Growing up non-Mormon in Salt Lake City in the '60s and '70s, Denver artist Kirsten Easthope was not a social butterfly. Though her artistic talents gained her a modicum of popularity in school, she admits to having had few close friends. "You just didn't belong, no matter how nice you were," she recalls. But Easthope had a fantasy refuge: the bright lights of Reno, where her grandmother lived surrounded by an aura of neon signs and high-kicking showgirls. And the outsider mentality stuck.
Years and a graphic-arts degree later, Easthope deserted her job as a graphic designer, eschewing the corporate world in favor of the seamier, more atmospheric things in life. And for the last three years or so, she's made her living painting what can only be described as evil pinups -- sort of a saucy cross between a Varga girl and Robert Crumb's salacious Devil Girl -- on bowling pins. Bowling for Souls, a show featuring her work, opens Friday at Th'Ink Tank Gallery, an art venue that doubles as a high-class tattoo parlor. Did we mention that Easthope was once an apprentice tattooist? She'll sign copies of Vicious, Delicious, and Ambitious: 20th Century Women Artists, by Sherri Cullison (Schiffer, $39.95); the new book includes Easthope's sexy pins.
Tattoo magazines, Busby Berkeley musicals, her own dreams and especially such classic pinup artists as Alberto Vargas, Zoë Mozert (one of the few women painting pinups in her day), George Petty and Peter Driben all count among Easthope's inspirations: "I was always fascinated by Vargas's women. I would steal my dad's Playboys and look at them, and I'd think, 'Wow, look at these girls! That's what I'll look like when I grow up!'" Not entirely true, but she did grow up with a love for kitsch, as one look around her broom closet of an apartment shows: There are glass cases full of Barbie collectibles and precarious shelves laden with '50s-era devil figurines, Pez dispensers, bobblehead dolls and Curious George memorabilia ("I like monkeys," Easthope notes). But mostly, she says, "My ideas all come from my twisted little brain." Those ideas include such iconic recurring characters as Cat Girl and Lady Luck, painted across curvy surfaces in lurid reds, blacks and greens with leopard-skin backdrops and then varnished to a sheen.
Predictably, Easthope is also hooked into the burlesque revival; she's gone so far as to create an entire Queens of Burlesque series for a festival. The promoter bought one to give to Kitty West (aka Evangeline the Oyster Girl), who was there to give a seminar on "How to Strip." James Hetfield of Metallica owns one of her pins, and Sony Pictures bought one that will appear as a prop in the soon-to-be-released Jack Nicholson flick Anger Management. And, yes -- it's a living. She figures she's painted over a hundred, and the going price is currently $600 a pop. While she started out selling them at tattoo and hot-rod conventions, their appeal has surpassed that crowd. "Now I get calls from the yuppiest of yuppies," the artist boasts.
Where does she get her pins? Bowling alleys will give them away when they're too beat up, but she's also discovered a veritable fount of used pins: A woman in Arizona who bought and renovated an old bowling alley has 600 of them idling in storage. Easthope has them shipped ten at a time, and then the repair work begins: She gessoes each one, fills in the nicks with spackle and sands them down before even beginning to paint. Although they're heavy and they fall over a lot, the result is worth the wait -- especially for those pins, which have spent their previous lives being knocked around by hairy-chested men. Explains Easthope: "It's kind of a nice retirement for them..."