By Barry Gwinn
hortly after Hurricane Irma had devastated Goodland, a painting appeared on the picture window of the Goodland Post Office. It popped up at a time of great stress and turmoil in Goodland. People were returning to find the interiors of their homes covered in stinking mud, appliances and furniture ruined, roofs torn up, and their lives disrupted. Great trucks rumbled through town, stirring up clouds (we were told it was toxic) of grey dust as they hauled away debris and brought in building supplies. Even the foliage had been blown away and many of our trees were down. It was a nightmare in a grotesque gray/brown landscape. And then in October, exactly one month after the storm, that marvelous uplifting painting appeared. Most of us knew who did it.
Denise Santos, a Goodland resident for almost 30 years, paints for a living. She has a studio in her modest Goodland home and operates out of the back of a 1998 Lexus LX470 SUV when out on jobs. The business and the Lexus are all that remain from her beloved husband and business partner, Sonny, who died of cancer here, in 2001. She has never remarried, and they had no children. At the time of their marriage, (1974 – San Jose, California), Sonny had a billboard painting business and soon he had Denise helping to paint his signs. “In those early days, I would climb up [with my paints and brushes] on the catwalks of the billboards, and actually paint [the entire advertisement on a blank billboard],” Denise said, “Sonny was a good artist and taught me a lot.” The Santoses expanded their business until they had “billboard” plants in three western states. That was roughly the state of affairs when they moved to Goodland in 1989, residing in rented Cottage #11 at Margood Park and continuing to run their western business from there. After Sonny died of cancer in 2001, Denise struggled with the business, which was plagued by debt, but finally sold her interest to a partner and struck out on her own.
Denise tried a lot of things, including stints in Matt Finn’s tree service company and as a server at Marker 8.5 and other area restaurants. After about seven years of this, she was buttonholed by a friend. “What are you thinking?” her friend asked, “You’re an artist!” “That got me to thinking,” Denise recalls, “A light went on. I thought it was time to have faith in the gift I was given (She had been painting since the second grade). It’s time to do something that I love.”
In 2010, Denise started doing business as Denise Santos Designs. She painted her logos on that top-of-the-line Lexus van, and started doing odd painting jobs which she got through word of mouth. She says she got the idea for painting the post office window about six years ago, and after practicing on the sliding door of Matt Finn’s residence, and has been painting holiday scenes on the post office’s picture window ever since. She first installs a clear vinyl, which adheres to the glass surfaces she wishes to paint. When it’s time to remove the painting, she simply peels off the vinyl.
Her paintings were well received here, particularly her colorful Christmas renderings, which she says is her Christmas present to Goodland. Soon she was getting a few orders from Marco Island merchants for Christmas paintings on their store windows. Denise developed a portfolio of her window paintings, and showed them to prospective customers, as she started going door to door in Marco Island.
Denise has developed a robust Christmas window painting business, which keeps her busy 24/7 for four weeks each fall. It takes grueling 12-hour days to fill all of the orders which pour in. And then, in January, things quiet down for another year. Fortunately, the merchants were learning of her talents as a sign painter as well. She has picked up business there also. One of her latest signs, of which she is justifiably proud, was commissioned by the Kirk Fish Co. in Goodland and sits prominently at the rear of the Little Bar parking lot.
Denise did her first post office Christmas window in 2011 and gradually expanded her offerings to include almost every conceivable holiday. In 2016, seven of her paintings appeared at the post office with St. Patrick’s Day and a welcome to spring thrown in. The protagonist in her paintings was almost always a smiling little blond haired girl in a bathing suit holding appropriately colored balloons, or in one case, an umbrella in her left hand. The girl was always joyful and excited about the holiday she was representing. It was another reason to go to the post office. In 2017, her streak of six consecutive post office Christmas paintings ended. Hurricane Irma had seen to that.
I was traumatized by the storm, she said, “Palm tree [fronds] were streaming sideways and barely hanging on.” Gradually an image started to form in her mind. Just days after the storm, as I stared blankly at my computer screen, depressed and unable to write, Denise took her van to the post office and began to paint. On October 9th, when I saw the painting in the midst of Goodland’s utter devastation, I couldn’t suppress a smile. Everyone who saw that painting must have felt the same way. It illustrated what we had gone through and our grim determination to hang on. A professional political cartoonist could not have done a better job in portraying a situation and its implications through just one image. For the first time, that painting allowed us to laugh at ourselves, which Denise said was her intention all along. She said she wanted to give Goodlanders a lift and perhaps a laugh. She succeeded on both counts.
The “Yikes!” painting stayed up until mid-January when a new painting appeared – the rainbow. This time it was a message of hope and approaching redemption for Goodland. It was, in my eyes a second masterpiece, illiustrating another milestone in Goodland’s struggle to recover. It is as endearing as it is heartwarming. The little blond haired girl (representing Goodland) is halfway through painting a rainbow, which will hopefully end, some day in our return to normalcy. “I wanted this one to be enlightening and spirit lifting,” Denise said, “We’ll see if I will paint the completed rainbow. We’re not there yet.”
Maybe not, Denise, but thanks for lifting our spirits along the way.
Barry was a practicing attorney before he worked as a Special Agent of the FBI for 31 years. Barry worked for several government agencies another ten years before retiring to Goodland in 2006. Barry is presently the Secretary of the Goodland Civic Association.