she says helpfully.

Back at Caxton, Gipson says, thanks to Costco, Smart's successand hisreally exploded.

"I've never seen anything like it and I don't know if I ever will again, " he marvels.

Gipson has added extra employees, although finding enough paper to fill Smart's orders has been his biggest headache. Even some of his suppliers have had to ramp up to meet Caxton's demands.

"I'm getting a big order of paper in a few weeks and even that might not get us through the holidays," he explains.

And then he stops to point out that her huge success hasn't changed his best customer one bit.

"She's the same person now that she was when she first walked through the door and gave us an order for 200 books," he says with obvious admiration.

Smart stands at the kitchen sink, rinsing vegetables from her garden, and admits she is still trying to adjust to her growing celebrity.

"I can't take this for granted," she says quietly. "It's sort of something on loan to me, if you will."

Like the work of a divine hand, perhaps?

"Even God said people without a vision perish," she says with a newfound conviction.

And now she's able to share that vision with a growing legion of fans.

"To look at a butterfly again for the first time, and two old ladies wrote to me to say they started doing that again."

Almost daily, Smart gets emails and photos sent to her about how the coloring books are adding a singular peace to their lives.

"They're in my heart," she says, tearing up. "I can't explain that part of it. It's more than I expected. I love them. There are a lot of hard, hard stories and they're in my prayers."