Video: “Poor White Trash artist” peddles her skills

ELLSWORTH — Most of the time, she sleeps in Walmart parking lots. Or she’ll talk strangers into letting her park the hand-painted, rusting truck she lives in on their property so she can sleep for the night without worrying about someone asking her to leave.

The 1997 Chevrolet C/K 1500 has logged 300,000 miles. The vehicle gets repainted regularly, often with a fake wood paneling aesthetic, but the same words are always spray painted on the side: “Poor White Trash.” On the hood and along the back bumper, balls of dried paint stick to the top of the car like clumps of tape left behind by a carpenter.

Angel Sewell is a gypsy who trades in art.

She paints storefront windows and murals in towns across the country, and has been living on the road for three years. She’s 50, and has an apartment in Wewahitchka, Fla., wheres her family still lives. Previously, Sewell worked as a police officer in Florida and Georgia. Twenty years ago, she left law enforcement to pursue art and now makes her living painting one business at a time.

Business was good in Ellsworth this summer. She painted the Rent-A-Center windows twice. She painted for Finelli Pizzeria, Branch Pond Marine, Complete Tire Service and The Mex, among many others. She doesn’t necessarily know how long she’ll stay in a town when she arrives; in Ellsworth, she had enough work that she could barely leave.

“When I get to a town, my goal is to be the town sweetheart,” she said. “Despite what that truck says, I usually accomplish it.”

She has an emotional attachment to her truck.

“Not to sound like a crazy person,” she said, “but you form a bond. I mean, I count on this truck. I count on this truck to crank up wherever I’m at and I count on this truck to get me around to get work, I count on this truck to get attention. Yeah, I love this truck.”

On her dashboard as she drove around Ellsworth this summer was a book, a pepper mill, a small pot, a rolled up magazine and a package of gum, among scattered small items. Her 9-year-old pit bull, Speck, lay on the front seat as she painted at different shops.

In the back of the truck, where she sleeps, blankets formed a makeshift bed. A lamp was glued down to the side, and a curtain blocked the back window.

Living on the road means not holding onto things, she said.

“It’s kinda like your ship is going under and you throw stuff off to the side to keep it from going under until you figure out how much you can keep,” she said.

Sewell’s business plan is to come to a town and try to sell her work: ten dollars per window, 20 if it’s a custom job that includes designs specific to the business. She said she paints to keep alive what she called the dying art of advertising on store windows. Two types of shops draw her attention early in a new town: mom-and-pop businesses and Mexican restaurants.

She can tell early on if a town is going to be a good fit for her, and leaves within a day if store owners are rude. She stayed in the Downeast area for about three months.

When she left in early September, she was heading up to Aroostook County to watch the leaves change.

Kathy Budwine, manager at The Mex, said Sewell stopped by early in the season, phone in hand to show some of her past work. Budwine doesn’t make quick decisions, but started to see Sewell’s work at businesses on High Street and thought it looked good.

When she noticed Sewell painting next door at what was then Hot Shotz, she asked Sewell to do some work for her restaurant.

“She wanted to do our windows, but I really wanted something more permanent,” Budwine said. Sewell agreed to paint the wood.

Life on the road has its drawbacks. Sewell mentioned repeatedly that she lost 30 pounds in 2016 because she had to choose between truck repairs, feeding her dog, buying gas and feeding herself. Her own meals were the first on that list to go, when times got tight.

This year was better, thanks in part to Hancock County businesses.

“Poor White Trash” is her logo and artist name, and she drives around with it in giant letters in whatever town she’s visiting so that she can get attention. The more people talk about her and her work, the more she said she’ll get businesses calling her.

But it’s more than just branding. Sewell said she’s embracing an idea that’s been placed on her.

“We’ve all got labels in our lives,” she said. “I don’t have a problem with it, and I know who I am, and I figure if anybody knows what white trash is, it ought to be me. If they’re saying I am, well, we ain’t so bad.”

She said as a woman trying to live out on the road alone, things can get tough. And while law enforcement sometimes suspects her, she said they’ll often figure out that she’s making an honest living and let her be.

But living against the edge of desperation can be hard, she said, even when she’s getting business. There isn’t room for much to go wrong. Writing in a Facebook status update in February, she said that it might seem fun to explore the country, but for her it’s a function of life’s challenges.

“Look around you. Beside you,” she wrote. “Chances are, if I had what you have, I wouldn’t have ever ran.”

At the same time, she wrote, she has the strength to live her life this way because she’s been hardened by her experiences.

“I’m not special,” she wrote. “What I have in me is the backbone of a woman. No other creature can compare to us.”

Jack Dodson
Jack Dodson began working for The Ellsworth American in mid-2017, and covers eastern Hancock and western Washington counties. He grew up in the Mid-coast region before living in New York City for five years, where he freelanced in documentary filmmaking and journalism. He is particularly interested in criminal justice, environment and immigration reporting.

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