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Sidewalk painter in Bellingham explores the beauty of State Street

Some people look at stretches of State Street and see a commercial strip with lots of traffic.

Terry Brooks looks at State Street, paintbrush in hand, and sees a challenge.

Brooks, 69, retired almost three years ago from the University of Washington, where he taught library and information science for 26 years. While teaching, writing, and raising two children, he also painted, something he has practiced and studied since he was a boy in Edmonton, Alberta.

Once he and his wife, Jane, settled in Bellingham, Brooks began painting scenes of his new hometown, including many downtown buildings and such iconic landmarks as Mount Baker Theater, The Herald Building, and Whatcom Museum’s Old City Hall.

Last fall, he hit upon the idea of painting a series of portraits of the State Street landscape, block by block, starting at the intersection with James Street and working his way south. He has completed 16 paintings so far, with plans for another four to eight, or so.

Brooks works outdoors, setting up his easel on the sidewalk and finishing each painting in two to three hours, weather permitting.

“I like warm, non-windy conditions,” he said. “It’s not a ‘stormy weather’ kind of thing.”

His challenge is to create appealing images of an urban street scene that, in many cases, lacks immediate eye appeal. Brooks looks for details, shapes and colors in each setting to emphasize with his bright colors and his playful, impressionistic flair.

“I’m transforming the most godawful urban sprawl into something delightful,” he said.

Discovering such details is easier for Brooks because he and his wife don’t own a car. They rent a car on occasion, but generally walk or ride a bike.

Brooks uses a bike trailer to haul his art supplies to his sidewalk work stations. Moving at the pace of a walker or cyclist makes it easier for him to observe details worth capturing in a painting.

Brooks shows his paintings and cards on his website, and sells them from his small sidewalk roost near the Saturday Bellingham Farmers Market. His cards sell for $5, and his paintings range from $10 to $50.

Years ago, while selling at an outdoor art market in Seattle, Brooks realized that most sidewalk shoppers aren’t likely to drop $250 on the spot for a painting. So he revised his approach to create paintings that are small, and inexpensive to make and sell.

He uses latex housepaint and standard art boards, keeping costs to a minimum. That keeps the sales price low for customers, and means he isn’t out lots of money if a painting doesn’t pan out.

Now that he’s retired, it also means he can afford to paint as often as he likes, even daily.

His modest expenses also means he isn’t compelled to sell his newest paintings right away. For the moment, his State Street paintings hang in his living room. Once a series is finished, he likes to study the changes in his approach, to see how his work evolved over the series of related images.

“This is a process of self-knowledge and self-growth,” he said.

Then, after he has learned all he can from studying the series, Brooks will make the paintings available for purchase.

Once he’s done with his State Street images, he might paint his way along Cornwall Avenue or Holly Street. Brooks enjoys the challenge of discovering and showing the beauty of the commonplace, rather than paint the certifiably beautiful.

“You don’t need Whatcom Falls; you can do State Street,” he said. “There are infinite challenges.”