Boxes filled with vintage paper, new paper, old books, fabrics, and other precious odds and ends neatly fill Cori Dantini’s home art studio. Over the years she has collected thousands of items, knowing someday they would come in handy. “If you don’t have it, you can’t use it,” she says with a smile.

That “use it” moment came in 2008. Over a long weekend with her husband Liam and son Henry away and an art show on the horizon, Dantini began to layer vintage papers and words. She sketched a pencil drawing over the paper and added ink and color. A month later, her first named character, Miss Lucy, came to life. In the ensuing weeks more than 20 paper ladies followed. Whimsical and folk-arty, Dantini’s characters wear boots with skirts and their hair in buns. Often pensive, the words above their heads say things like “goodness exists,” and “bring your listening heart.”

Cori Dantini
Cori Dantini in her studio. Photo Zach Mazur

“My people have always been very serious, reflective, and thoughtful,” says Dantini. “I would make these paintings and I would write these stories all over them. Each thing that would trouble me I would throw it into one painting. It gave it a lot of focus.”

The summer of 2010 had Dantini, one of four people selected in the emerging artist category at the Cherry Creek Arts Festival in Denver, preparing for her first big show. “I really started painting like mad because I knew I could only show originals,” she says. “I made hundreds of paintings, and that’s how those ladies came about in the way that they are.”

Today, with more than 500 original paper ladies and a menagerie of birds, bunnies, bugs, and foxes, Dantini has sold thousands of original art pieces. Thanks to a growing number of loyal fans, her designs have gone exponentially further in the forms of duvets, mirrors, shower curtains, greeting cards, and calendars.

While her commercial success seems the result of a well-orchestrated plan, her story is really one of hard work and opportunities. “I just went through the open door, whatever door that was at the time, and it led me here,” she says.

Growing up in Pullman, Dantini knew from an early age that she wanted to be an artist. “I always drew…when you needed something painted on the window or a sign, I was always the kid that did it,” says Dantini. “It was the only thing I ever really cared about.”

Dantini’s high school art teacher Jon Aesoph (’80 MFA) recognized her talent and encouraged her to pursue art as a career. “I just loved her because she would go out on a limb even at her age,” says Aesoph, who is now semi-retired and living in western Washington. “She was ahead of the curve.”

“He was the one who made me feel I could go do it,” says Dantini, who felt emboldened to pursue an art degree in college. At WSU, Dantini majored in painting and minored in print making. She won a small but rarely-given painting scholarship. “It felt like another brick in my backpack,” says Dantini. “It was a big responsibility.” But it also meant someone saw her potential.

After graduation, she moved to Seattle, worked in a bar near Capitol Hill, and painted in her free time. She ran into Liam Breeze, a fellow Pullman High graduate, at a punk rock concert.

“I had had a crush on him since the fifth grade,” Dantini says. It turns out, the interest was mutual. This August they will have been married 16 years.

In the mid-1990s, they moved to Denver. While Breeze attended graduate school, Dantini found work as a clip art designer. At first she drew 10 images a week. That quickly grew to 40. “By the end of the second year I was doing 200 images every week,” says Dantini. “My drawing skills got quite good.”

When that work started drying up, Dantini freelanced as an illustrator with a Denver-based advertising agency and then moved to freelance work with Starbucks and Dole. She also animated television commercials for the Tulsa Health Department on subjects like immunization and mosquito control.

With a solid portfolio and busy freelance career, Dantini and her family moved back to Pullman in 2007. But then the economy crashed and she lost most of her clients. That same year she met a woman who had a shop on Etsy, an e-commerce website for vintage and handmade things. Intrigued, Dantini opened her own Etsy shop and offered some of her modern-style acrylic paintings. But they weren’t getting much interest. Then she saw an Esty page with dictionary text behind a drawing.

“The page came up and a light bulb went on,” she says. She started drawing over printed paper, then adding color. “I wasn’t just making a watercolor anymore,” she says. “All of a sudden I was building a narrative under the drawing.”

In 2008 she showed her new pieces at a gallery in Palouse. “I hung up probably 20 and when I went out a couple of days later, three-quarters of them had sold,” says Dantini. “I thought, this is what I should be putting on Etsy. I did and then everything started taking off.”

Dantini began taking her work to art shows and chanced upon an agent. “My very worst show I ever had to this day was probably my very best show, all because Sheila showed up,” she says. In May 2010, Sheila Meehan took Dantini’s artwork to a surface and textile show where licensing companies shop for artwork. Dantini’s commercial success took off.

Her artwork reflects her daily life. And that is part of their appeal. Her pieces often speak to the harder parts of being alive, she says. It was during a darker period when she was the most prolific. The paper ladies came out of pressure to work in a stalled economy.

Dantini’s artwork is now on a broad and growing array of household items including serving trays, fabric, paper lanterns, magnet boards, clocks, mobiles, ornaments, and even Kleenex boxes. A couple fans have even tattooed her artwork on their bodies.

Her work can be found locally at Neill’s Flowers and as far away as Great Britain, Scandinavia, Israel, and Australia. It has also been featured in Better Homes and Gardens. In a recent issue of Spirituality and Health her bird drawings are paired with an interview with writer Anne Lamott.

“I never know what is happening next,” Dantini says with a laugh. “I just show up and see what happens.”

On  the web

Cori Dantini: Thoughtful artwork