— Style —

A Blank Wall is Like a Naked Body

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A blank wall is like a naked body — lovely in its most basic form but full of possibilities for adornment.

I buy and sell vintage art for a living, and many of my finds never make it into the shop. The walls of my home are hung with interesting woodcuts, sculptures, oils, watercolors, textiles, collages, and photographs. I live in a stylish and chic space that reflects me and my family to a ‘t,’ and our art collection was amassed at a fraction of the cost had I purchased everything new.

If I can do it, so can you.

This pep talk is for you if you spend more on your window treatments than you do on art. Or if you’ve always imagined living in your own gallery but think you can’t afford to collect. Or if you haven’t refreshed your walls since 1979. Or if you’re over the age of 22 and you hang stuff from Target or HomeGoods.

Here’s my solemn vow: You could walk into any musty dusty shop on God’s green earth, and there is something hiding in plain sight that’s worthy of your walls. Luck is not involved. Open your eyes and your mind, and you will find a treasure to rescue.

If you doubt me, let’s walk through my technique.

  • Relax your expectations. Enjoy the process. I used to skip wearing my contacts to the bars in college. Everyone looked fuzzy and a little more attractive. Like that!
  • If you reach out to touch something, that is your gatherer instinct kicking in. Listen!
  • Bad framing can disguise good art. Good framing does not a masterpiece make. I buy frames and recycle the ugly print inside them. And I buy art and recycle the ugly frame it comes in.  
  • Embrace your inner weird. “Dogs Playing Poker” painted on black velvet? If it represents your intrinsic view of the world, pull out your wallet. As Diana Vreeland said, “We all need a splash of bad taste; no taste is what I’m against.”
  • Consider things that remind you of your childhood. Think back to your favorite picture books — for me, it’s A Snowy Day — and use that style as a starting point.
  • Seek out things that remind you of your ancestors. Did your grandfather own an ice cream parlor? Hang a collection of wood-handled scoopers.
  • Look for artisan craftsmanship. Objects made by hand are underpriced and becoming more and more rare.
  • Forget the obvious use of an object. Hang plates. Take a book apart, and frame its illustrations.

One last piece of advice: be true to yourself. Don’t borrow sophistication. Forget the formal definition of art and have fun.

My friend Patrick, who grew up in Kansas, just hung the blades of an old windmill on his wall. It looks like a sculpture. Stunning!

While in Florence, my friend Ann slept with a curly-haired Italian named Fabio. She hung a photograph of Michelangelo’s David to remind her of him. 

My brother-in-law has a life-sized poster of Jerry Garcia hanging in his house to remind him of the night, in 1985 at the Starlight Theater in Kansas City, when he and my sister danced their way up to the 10th row with no hassles. 

You catch my drift. Good luck and on with the hunt!

Photo by Renn Kuhnen.


  • Haralee March 20, 2017 at 9:34 am

    Great post! So many people buy sofa art. They are afraid their art may not match or who knows? No taste is a sin. I agree if you like Elvis on Velvet, proudly display it, enjoy it and you know what they say about people who can’t take a joke!

    • Mithra Ballesteros March 21, 2017 at 7:23 pm

      Thank you for reading, Haralee, and here’s to Elvis!

  • Susan Bonifant March 20, 2017 at 1:23 pm

    Boy, I love this. LOVE this. You had me at the part about artwork versus art purchases. When I set up my office, I wanted to love everything I laid eyes on. And so, every thing is either a picture I framed in a unique way, a memory treasure (near my computer: the book I read our son every night for two years just to make me smile), a craft my kids made, a cozy throw, and a soft bed for the cat on my desk. A room needs to feel, more than look, like a work of art.

    • Mithra Ballesteros March 21, 2017 at 7:28 pm

      Beautifully said, Susan. I may have to borrow your phrase, a “memory treasure.”

  • 1010ParkPlace March 20, 2017 at 3:19 pm

    Wonderful post, Mithra! I think this goes back to having self confidence and finding our voice! I’ve never been afraid of what people think because “people” don’t live in my home. I do! It only matters to me! If you don’t like it… Lucky you. You get to go back to your home and what you like. xoxox, Brenda

  • Joanna March 22, 2017 at 10:32 am

    Art is what personalizes our home. It makes a statement, in a lot of cases, about who you are. I have in my basement a stack of picture frames bought at antique auctions and old thrift stores. They are all awaiting a new lease on life, when I find the perfect picture. I do like some negative space or I find my eye doesn’t settle. One gallery wall is enough, for me. We all have to do what is right for our own home.

  • Lisa March 24, 2017 at 5:14 pm

    Oh Mithra, I love this post. It is all about marching to your own drum… but on your walls! I have an enormous wall behind my dining room table and I’m waiting for the right piece to land there. It has to have serious scale, but it will happen one day. Maybe some windmill blades!

    I particularly enjoyed reading your scouting technique. The problem is what to do with husbands!? Mine is sort of overly tasteful and restrained, and as you know, I am not 🙂 Maybe if I put an enormous painting of dogs playing poker on velvet in the dining room, that would convert him. xx

  • LA CONTESSA March 25, 2017 at 9:58 am

    PERFECT………..this should hit the NEW YORK TIMES!

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