Brandon Bird's obsession with Sears Roebuck Inc. began as a joke. While the rest of his classmates at UC Santa Cruz were creating paintings of the lush California coastline, Bird imagined the most mundane, uninspiring landscape he could think of: the Sears department store his mom had dragged him to as a kid in suburban Sacramento. It was boxy and beige with big blue signage, not unlike any Sears department store you might find in any mall in any town across America. It was, against all odds, a thing of beauty, when rendered in the Impressionist-style pastel palette and textured brush strokes historically reserved for Monet's lily pads or Van Gogh's starry skies. Bird thought it was hilarious.
"It's funny because [I'm] taking the time to do this thing that nobody cares about," he told me on a recent afternoon near his studio in Downtown Los Angeles. "You look at it, and you're like, Why did somebody make this?"
After the first Sears painting, he couldn't shake the feeling that there were other Sears stores around the country, each one slightly different but overwhelmingly familiar, just waiting to be immortalized in glistening oil. A "perfect slab" of Sears he spotted along Route 22 during a visit to New Jersey inspired the seven-foot-long canvas he exhibited at an art show not long after. It was made partly as a fuck-you to the gallery owner, who had been expecting something more commercial. It sold instantly. Bird was on to something.
So in the summer of 2013, nearly a decade after he'd made his first Sears painting in a college classroom, Bird dreamed up an American road trip unlike any other: He would travel from coast to coast photographing Sears department stores. Then, when he returned home, he would paint each one in oil, creating a series of paintings "representing the finest specimens of Sears from across the country," he wrote on his Kickstarter page. It was the kind of project that was just the right amount of dumb, but with just the right amount of ambition to gain support on the internet: Within a month, hundreds of backers had donated more than $16,000—double the initial goal—to make Bird's joke a reality.
"It was a commitment to a joke," he told me. "Once people have give you money for something, you're like, Well, I can't just not make any of these paintings."
Halfway through the road trip that October, the joke had lost some of its humor. Bird and his friend Erin Pearce had grown tired of staying in cheap motels and subsisting on meals from drive-thrus and diners. By the time they got to Chicago, they were both so sick that they skipped the landmark at the top of their must-see list, the Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower.
The tower is, in many ways, a symbol of Sears's sad fate. The company started in 1886 as a mail-order catalog that catered to rural customers, selling everything from farming supplies and sporting goods to cars and bicycles. Sears opened its first store in Chicago in 1926, and within a decade, hundreds had popped up around the country. By the 1970s, it had become the world's largest general merchandiser, erecting its namesake skyscraper in 1973, which at the time was the tallest building in the world. But since 2005, when Kmart bought the struggling company, revenues have plunged, and stores have rapidly shuttered. Sears was forced to downsize its corporate headquarters and lost naming rights to the skyscraper.
In a last-ditch effort to turn a profit, the company has begun spinning off its retail stores into real estate investments by leasing the properties to other businesses.
For Bird, the biggest symbol of the company's downturn came in Detroit, when he arrived at the Sears department store just in time to watch as the big blue letters on the front of the building were being dismantled. At first he figured maybe the decades-old signage was getting a makeover. But once the five letters came down, leaving behind nothing but a shadow on a blank façade, he realized they were never going to be replaced. The whole store was being shuttered, and this was the very last thing to go.
"That just sort of felt fortuitous," Bird told me. "Like, this is the last chance to see this, you know?"
Standing there amid the ruins of a former shopping center that looked as if it had barely survived the apocalypse, Bird felt as if maybe his project was about more than just committing to what he calls "a very, very, dry joke"—he was undertaking an anthropological survey of the end of an era, crumbling before his very eyes.
"That kind of retail store itself is a dying business model," he said. "For whatever reason, fate or my own idiotic doing, I ended up in a position to document all this stuff. So now, hey, I experienced it, I recorded it, I'm making my own art from it."
Today, Bird considers himself something of an expert on Sears department stores. After returning from the road trip, he got to work doing research, making postcards and trading cards that chronicle the company's history in surprising detail. He's been contracted by various projects to act as a Sears historian, and recently served as a consultant on a play involving a character who worked at the historic Sears department store in LA's Boyle Heights neighborhood.
Bird has already completed the ten paintings he set out to make when he launched the Kickstarter three years ago, but he still can't seem to move on from the project. Or, as he put it in a campaign update, "Once you get the itch to paint Sears, it never goes away."
He hopes to create enough Sears paintings to mount a pop-up art show in an abandoned mall or a department store some day. What began as a joke about painting something so ugly in such a beautiful way has since spiraled into a full-blown obsession with the unique qualities of each and every Sears store: the texture of their walls, the curve of their rooftops, the way the light reflects off their windows at sunset, the subtle differences in the color and shape of their signage, before they slowly disappear.
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