PechaKucha presenter Greta Van Campen on living the dream

Behind the Slides: How Kickstarter allowed this artist to paint all 50 states

Fri, 04/18/2014 - 2:15pm

    Welcome to our ongoing feature Behind the Slides, where we meet up with an artist who recently presented at a local PechaKucha night and find out the deeper story beneath the images he or she chose to portray.

    Artist Greta Van Campen was one of the presenters at PechaKucha Night, held at Watts Hall on April 11. She is a painter from Thomaston with a contemporary hard-edged style.

    Note: Van Campen's PechaKucha slides appear in the right column. Click on the photos to match them with the actual slide notes (in italics). Beneath the slide notes will be the deeper story.


    In the fall of 2010, I left my teaching job in Chicago and moved back to Maine. I wanted to focus more on my art, but wasn't really sure how to do that. A friend of mine told me about people raising money through Kickstarter. I decided to try it and called my project "Greta Paints America." I wanted to visit all 50 states and paint along the way.

    Kickstarter is an online venue for creative projects. You can pitch any idea and set a goal for the amount of money you need to raise in order for it to happen. If you don't receive enough donations to reach your chosen goal amount, then all the money goes back to the donors and you don't get anything. I set my goal at $8,000 and ended up raising $10,941 with 86 backers.

    Leaving Dallas

    In March of 2011, I left Maine, taking a southern route out to New Mexico. This is one of the first more finished paintings I did after my trip began. It's called "Leaving Dallas" and is oil over acrylic.

    After receiving the money through Kickstarter, the first thing I did was buy a used car and come up with a basic itinerary. I knew that I would have Maine as a home base, as well as San Francisco, Chicago and St. Louis, where I had good friends and family. Most of my destinations were based on where I knew people or where some of my backers told me I should go to paint. It was March, so the first thing I wanted to do was go somewhere warmer and the southwest was really calling my name. I visited a few people along the way out to Tesuque, N.M., where a friend had helped me to set up a one-month rental at a glassblowing studio. From there, I explored the rest of the region with shorter 1-3 day trips. It was a good way to see a lot and also have time in the studio.

    Adding Up

    When the costs of being on the road started adding up, I did a series of small paintings, showing exactly what I was spending money on and then selling them for that same amount. So, for example, Groceries: $16.49, Gas: $40, McDonald's Shamrock Shake: $2.08.

    I knew that my goal of $8,000 wasn't enough to get me all around the country, but that it would be enough to get started. Once on the road, I came up with other ways to keep the project going. I traded paintings with the wife of a car mechanic who did work on my Saab in Santa Fe, and when I sold the series of small-cost-offsetting paintings online, most people were very kind and gave me more than I was asking for them. After New Mexico, I moved my home base to San Francisco for a while and held a show out there, selling more work from the road and also giving away little sketches as party favors, which helped spread the word. In October 2011, Dowling Walsh Gallery took a chance on a new emerging artist and gave me a show, which really helped to fund the remainder of my travels.

    Riding the Rails

    That fall, I took the train from San Francisco up to Washington and across the country to New York City. I would set up with my watercolors and gouache at my seat or in the observation car and paint out the window. With Kickstarter, you give rewards back to your supporters, so most of these paintings were sent to individuals who had donated to the project.

    Traveling across the country by train was a great experience. My train pass allowed for two weeks of travel and eight different legs, so I would be on the train for a day or two, stop for a night, and then get back on the next day. I loved watching out the window, seeing landscapes that can't be seen any other way. The long rides were really long and the train was often very late, but I wasn't in a rush and I enjoyed giving up control for that portion of my trip. We ended up going through Glacier National Park overnight, so I didn't get to see much of what I thought would be one of the more beautiful parts of the country, but the sun came up just as we were coming out of the mountains and it was still breathtaking.


    The last state I visited was Alaska.  I was there for the summer solstice, so the days were long and it never got totally dark.  This is a painting I did after going on a glacier tour in Whittier. 

    I also spent some time as an artist in residence at the Wrangell Mountains Center in McCarthy, Alaska.  McCarthy is a small town with a very tight community (some are year-round residents) located at the end of a 60-mile dirt road in the Wrangell St. Elias National Park.  The park is 13.2 million acres.  After my residency, I visited a fellow Mainer who now runs his own small commercial fishing operation out of Homer. We celebrated the end of my travels and completion of visiting all 50 states on the Fourth of July in 2012. 

    All 50 States

    Here is the actual map of my travels. Each leg is highlighted in a different color and the yellow at the top is the train route. It took me a year and four months to see all 50 states.

    Each leg of travel lasted from one to three months, and I'd return home between big trips to rest up and get organized for the next leg. While I loved being on the road, it was always nice to come back home at the end of a long adventure. The route highlighted in green was my travel after the train trip. I ended up getting a puppy from Craigslist in Kentucky and she became my travel companion for the last long drive (highlighted in blue) from Maine, out to the mountains in Wyoming and Montana and back.

    Living The Dream

    And these are most of the paintings I made in that time. I have all of my supporters to thank as well as my friend, Nick Westervelt, who said to me back in 2010, "Greta, if you could do anything, just for yourself, what would you do?"

    I completed hundreds of paintings over the course of my project, saw amazing sites, met incredibly wonderful people and really was able to kickstart my career as an artist. The question my friend asked is an important one for us all to consider from time to time.

    Van Campen’s work is at Dowling Walsh Gallery in Rockland, where she has a solo show opening May 2. For more information about Greta's work visit  For more information about PechaKucha visit them on Facebook.

    Kay Stephens can be reached at