This article was last modified on October 20, 2007.


In Search Of the Elusive Perkins Artist

Appleton East Perkins mural
The Appleton East Perkins mural – Photograph by Brian Hermes. (Click to Enlarge)

Part One: Observations

Anyone who has been to the smoking section (known as “the library”) at the Appleton East Perkins (known as “Appleton Two”) in Appleton, Wisconsin, has noticed that adorning the wall of the room is a mural. This mural covers essentially the entire wall of the room and features people enjoying their day in the park. This is all the casual observer will notice. However, if you are one of the people who spends far too much time in this room (known as “the regulars”), you will have begun to notice many more subtle things in this painting and spent hours talking with other regulars about them. Yes, I do literally mean hours. John Mlodzik, Hannah Borg, and myself are but three of the many who have noticed. And now, for posterity, I share the list of observations with you.

1. The Park is Segregated. Many individuals are playing in the park, but of these many people only two of them are racially different than the white majority. These two people have been separated from the group. A bridge divides the park, and the minorities have been ordered to stay on one side of the bridge. To make matters worse, the black side of the park also happens to be off in the distance. The hidden message? This is a park for whites, and all blacks will be condemned to the background and forgotten.

2. All Whites are Handicapped. All the white people in the painting have only one leg. We could say that this is merely the angle of the view, but certainly it is an amazing coincidence that not just a few, but rather all white people have only one leg. By contrast, the two black people in the distance have both legs.

3. The Treehouse is Sexist. A sign on the treehouse reads “No Girls Allowed”, which is rather sexist. At first, the casual observer will think nothing of this – boys traditionally have put a sign on their clubhouse keeping girls with cooties away. But this is not a clubhouse in someone’s backyard – this is the city park. Is the city encouraging girls to do more feminine things and to avoid the masculine tradition of climbing trees?

4. Safety Issue One. Two boys with a sailboat are playing dangerously close to a large river. One of the boys is leaning in towards the river and might possibly fall in. Two adults are off to the side, and presumably the parents of one or both of the boys. However, there is no humanly possible way either parent could reach the river in time to save the boy (especially if they only have one leg).

5. Improper Sexual Advances. One of the boys playing with the sailboat is fondling the rear end of another boy. The boy doing the touching is not holding up his friend or hanging on to him to prevent him from falling in the river. His hand is resting on his friend’s buttocks for no other discernible reason than to feel the boy’s behind.

6. Defies Physical Laws. A male figure is climbing a tree swing rope to gain entrance into the clubhouse. His hands and feet are firmly on the rope. Yet the rope runs directly downward from the tree to his hands, and at a sharp angle from his hands to his feet. Unless he has some spectacular leg strength and grip making him able to pull the tire upwards, this is physically impossible. The weight of the tire should cause the rope to go straight downwards, or at least at a consistent angle to the rest of the rope. (Thanks to John Mlodzik for this observation.)

7. Safety Issue Two. The tire swing rope is the only way to enter the treehouse. If we estimate the height of the clubhouse to be ten feet, a rope seems fairly unsafe as the only means to enter and exit the fort. A well-grounded ladder would seem to be a better option.

8. The Weather. Given the outfits and attitudes of the people, we are left with the impression that the weather is fairly nice. The sky, in contrast to these outfits, is gray. No sunshine or blue sky is visible at all. Why are none of the people in the painting prepared for the potential rainstorm or at least for cooler temperatures? Obviously none of the people has ever been a Boy Scout.

Part Two: Tracking Down the Artist to Get Some Answers

Having made these observations, the next step is to find the artist and get some answers and perhaps some insight into this mural. At the very least, could we know what the piece is titled? But tracking him (or her) down might be more difficult than it appears. He has not signed his name on the artwork at all. I would ask a manager, but only one (Billie) has been at Appleton Two long enough to see where the painting came from. The restaurant, by the way, was built in roughly 1999.

February 20, 2005

On February 20, 2005, I spent an evening at Perkins in the smoking section with Eric Wulterkens and John Mlodzik. The topic of the mural came up yet again, and Eric so kindly explained a few of the odd things about it to the waitress, Hailie. I asked John to recheck for a signature. He informed me he believed the corner had one in the past, but it had since been removed — prompting him to state he felt someone just signed their name to take credit. I examined the painting to see what it was made of. The painting is not wallpaper, but was quite obviously not painted there — it felt like a wall, not like a layered painting.

I flagged down Manda Walter, the manager on duty and asked her about it. She knew nothing. I asked if she thought Billie would know, and she was not sure. She did not even know if Billie was there when the restaurant opened, though she suspects that Billie was.

Upon my return home, I decided to send off an e-mail to the corporate office, since I assumed that was where the journey would ultimately take me. I inquired as to whether they knew if the painting was unique, and if they knew the artist’s name and contact information. I will post any response I get at the time I get one…

February 21, 2005

The next day (February 21) I realized I had made a great mistake. I had listed Appleton Two in this article as “West College Avenue” instead of “East College Avenue” (these are two very different restaurants). I also feared that I had made this same mistake in my e-mail to the corporate office. As it turns out, I had.

Already by the afternoon (less than 24 hours), I had received a response from the corporate office via e-mail. Elizabeth Barcafer, the purchasing manager for The Restaurant Company (Perkins’ parent company) had the following to say: “We used to put these in every store, but it’s been 5 or more years. I would guess that it is a still life, with apples, fruit, and bread, etc. You might check with a company in Lakewood, MN – Forward Design (I believe they may go by Nu-Look now) their phone number is 952/882-8833. They re-print the still-lifes for us. If it is something else, I cannot help you. This store opened in 1977. Thanks for being a Perkins customer.”

While this might have been all the information I needed (I suspect they used the same art company in 1977 and 1999, but I could be wrong), I responded with the correct information in the hopes of getting some further assistance. With luck, the corporate office will be as prompt and helpful as they were the first time.

February 22, 2005

Elizabeth Barcafer responded again today, February 22. As I suspected, the information was the same. However, the e-mail was slightly more personal and in my opinion slightly more helpful. It reads as follows: “There is a good chance we purchased from Nu-Look aka Forward Design, 952/882-8787. I used to work with someone named Tracy there, see if he can help you. Describe the mural and tell him that it was for Perkins #1238, Appleton, WI. My guess is they can produce whatever you want. Hope this helps.” So now I not only know the company, but also have an inside contact… this might speed up the process somewhat. I will call tomorrow afternoon.

March 7, 2005

On March 7, 2005 at 11:53 a.m., I called the number given to me by Elizabeth (I had been ill and slacking, if anyone wonders why two weeks has passed). I requested to speak with Tracy, and I was told that no one by that name was employed there. I explained briefly to the receptionist what my business was, and she directed me to a man named Jeff.

Jeff was very helpful and kind, but was unable to get me the information I was looking for. He informed me that a Tracy did work there at one time, though the Tracy he knew was a “gal”. He also informed me that as long as he’s worked there, the murals he has produced are primarily vines and bakery settings, with “hot, fresh pies.” (Jeff, incidentally, repeatedly tried to sell his image reproducing services to me, informing me they were of the highest quality and best in the business.) I found out the company is called Nu-Look Graphics, and this name was chosen when the old company was bought out. As a long shot possibility, I inquired if he knew the name of the previous owner (when the company was Forward Design). Jeff informed me this was a man named Cliff Anderson. So at this juncture, Perkins knows nothing, Nu-Look knows nothing, and I have my doubts as to what Cliff Anderson might be aware of.

March 9, 2005

After talking with Jeff, I decided to do a search for Cliff Anderson. My assumption was that he would not move too far from the company, so I narrowed my search to Cliff Andersons who lived in the same area code. Two things happened. First, I found seven Cliff Andersons in this area. Second, I found the area code belonged to Minneapolis. This is interesting, because it prompted me to do a reverse phone lookup on Nu-Look Graphics and I determined they are located in Minneapolis, not Lakewood. Lakewood is a small community near Duluth, nowhere near Minneapolis whatsoever. So why Elizabeth Barcafer thought the company was in Lakewood is beyond me.

On March 9, I posted a request for Cliff Anderson of Forward Design to a message board on Rootsweb.com. This is the site I use for my family history research. Rather than calling seven Cliff Andersons, I requested that someone search in a 1999 or earlier business directory for Forward Design to find contact information on Cliff Anderson. Right now before I proceed, I want to narrow my options. I would rather call one Cliff Anderson who knows nothing than seven of them.

May 12, 2005

As of May 12, 2005 (almost 3 months) I have come no closer to finding the artist responsible for this masterpiece. No one on Rootsweb responded to my search for Cliff Anderson (is he really that unknown in the Minneapolis area?). I still had no desire to call each Cliff Anderson on the list simply to get a series of “wrong guy” answers.

I decided to push this to a wider audience. Touting the “implied endorsement” of child molestation, sexual discrimination and racial segregation by Perkins, I submitted the site to Cruel Site of the Day. Cruel Site of the Day is known for their tasteless humor and links. Some of the links are much better, but some of them are in all honesty much worse — so I figure my chances of getting accepted are about 63% or thereabouts.

Day Seven – April 9, 2006

I was contacted by a man named Chris (last name withheld) who believes he knows the correct Cliff Anderson and wishes to help me on what he calls my “bizarre quest”. Chris informs me that “he probably merely reproduced the artwork for Perkins and did not create it in the first place.” This is more or less what I expected, and advised Chris I wished to speak with Mr. Anderson anyway if it could be arranged.

Still Searching… October 19, 2007

If I contacted Cliff Anderson (of Cliff Anderson Design) a year ago, I never made a note of it here. So I contacted him again today. I also contacted the Corporate Office again, due to an unforeseen event: last week, store #1238 (Appleton East) remodeled. And while the mural was requested to remain in Appleton, we were informed that “corporate” wanted it and it was being sent to Minnesota. So now I not only wonder who painted the thing, but where it ended up. (Side note: In the introduction, I referred to “the smoking area” and “the library” — as of 2006, smoking is banned in Appleton restaurants, and as of the remodeling, the library wallpaper is gone, so this room will now be referred to as “the camel room”.)

October 20, 2007

Cliff Anderson returned my message: “Hello, Don’t recall any messages [from last year] but I did at one time I did print on canvas dozens of murals for Perkins restaurants call me [number removed], thanks, Cliff” — so this puts me back in action for now. I will call Monday (the 22nd).

October 22nd

After showing Cliff the link to the photo, he tells me, “Yes I remember that one — I think it was large and only saw it once!” But does he remember where it came from?

Stay tuned as Gavin traces the steps back to the artist and finally gets the answers the coffee-drinking regulars have been dying to learn…

Also try another article under Historical / Biographical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

One Response to “In Search Of the Elusive Perkins Artist”

  1. Jeremy Says:

    I used to work at a Perkins restaurant in the early to mid-90s in Cincinnati, Ohio. We had a mural painted on the premises–but this was not a reproduction; it was a mural created by a waitress (her name escapes me).

    I wanted to leave this comment simply because I know (after five long years) it probably won’t be read and, I believe some of the murals are created by local artists (in-house as this case may be).

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