Robert townsend plans 100 paintings of mod woman he discovered in vintage slides l.a. weekly

After a year of waiting for the seller to post more listings, Townsend had finished two paintings based on the slides he had already purchased. He contacted the seller again, this time offering to purchase the entire collection, sight unseen. The seller agreed after Townsend explained why he wanted the slides.

"I pay respect to people’s lives from another generation," Townsend says during a phone interview with L.A. Weekly, echoing what he told the seller: "Even though we don’t know who these people are, they took the time — over 30 years — to document their lives, their travels, their family, and kept it all together. They passed away but their story is still intact.

If you sell the slides separately, their story disappears forever."

The purchase was a risk, but even if there were only 10 more usable slides, Townsend would gain two more years’ worth of work. Instead, he found a lifetime. With the slides in hand, Townsend knew the paintings of the Mod Woman would be some of the largest he’d ever painted, measuring 6 feet by 9 feet, on custom-made canvases weighing more than 150 pounds.

Aside from sentiment, My Indiana Muse also displays Townsend’s incredible work ethic. Townsend treats his career as a painter like any other 9-to-5 job, except he usually puts in 10 to 12 hours per day. Each Helen painting takes Townsend an average of three months to complete. First he must project the slide onto his canvas and selectively trace the shapes and details he will paint, a process that requires up to 30 hours. The documentary shows Townsend’s entire process through a combination of real time and timelapse, allowing viewers to see the sometimes contorted physical labor required to paint canvases so large and detailed. Townsend’s level of skill continues to impress those who already know him and his work well, like his former high school art teacher, Doug Andrews.

"If you were to ask me back in the ’90s about this kid Robert Townsend, I would have said, ‘Yeah, he’s really good but…,’?" Andrews laughs. "I’m just floored. He’s a master at what he does. A lot of techniques that he does now are things he developed himself. He thinks so differently than everyone else with his use of colors and patterns and everything. [In high school], he did a colored pencil drawing of a little wind-up toy that back then was like, ‘OK, there’s something special about this kid.’ You looked at this drawing and it stood out. It was incredible what he was doing with just colored pencils. I still have the drawing."

Townsend’s collegiate art experience was less positive. He took his first art course while attending Cerritos College and was told by his professor — the first professional painter he’d ever met — that he would never make it as an artist. Townsend heeded the teacher’s advice and quit the class; he took a seven-year hiatus from both art and college during which he worked a series of day jobs delivering televisions and medical records, eventually working at Sunset Aquatic Shipyard in Huntington Beach.

"That’s why my paintings are sunshine and lollipops. Maybe it’s a little too Pollyanna, I don’t know, but why not wake up every morning and feel cheerful? How could that ever be a bad thing?" Townsend asks. "Not that I’m always able to pull it off, mind you. But if people are really inspiring and excited about joyful things and celebrating and grateful for their lives and grateful for everything they have — it’s just contagious and it spreads that joy to other people.

Helen continues to spread joy and travel the country. Her next stop is Altamira Fine Art Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona, for a show that runs April 16 through May 5. Four of the nine completed Helen oil paintings will be on display — the other five have already been sold. The opening reception is April 19.

My Indiana Muse will be shown at the Beverly Hills Film Festival on Friday, April 6, at 7:15 p.m. Learn more about the project and view more of the paintings on Townsend’s website: Additional upcoming film festival screenings can be found at