FeaturesTop Features

Diane Dowling: Furniture Painter, Masterpiece Maker

She transforms items from drab to dynamite with the wave of her paintbrush

By Melody Burri

Equal parts magician, creative designer, storyteller and artist, Diane Dowling has become something of a local legend among artisans.

Some of the materials she uses routinely in her work.

The 76-year-old Fairport resident’s reputation is well-earned: she’s breathed new life into upwards of a thousand furniture pieces, transforming them from drab to dynamite with the wave of her paintbrush.

She’s added her fanciful, whimsical, folk art-influenced, MacKenzie-Childs-inspired touch to transform ho-hum furniture into masterpieces. Among them are rocking chairs, tables, buffets, sideboards, benches, dining room and bedroom sets, mirrors, chandeliers, pianos, children’s furniture, mailboxes, desks, curio cabinets, four poster beds, sleds and sleighs, centerpieces and clocks.

Stone, iron, wood — over the last two decades she’s reimagined and painted it.

“I retired 21 years ago from the Department of Social Services and it wasn’t long before I started painting furniture pieces to repurpose or upgrade them for our new home in Pittsford,” she said. “Soon after that, I began painting for friends, family and charities, which has now become a 20-year adventure and a retirement full of meeting new friends who have all been such an inspiration to me.”

Ironically, Dowling hasn’t had an art lesson in her life, but paints collages, canvases, furniture and centerpieces driven by her own sense of style. She’s never had a business and never advertised, but works her magic for people who call her and ask — “friends or family or charities who find me through word of mouth,” she said. “It’s just something that’s fun for me to do — it doesn’t have to go to anybody.”

She never knows in advance how something might evolve. “I love finding a neat piece and then getting these visions. I have it in the house for a few days and all of a sudden I think, ‘OK, I know what I’m going to do,’” she said.

Dowling’s spacious basement studio is packed with inspiring textiles and materials, hundreds of brushes and a seemingly endless array of paint cans and jars in a rainbow of colors.

Her “befores” are often castoffs from friends, family, department stores or even found curbside. And each piece, large or small, lives in Dowling’s studio for about two weeks, to allow her time to “think about it, change colors, change sheens, change whatever.”

“I’m just having fun and people seem to like it so I keep doing it,” Dowling said. “There’s not a piece in my house that hasn’t been painted and many have been reinvented two or three times.”

Best of all, the work is stress-free, even when the project is for a specific recipient, because “everything can be changed or fixed,” she said. “If it doesn’t work out, don’t worry — it’s just the undercoat. You can cover anything up.”

“It’s so easy because I’ve been doing it for so long,” she added. “I’ve just learned how to paint. They love it and I love it.”

Favorite Projects

“I think one of my more gratifying pieces was for my cousin who lived in Buffalo,” Dowling said. “She had a gorgeous ornate secretary desk and wanted it to be painted with a lot of detail. She sent it by moving van, which was fun to see. She and I were so excited to see how it turned out.”

“My most challenging piece was recent,” she explained. “I did a very ornate bookcase, which I found in Canandaigua at a barn sale. The owner said the piece was hit by a truck and broken into many pieces. She and her husband put the pieces back together, and I had the pleasure of painting it.”

A king-sized headboard featured a lot of detail and a MacKenzie-Childs-inspired check.

She was also asked to paint a 10-piece bedroom set in off white tones which “came out gorgeous,” she said.

A particularly poignant project was for a woman whose father was moving into a nursing home. The family had lived on a farm with a huge barn and inside the barn he’d hung rows of chairs.

Dowling was charged with painting some of the chairs for loved ones to have as keepsakes.

“How can you not fall in love with these people and their stories?” she said.

Through the years, Dowling has painted to benefit charities like the Breast Cancer Coalition, Katie’s Closet, Daystar, the Boys and Girls Club, Autism Up, the Al Sigl Center and Bivona. She also participates in holiday country club events with proceeds going to local charities.

Some of Dowling’s work — like a sleigh and a four poster bed — can be seen in local boutiques as display fixtures or even for sale.

“In the past few years, I have enjoyed finding interesting furniture pieces and taking them to an amazing consignment shop called Panache at the Twelve Corners in Brighton,” Dowling said. “And I have also done pieces for a beautiful furniture gift shop called Diane Prince Furniture and Gifts in Fairport. Both of these places are so beautiful to visit.”

What’s Next?

When she’s not painting, Dowling is currently writing a book that will showcase her body of work and tell some of the touching stories behind the pieces.

“I just turned 76,” she explained. “I want to write a book. I’ve got to get those pictures into a book. It’ll include some of my creative adventures, some stories about these wonderful people I’ve met, and pictures to show some of my paintings.”

It will also include some tips she’s learned that will hopefully inspire others to try their hands at furniture painting.

“I want people to be inspired to paint,” she said. “The joy of painting furniture is for everyone. It is amazing the results they will see and enjoy if they just try it and have fun with it.” ❖

Featured image: Diane Dowling at her home studio in Fairport. She has become something of a local legend among artisans.