Where most people see a boring white helmet, painter Paula Strawn sees a blank canvas. Aviator shades? Flowers? Beach scenes? The sky’s the limit!
When parents learn that their baby needs to wear an orthotic helmet to correct an abnormal head shape (often due to something called positional plagiocephaly or less commonly cranisosynostosis), they’re often dismayed by the ugliness of the helmet and the unpleasant reactions from strangers.
Paula Strawn of Lazardo Art works six days a week to give these families something to smile about. Parents overnight her their baby’s helmet and she paints aviator shades, sports logos, picture book scenes and any other custom designs the parents can dream up before shipping the helmet back to them. She’s been at it for over a decade, painting thousands of helmets in the process.
Folks talked to Strawn about how she discovered this creative calling and why it helps families view the orthotics in a whole new light. The following excerpts have been edited for clarity and brevity.
How did you get into this niche of painting?
I have always drawn or painted old style artists. I was a stay-at-home mom with kids, and as they got older I started painting more and more for friends and family and then friends of friends. Then one of my two younger daughters’ first grade teachers showed up at my door with her daughter and granddaughter, and the granddaughter was wearing a helmet. She just said, “Paint this ugly thing.”
I did, and in the orthotic office that they were going to, a really sweet man named Kevin Bitting asked if I would paint more. But I was thinking it would just be one more thing in the pantheon of things that I would paint, and here we are, 13 years later, it’s taken over my life and business.
Kevin talked up my work to the parents that came in. He was a total fan of parents having their helmets painted because he saw the difference he made in their attitudes. I’m sure he saw a ton of parents – because I have – that came in crying and really upset that their cute and adorable kid had to wear this thing. He asked for a photo album that I kept updated, so there were photos that were waiting there for people to look at.
How long does each helmet take?
It’s rare that a helmet takes less than six hours to paint. Except for one design that we won’t go into, I paint the same day I get the helmet. If I can paint by four o’clock, then I ship out the same day. And if the design takes longer, I finish it the day I get it, and I ship it the next morning. I work six days a week, and I love what I do.
What designs get requested most often?
Aviator helmets are super fun, because it can be personalized and people put different things on it. I’ve painted hundreds of these things now. For girls, the girl aviator’s super cute, but lately I’ve done a ton of flower designs. I love when it’s the Wild Things or some other book character. I painted the NASA space helmet last night that has the Milky Way reflected in the bezel, which is fun. People come up with great stuff.
How does the process work?
People email me or they get hold of me through Facebook and we do the whole thing by email. They write and tell me what design they’re thinking of. Sometimes I have them send images or I send them images. We talk it through. They don’t have to choose something that I’ve done before. They can come up with some completely new idea. I love when people make me a Pinterest page and invite me to view it because then I can get a sense of what style they like or what colors they like.
Recently, as of this year, we have the deal now with FedEx so that our parents get 30 percent off for shipping, which is super great. We should have done this before, but we had no idea we could do this. My husband does the shipping and the financial end of it and my job is to answer emails and paint until my eyes can’t be open anymore.
How do people respond to your art?
I’ve had many, many parents crying on my couch over their kid having to wear this. I think the design part of it is therapy because then they start concentrating on what do we want on our baby’s helmet, and what colors does he or she look good in. It’s the response they get when they’re out and about with their baby because from what I understand, people get a lot of pity or “Oh, my gosh! What’s wrong with your baby?” But when it’s painted, that just totally flips. Then people are like, “Oh, my gosh! That’s adorable!” And the baby’s getting smiled at or a parent is able to explain a little bit what this is.
I get a lot of parents that will send me a picture when the baby graduates from the helmet to show me their round-headed kid, and they’ll say things like, “We’re so happy to be able to fix his head, but we kind of are missing having that.”
Do some families keep the helmet even after their kid stops wearing it?
Yes, I get a lot of pictures of stuffed animals wearing a baby helmet, which is amusing. I did one helmet for a big Notre Dame fan dad and it ended up in his Notre Dame cabinet of things. He played football for Notre Dame back in the day and so it sat next to his helmet in his Notre Dame cabinet.
Where does the name Lazardo Art come from?
There’s an artist illustrator named William Joyce who wrote a book called Dinosaur Bob and the Adventures of the Family Lazardo. It’s one of my kids’ most favorite books. It’s one of my most favorite illustrators. I tried to get my husband to change our last name to Lazardo because then we could be the Family Lazardo. He said no, but it just kind of always stuck in my head. It’s a nod to William Joyce, who I loved and his art for children’s books and the Family Lazardo.