Growing up on Long Island, Colleen Cassidy-Berns had pink and purple walls with Peter Max butterfly posters above her bed. Every two years, she would repaint her bedroom-one year splashing her walls with red, white and blue to match her new shag carpet-and would repaint all her furniture each time to match.
Old habits die hard. Today, Cassidy-Berns still has fun painting furniture, only now clients pay her to do it for them. In her century-old house-turned-studio off South Tamiami Trail, Cassidy-Berns delights in covering stools, chairs and tables with exuberant paintings.
"I've always loved bright colors," says Cassidy-Berns. "My first choice is to make my pieces pleasant to the eye and happy. People who walk in here say it's such a happy place."
Against the cozy proportions of the beautifully restored Victorian farmhouse where she has her gallery and studio, Cassidy-Berns' watercolors, and the furniture she started to paint five years ago, come to glowing life. There's the rust and earth-toned series she created after returning from a trip to Africa, featuring striking, dramatic close-ups of leopards' faces on chairs, tables and floorcloths, and a set of four barstools featuring a lioness, leopard, giraffe and zebra. Vibrant tropical birds, fish, frogs and foliage cascade across chairs, stools and table legs, while more mellow pastels mimic watercolor paintings on a delicate garden bench. She often groups furniture with the painting by which it was inspired; for example, a painting of bright red poppies comes with a pair of matching chairs, while a series of botanical prints comes with a stool and a fireguard featuring the same feathery palms. Her love of cats inspired a series of comical cat stools that come with a tongue-in-cheek birdhouse under the seat.
Some of Cassidy-Berns' most endearing pieces are from the children's lines she has created: bright, child-size tables with checkerboard squares or a chalkboard for a surface; a pale pink, lace-edged chair, bench and footstool featuring a pair of ballet slippers; and the Chick Bo Beep set, a pastel rocking chair and bench with chicks marching across one slat and sheep across another, with footstools to match.
While Cassidy-Berns is always creating new lines, about 70 percent of her work is custom. Clients bring her swatches of sofa fabric and have her design accent pieces, or buy one of her watercolors for a dining room and commission furniture to match.
"Most custom stuff is more subdued," says Cassidy-Berns, but she enjoys the creative challenge in matching her vision with the client's. "No matter what I paint, I have a good time."
Cassidy-Berns has always had some sort of canvas. After moving to Sarasota in 1977 to study art at Ringling School of Art and Design, she worked as a hairdresser and makeup artist before starting to teach watercolor classes. Some of the students she began teaching 14 years ago still attend classes today; and one of them, Lisa Seaboyer, became Cassidy-Berns' artistic director a year ago (other staff members include Chris Barr, who does custom framing, and Picasso, a three-legged cat). Seaboyer is the one who rummages through thrift stores and flea markets for the old and quirky pieces of furniture on which Cassidy-Berns plies her craft.
Cassidy-Berns' work is available at her gallery at 4613 S. Tamiami Trail, and at Mary's on Main, Persnickety Cat, Wet Noses and Longboat Key Moorings. Prices start at $59 for a footstool, and chairs range from $225 to $475. For custom work, she charges $40 an hour. You can reach her at (941) 924-1200 or visit her online at www.colleencassidy.com.