After the death of his wife two years ago, Rene Rheault wasn’t sure what to do with his time. A visit to Arizona to see his son, however, inspired him to try his hand at painting, something he had never done before. Rheault, 94, discovered he had a passion and a talent for it, and his paintings are now on display at Woodcrest Villa, the East Hempfield Township retirement community where he lives.
“I feel like I accomplished something, I feel good about it and I feel like I did something worthwhile,” Rheault says.
During the visit to see his son Gary, his daughter-in-law Sherri Congrove Rheault, an artist, showed him a way of painting that does not require any brushes. The technique is called cell painting, or pour painting, and involves mixing acrylic paints together with a “pouring medium.”
Pouring mediums thin the paints and also prevent them from blending together. Those paints are all mixed in a cup, which is then flipped upside down onto the canvas. “Cells” are created by adding silicone to the paint, which, as an oil, separates from the water-based acrylics. This creates white “bubbles” throughout the painting, which look like a cell under a microscope.
“The painting comes out different each time. The paint does its own thing,” Congrove Rheault explains. “Most people don’t really know how to do it.”
Rheault made a couple of cell paintings with Congrove Rheault while in Arizona, and upon returning home decided he wanted to do more.
“He took his flight back to Pennsylvania, and I was surprised, I thought that was the end of it,” she says. “I got a phone call from him and he said, ‘I’m at Michael’s (the craft supply store): What do I buy?’"
Painting in the bathroom
After gathering his supplies, Rheault began to make his paintings in the spare bathroom of his apartment at Woodcrest Villa. The nature of the paints requires three days for the work to completely dry, so the paintings need to be somewhere they won’t be disturbed.
Rheault creates more intricate designs within the paint by either blowing on it with a straw, or using a lollipop stick to create dots or drag the paint. For example, he used a straw to blow white paint into clouds and a lollipop stick to create flowers in his personal favorite, a painting titled “Reaching for the Sky.”
“What I like about it, I made the clouds; it looks like they drift, they’re floating,” Rheault says of the painting, which features red plants adorned with flowers that stretch toward a blue sky.
Rheault’s paintings are all abstract, but many draw inspiration from nature. One represents a waterfall, another waves crashing on a beach. Some paintings have golden specks of glitter throughout them, like stars, which Rheault flicks onto the wet canvas with his hand.
After the director at Woodcrest Villa saw one of Rheault’s paintings, she asked if he would like to display his artwork in the gallery in the Welcome Center. He called his daughter-in-law, and she and her husband flew to Pennsylvania to help him set up the show. Being experienced in galleries and art shows, she knew how to finish the paintings with varnish and hang them.
Artwork on display
The show opened on June 7. Rheault was nervous that people might not come, Congrove Rheault says.
She told him that they would.
“It’s like the old adage, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ ” she says. “These paintings are going to sell, and they are worth it.”
And sure enough, they did. The gallery was packed on the day of the opening, and so far Rheault has sold seven of his paintings.
“I was surprised when so many people were here and they were commenting on my paintings, ‘Oh that’s beautiful, we love it,’ you know,” Rheault says.
He says that people still talk to him around Woodcrest about his art.
“I got popular, I guess,” he says. “They call me ‘the artist.’ ”
As his paintings were sold, Rheault brought down more of his work to replace them, totaling 14 paintings in all. Some of the paintings he sold are still on display and will be until the end of June.
There is one work, however, that isn’t for sale: a segmented, three-canvas work in black and white. Rheault says that he made it for one particular person, who will receive it at the end of the show.
“I put $900 on it; I won’t sell it,” Rheault says, smiling.
His daughter-in-law says that she views Rheault as a great inspiration to other senior citizens.
“Sometimes they get depressed and feel like they have no purpose, but you’re inspiring people to go out and do something that’s different,” she says.
Rheault says he had never painted before the age of 92, or ever really done any kind of art.
“I never thought I would ever do this,” he says. “This was the last thing on my mind ... .”
Rheault says that his next paintings will be for his nieces and nephews. Apart from that, he says he’ll paint when the mood strikes and when he has a bit of free time.
“I always wanted to do different things. I was a very active man, I used to love to ski, but never dreamt that I would come up with something like this,” Rheault says. “But now I’m glad I got into it. I figure I accomplished something different.”