Like Comfort Food for the Eyes

Henderson artist Popi Cotrell paints familiar pop cultural icons … on glass

Popi Cotrell had a successful go as a hairdresser in Beverly Hills, Calif., in the ’70s and ’80s—even now, at 60, his hair looks perfect. Then he developed an allergy to peroxide, a key ingredient to bleaching hair, and had to find a new line of work.

In frustration he turned to an earlier love, painting. He “splattered the crap” out of a canvas and sold it for an easy $700. “I thought I could retire.” If only …

Instead, Cotrell has been plying his trade through good times and bad for the last 30 years. His ranch-style home in the far reaches of Henderson is awash with colors and paints, and his unusual canvasses—mostly glass windows—crowd virtually every room. He paints in a room that triples as his TV room and his bedroom. Paint is splattered about the carpeting.

Cotrell’s paintings and collages are a pop culture hodgepodge: The Beatles, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Mickey Mouse, James Bond, Coca-Cola, superheroes. He also constructs crazy collages inside boxes: like a painting of an In-N-Out burger joint with actual straws stuffed inside, or a collage of cereal labels, partially filled with Trix and Cocoa Puffs.

“Who the fuck would think of that but me?”

His art is equal parts daft and exuberant. The trick to his work is what he calls “reverse art”—he paints on the backside of the glass, in reverse. A few years ago he discovered that if he dropped the glass paintings into his pool and left them there for a week, the acrylic painting could be pulled off the glass in one piece, then reapplied to the front of another canvas (likely out of wood).

“I cannot draw,” he confesses. “I still can’t. I am no Rembrandt, brother. But I created a style people like. It’s fun. They put it in their game room. They put it in their garage.”

But taste is fickle. Cotrell says the most acclaimed art shows, such as Denver’s Cherry Creek Arts Festival, don’t consider his paintings art. And even customers are apt to look at his collages and think, “I can do that.”

Nonetheless, Cotrell’s window paintings sell. He believes that’s because a reflective glass canvas is shiny and bright. But what really sells are not the kitschy pop art pieces but instead windows painted with edgy-yet-serene hearts.

Cotrell paints lots and lots of hearts. Multicolored hearts entwined with barbed wire, with exaggerated forms that look like they’ve been crossbred with lollipops. “If I never paint another fucking heart in my whole life, I’d be just fine with that. But that’s what sells. … Women buy art. Men do not.”

Since his art sells cheap (most range from $100 to $300, but larger canvases can go as high as several thousand dollars)—it’s an impulse buy—he has to sell about 20 paintings a show to break even. He has to do two shows a month. It adds up to a lot of hearts. And getting the windows isn’t cheap, either. A new window costs $400; an antique window costs $40. He’s constantly hunting for lower cost windows.

Business has picked up a bit lately, but it’s still a grind. When asked him if he ever thought of doing something else, he responds with a mixture of resignation and defiance. A natural outsider, he says he doesn’t know how to do anything else. He ran a gallery at Holsum Lofts downtown a few years ago, but he couldn’t get anything to sell. So he makes ready to hit the road once more. “I thought by now I’d be successful,” he says. “I still have to work at selling art.”