There’s a streak of blue on Carlye Crisler’s nose.
The artist, seventy-one, has parked her electric tricycle in front of the Himalayan Bazaar, set up her easel, and is working on an oil painting of the Vault of Midnight across the street. The blue streak matches the comics store’s facade.
For the last decade, downtown has been Crisler’s open-air studio. She says there’s a “pretentious” term for what she does–plein air–but she prefers “street painter.”
Tall, her white hair peeking out under a straw hat with a yellow ribbon, she’s become something of a downtown landmark herself–“like Shakey Jake,” she says, with a bemused laugh. The Boober pedicab drivers–she calls them “the marijuana guys” because of the ads on their vehicles–“all stop and wave.”
Crisler likes summer weekends best, when the weather’s good and traffic is blocked off for outdoor dining. But she paints in all seasons. One snowy day, an acquaintance was startled to see her painting from her parked minivan on Kingsley, her canvas propped up on the steering wheel.
She sometimes goes out in the evening to capture a nocturnal ambience and usually works in three-hour stretches. Passersby sometimes stop to share stories connected to the place she’s depicting. Crisler was moved recently when a man in his eighties bought a painting of the Washtenaw Dairy for his wife. He’d worked there in high school while he was courting her.
“I’m not selling paintings,” she says. “I’m selling memories.”
Carlye Nowakowski grew up in the Bucktown section of Chicago, today an expensive hub but back then a struggling Polish/Puerto Rican neighborhood. Her father was largely absent from her childhood–her parents later divorced–and her mother supported three kids by working in an envelope factory.
After high school, Crisler attended the local branch of the University of Illinois for two years and then married and did clerical work. In the mid-seventies, she and her then-husband moved to Jackson, and she commuted to U-M to finish her BA in art.
After they divorced, she moved to Ann Arbor. In 1980, she married Prescott Crisler, a labor negotiator and the son of Fritz Crisler, the renowned U-M football coach and athletic director. (What was her father-in-law like? “Handsome. Crotchety.”)
Over the years, Crisler has explored multiple styles and media. After working briefly in the U-M graduate theater costume shop, she painted large portraits that depicted the people realistically, but with fanciful costumes and backgrounds. In one, a young woman appears in sea-green tights and a ballet-type frock, with puffy ribbons on her arms and blue hippos behind her.
Customers loved them, but Crisler eventually tired of the physical demands of working with such large canvases. She switched to decorative dolls, which she made of paper clay and metal. She remembers her shock when, at an art fair, a dad tossed her $300 creation to his four-year-old.
She sold at street fairs for decades, driving cross-country by herself. But “it’s exhausting,” she says. “It just about kills you.
“When I first started doing art fairs, I thought, ‘I can control the time.’ But when you work for yourself, it’s the opportunities that control you,” she says. After selling at all the Ann Arbor fairs and hundreds more around the country for thirty-five years, she quit about six years ago.
People who see her on the street often assume she’s being paid by the place she’s painting, but that’s rarely the case. She sells her street paintings through a Facebook store and her website, carlyecrisler.com; a sixteen-by-twenty-inch work typically goes for $950. Several of her paintings have also been on the cover of the Observer.
After Prescott died of pancreatic cancer in 2010, Crisler wanted a change. She switched from doll making to street painting, just when the approach was enjoying a nationwide revival.
Her goal, she says, is to “paint an environment or neighborhood rather than a single place.” Mundane details don’t strike her as mundane. She likes overhead electrical wires, which she calls “sky jewelry.” Business signs interest her; she enjoyed painting Ann Arbor Muffler on Jackson because “there aren’t many neon signs like that one.” She painted the Big City Small World Cafe at the corner of Miller and Spring, but found Knight’s Market across the street too boring. “If they’d only put up some awnings!” she says.
She cut back on her painting during the pandemic, less out of fear of contagion than because she’d rather work when there are “activities and people” on the street. Now they’re back, and she is, too.
She walks with difficulty after being treated for breast cancer three years ago–the chemotherapy caused nerve damage. But with her e-trike and a ramp on her minivan, she still gets around well.
When she wants to paint, she drives in from Dexter, where she moved five years ago, parks away from downtown, and bikes there with her brushes and canvases in front and rear baskets.
Though Ann Arbor is her most frequent subject, she also paints in Dexter (in July she had a show at the library there), Chelsea, and Ypsilanti. Ypsi, she notes, still has “all those diners and drive-ins, and I just love doing those.
“They still have the Fifties aspect,” she says. “In Ann Arbor, we’ve knocked all of ours down.”