SARANAC LAKE – The outside of Kathy Ford’s painted window looks like a relatively flat, solid image.
But on the inside, the brush strokes Kathy used to paint the Santa Claus against a field of Christmas trees are apparent, and the image takes on a new feel that’s a little less polished and more abstract.
For some Saranac Lakers, it’s not Christmas in Saranac Lake without a trip down Lake Street to see Kathy’s large picture window, which she paints in late November and early December with a holiday theme and lights up for all to see through Christmas.
But the image on the inside also sets the tone for the holiday season for Kathy and her husband Lonnie, and their family and friends who join them inside their home throughout the weeks leading up to Christmas.
“We don’t do a lot of bright lights and that kind of thing, simply because once you light the window, it really pretty much permeates the house,” Lonnie told the Enterprise in an interview at the couple’s home last week. “It’s a nice thing from the outside, but as far as the home is concerned, from the inside, it’s always been the center of our Christmas, and whatever that theme is for the year is projected through the house. So we don’t have to augment with a lot of sparkle and glitter.”
“We’ve been saying a lot of ‘Ho ho ho’ this year, since it’s Santa Claus,” Kathy said.
Kathy is a woman of tradition. Lonnie said that that every mid-November through New Year’s, the family runs on Kathy’s clock.
She doesn’t start the window until after Thanksgiving is done. Then she gets out her acrylic paints, brushes and other tools, sets them up on a card table and puts on her favorite Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” (Even now, she always cries at the end, she said.)
Then she takes the picture she has decided to model this year’s painting on. She sets it into grids and makes a corresponding grid on the window, usually in masking tape. Then she sketches the design on the window in black Sharpie marker, figuring out the correct proportions using the grid.
Then she gets down to painting. Because the audience is on the other side of where she’s laying down the paint, she has to paint in reverse, starting with details and moving into background work last. That’s the opposite of what she’d do on a normal painting, so sometimes it’s difficult work.
Every once in a while, she will repaint the detail work over the backgrounds so people can see it on the inside of the house, but that starts to go a little overboard, she said.
Lonnie said Kathy does an incredible job mixing colors to get the perfect shades she is looking for. The colors on the windows never look like what comes out of the tube, he said.
“She’s always had a visual palate that is spot on,” Lonnie said.
Kathy said she finds the work a meditative break from the rush of the holidays.
“It’s kind of a relaxing thing for me,” Kathy told the Enterprise.
Each year, she waits until the painting is finished to start on her Christmas shopping.
Some of the simpler designs she did when she first started would take her six or eight hours, but the more complex ones she has done more recently have taken up to a couple of weeks. She tries to have it done by Dec. 10 each year, but she’s taken until Dec. 15 to finish it some years.
Her children remember their mother’s painting as the signal that the holidays were upon them.
“You could just feel it in the air when mom was painting the window,” her son Kyle told the Enterprise in a phone interview.
Nowadays, both her sons live outside the area, with younger son Kyle and his wife Jamie living in Hong Kong and his brother Devon living in Chicago. Both of them said they see the painting as a beacon that lights their way home for the holidays each winter.
Devon told the Enterprise he appreciates the simplicity of his family’s holiday display.
“I feel like Christmas in America, and specifically Christmas decorations, are becoming more and more about size and brightness and one-upmanship,” Devon told the Enterprise in a Facebook message. “What I love about Mom’s window, is it’s not meant to be a spectacle. Every window she paints is a personal expression of her artistic sensibilities, and her unique xmas spirit. Every year, you can count on Kathy Ford to bring Christmas cheer with class.”
Each year, Kathy’s Christmas card is a picture of her window painting the year before.
She got the idea to paint the window from her mother, who used to dabble in painting and tried painting windows a few times. Kathy’s first few windows, starting in 1987, didn’t fill the entire window pane. The first was a snow goose next to a wreath with some holly sprigs surrounding it. From there, she started to fill out the pane more and more, then add borders and try more complex designs.
When she wasn’t filling the whole window with paint, the lights they put on the painting outside glared through the bare parts of the window, so they had to put a window quilt down to shade their eyes from it. That way, though, the family didn’t get to enjoy the window painting as much.
Now that Kathy fills the whole window, the family can enjoy it from the inside as everyone else does from the outside. The window has become the centerpiece of their home holiday decoration.
In the early days when the window was a single pane, Kathy faced a number of challenges. Condensation would gather on it, making it difficult for the paint to dry. Half of her first try at the snow goose dripped away.
“So I had to kind of wipe that off and repaint,” Kathy said.
Their dog Sandy also liked to put his nose to the window to see who was coming, so there was often a doggy nose print in the corner of the painting. The Fords also had to keep the heat high so the paint could dry.
About 10 years ago, they replaced the window and installed a double-paned one. That eliminated the condensation problems, Kathy said.
There are other challenges inherent to painting a window, rather than on canvas or paper. She has learned to sketch the design out during the day, because the black Sharpie is too hard to see at night. There are certain colors, like flesh tones and light shades, that are easier to paint at night than during the day.
She has done Currier-and-Ives-style street scenes, a number of Santa Clauses and other holiday themes. Several months after 9/11, she painted a dove of peace. Last year she painted a little girl sleeping in her bed, with no knowledge that shortly after that 20 children would die in a school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
The year her sons and husband acted in a community theater version of “A Christmas Carol,” she painted the characters into the scene, with Tiny Tim looking in through the window.
This year’s painting, a Santa Claus against a background of a Chistmas tree forest, was a little simpler than her past works. Kyle and Jamie arrived for a visit from their new home in Hong Kong around the time when she normally would have been working on the painting, so in addition to Thanksgiving coming so late in November, there wasn’t as much time to devote this year as there has been in the past. She said she spent about 20 hours on it.
Her most complex designs were on the big anniversary years, 20 and 25. In her 20th year of painting the window, she painted carolers on a Main Street. The Main Street was modeled after Saranac Lake, but she also included the clock shop from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Kyle said Saranac Lake always reminded his mother of Bedford Falls, the town in the movie.
On her 25th year, she painted another Saranac Lake scene, with skaters on Lake Flower as seen from Kiwassa Drive. It’s more of a interpretation than an exact depiction, but the Harrietstown Town Hall clock tower makes an appearance.
Kathy threatens to stop making the paintings every so often, especially after those big anniversary years, but she has yet to miss a year since she began.
After 27 years of paintings, it has become a tradition for some families to venture out to view it each year. The Fords left home to celebrate the holiday one year before they had timed lights fixed on their front window. When they returned, a neighbor told them she had tried to bring her entire family by to see the window, something that had become a family Christmas tradition, and they were disappointed to not be able to see the window in the dark.
Now the lights are on a timer, so hopefully no one has to miss seeing Santa through the snow.
Kathy said that part of the reason she does the painting every year is to give back to the community. People will sometimes stop and wander through the front yard to see the painting or take photos of it up close, which the Fords encourage (as long as they don’t knock the lights over).
“It’s part of the history of Saranac Lake now, it’s been happening for so long,” Kyle said. “It’s these traditions that help make this town less like a community and more like a family.
“And I think Kathy Ford is one of those great people who help to contribute to that every year,” along with so many others in the community.
Kyle said he’s very proud of his mother and her commitment, borne of love and Christmas spirit, to painting the window every year.
After Christmas is all over, Lonnie wets the window down and scrapes off the paint with a razor. It usually takes about a half-hour.
Kathy said sometimes people ask her why she puts so much work into a temporary piece of art. Devon told the Enterprise that’s part of the reason he likes it.
“For me, it’s a joyful reminder at xmas time that nothing lasts forever, and it is good to stop and focus on the present, the beauty of our home, and the love of family,” he wrote.