WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Cindy Pettinaro Wilkinson launched her art collection on the side of the road.
Then a college sophomore living in Virginia, Wilkinson discovered a Rea Redifer landscape at a garage sale. The tree rang familiar, but she knew nothing about the female artist.
Only later did she learn that Redifer was, in fact, male, and a friend of Andrew Wyeth, who hailed from the Brandywine Valley.
That happy accident inspired Wilkinson, now 43 and a mother of four, to seek out Cheap Original Cool Art, her Riverfront gallery's namesake. Art purchases are typically impulse buys, she says. You feel it in your gut.
"If you like it," she continues, "it will make your house a home."
COCA at 952 S. Justison St. specializes in original art from local artists priced under $500. Local delivery is available for a $25 fee.
Unlike a standard gallery, 70 percent of the proceeds go to the artist, 20 percent to charity and about 10 percent to fund operations, Wilkinson says.
Her motivation was simple: Encourage emerging artists to continue their craft while showing customers original art can be affordable and more sentimental than a print from HomeGoods.
One couple bought a painting of vintage cars for their first anniversary and vowed to celebrate each subsequent year with a piece of original art, Wilkerson remembers. A frantic decorator once arrived at 7 a.m. to find a modern centerpiece for her client's yacht.
Started last year, COCA has raised a total of $13,000 for nonprofits like the Delaware Theatre Company, Kind to Kids Foundation, Young@Art, Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition and the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, Wilkinson says. Besides hosting monthly events related to the downtown Art Loop, the gallery is open by appointment only.
The walls are crammed with hundreds of framed works, from still lifes to landscapes to abstract figures. A tiny painting of a bulbous pepper by Wilkinson's mother-in-law, Jan, fits in a kitchen nook, while a 7-foot-long contemporary work becomes a living room showpiece. A back room full of art prints, priced from $10 to $65, is geared toward children.
Wilkinson, who works full-time as president of Pettinaro Relocation, has maintained relationships with about 40 local artists, including landscape painters George Martz and Rick Phillips, contemporary realist painter Lisa Ashley, floral and animal painter Kathy Ruck, and oil painter Kevin Brown (who produces luscious portraits of Dunkin' Donuts coffee and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches).
Many of the artists exhibit at local craft shows and art festivals. Wilkinson supplements their work with pieces she finds during their travels, donating all proceeds to charity.
Recently, she began carrying a select number of higher-end works priced from $800 to $2,000 to satisfy client demand. She also opened a satellite location at Union Park Honda at 1704 Pennsylvania Ave., which sells a rotating set of 60 works and is open during regular business hours.
Besides visual art, COCA carries handmade coasters, vintage furniture and a limited selection of jewelry by Olga Ganoudis, a Wilmington designer who has worked on the "Game of Thrones" and "Lost" television series.
Upcoming events highlighted on COCA's Facebook page include a September pop-up art market at 901 Market St. featuring work by Delaware College of Art and Design students, and an October opening at a Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, winery.
Phillips, a 30-year veteran who teaches art at Darley Art Center in Claymont, said Wilkinson uses her community connections to generate buzz for events. He has sold more pieces at COCA than anywhere else.
"She's helping me stay afloat as a full-time artist," he says.
Megan Greenberg, who lives on the outskirts of Wilmington, has picked up a half-dozen pieces at COCA, including a still life of lemons and limes that fit so effortlessly in her renovated kitchen.
Previously, Greenberg purchased art during her travels, such as silkscreens from Nepal or poppy watercolors from Santa Fe, New Mexico. She praised Wilkerson for making the art world less intimidating to a younger, diverse audience.
At that price point, she acknowledges, "I'm not getting Andy Wyeth, but I'm also not getting hotel art, Pier One art or Marshall's art."
A recent COCA visit found a Rolling Stones tribute collage for $475 (a special Father's Day gift for that classic music fan), a hologram of Lady Gaga for $215, and a cardboard turkey by Wilkinson's 6-year-old for 10 cents. A Greek god chiseled in copper still had its original price tag of $1,500 from another gallery. COCA's price: $200.
Local gallery owners worried the "cheap" in COCA's name could contribute to devaluing art in the marketplace. But they also saw room for the gallery to cater to a different clientele, one that could eventually graduate to a higher price point.
COCA carries smaller works and studies by Martz. So does The Station Gallery in Greenville, which also sells his larger, more complex works that can cost several thousand dollars.
"I honestly don't think COCA is going to impact the galleries in Wilmington, says gallery co-owner Nancy Bercaw. "It's not our customers."
Vickie Manning, co-owner of the Sommerville Manning Gallery next to the Hagley Museum, agrees. The gallery carries work by all members of the Wyeth family, along with established artists like Peter Sculthorpe, Robert Jackson, Olivia Musgrave, Bo Bartlett and J. Clayton Bright. Purchases can easily top six figures, and Manning only carries artists with a proven track record, many of whom exhibit in museums.
"With emerging artists, they might not be around in a few years," she says. "There might be something in (COCA) that you've hit a home run with, but I wouldn't go in there expecting that."
Wilkerson, who reconfigured her living room around a 15-foot painting, acknowledges she's able to keep prices low because she volunteers her time and pays below-market rent. Her father, Verino Pettinaro, owns 20 acres on the Riverfront.
But she insists that heartstring-tugging original art is available at all price points. Her home is crammed with about 100 pieces, including those by Phillips, Martz, Brandywine loyalist Mark Dance and Jamie Wyeth.
Each has a backstory, an unspoken bond between artist and patron.
"Art makes people happier," she says.
Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com