Forever a Golden Girl: The Art of Being Bea Arthur
When we speak, the artist Mike Denison is 308 Bea Arthurs down, with 57 to go. A fan of The Golden Girls and Arthur in particular, Denison is drawing the actress, one sketch a day for an entire year. “Bea a Day,” as he calls it, is the kind of strange-sounding thing Rose might announce at the kitchen table, as part of her interminable St. Olaf stories, leading Dorothy to gnaw at her wrist, or scream, begging for mercy, “Rose!”
Denison e-mails me a collection of his favorite sketches. In a riff on E.T., “B.T.” sees Dorothy taking her mother, Sophia, on the famous bicycle ride across the front of the face of the moon Elliott and his alien buddy did, the sweetness of the image undercut by Dorothy’s familiar menacing threat to return her mother to her much-hated retirement home: “Shady Pines, Ma.” “Happy Little Beas” is a spin-off of TV artist Bob Ross’ delight in painting some “happy little trees.”
One of Denison’s favorites sees Arthur, who died aged 86 in 2009, transformed into a diva-ish “Bea-yoncé”; another with her in a bikini taking a selfie in the sea; he’s even drawn her as a foodstuff: “Macaroni and Beas.”
“Bea A Day” began as a personal-set challenge for the 35-year-old artist, who lives with his wife, Laura, and two children in Stoneham, outside Boston. Denison grew up watching The Golden Girls—which ran from 1985 to 1992—with his grandmother Lucretia every Saturday night, and last year drew a picture of The Golden Girls floating in a Star Wars space-inspired picture (Arthur played a bartender in a 1978 Star Wars-themed TV Christmas special).
Around the same time, Denison saw that a nude painting of Arthur by the artist John Currin had sold for $1.9 million.
“I thought that I needed to challenge myself creatively, and people might like it,” Denison says of his subsequent mission to draw a picture of Arthur every day for a year, not just inspired by Dorothy but also her other memorable TV role as Maude.
Watching The Golden Girls with his grandmother as a 10-year-old, Denison says, he loved the scenes when Dorothy snapped at Rose or darkly threatened her mother, Sophia, with being returned to the Shady Pines retirement home. (Denison’s 10-year-old son Jack watches the show, the same age as his father got addicted, and loves it.)
“When you get older, you get other things from the show,” Denison says. “I love it now for its escapism. Whatever has happened in your day you can watch The Golden Girls and forget about it. It never gets old. You can watch the same episodes repeatedly and still laugh at them.” His favorite episode, Season Four’s “Brother, Can You Spare That Jacket,” sees the women at a homeless shelter in pursuit of a missing lottery ticket.
Why focus on Arthur? Denison says Dorothy’s sarcasm and wit moulded him when he watched the show as a 10-year-old boy. “That’s how I am with my friends,” he says, laughing. And he’s heterosexual: He is the first straight man I have ever met to love The Golden Girls, indeed the first one to admit to watching it. His devotion outstrips many of the most fervent, gay fans. Denison laughs: One radio-show presenter “couldn’t understand that I wasn’t gay. The great thing about The Golden Girls is that it dealt with so many issues affecting everyone.”
Denison admits that he shrank from doing the project in the run-up to his birthday last year, when he had planned to start it. “I thought, ‘This is crazy, I’m not going to do it.’” Then, on the day he turned 35, he went for it with only one unspoken rule—that he would not draw Arthur naked. This also meant his 7-year-old son Sam didn’t have his wish granted that his father draw her as “Bea-nis.” “I’m trying to keep it respectful,” says Denison, not least because Arthur’s son follows him on Twitter, and he doesn’t want to cause offense.
Denison draws the sketches every night between 8 and 10 p.m.; when we speak he is dreaming about a mash-up of The Golden Girls and The Wizard of Oz. Some drawings are based on current events: a news story about a Florida couple trapped in a car inspired one of Dorothy with her wastrel ex-husband, Stan; another features her morphed into Justin “Bea-ber.” Sometimes the ideas come easily; sometimes not, he says.
He works full-time for a transportation company, coordinating shuttles, and his colleagues get “a real kick” out of Bea a Day, not least in suggesting images, particularly now as Betty White, the only surviving Golden Girl who played Rose, is spearheading a Comic-Con competition for artists to draw her as a superhero. Denison is planning to enter, “with something themed around animal rights,” a passion of White’s.
Publishers have already expressed an interest in Bea a Day, and Denison would like to see the drawings collected together in a coffee table book. How will the series end? I ask. The penultimate drawing, Denison says, will be called “Where The Lanai Ends” and feature the four women standing on their famous outdoor patio, an abyss in front of them, inspired by a drawing in Shel Silverstein’s 1974 drawn collection of poetry, Where the Sidewalk Ends.
The last drawing, he reveals, will be of Arthur sitting at an easel painting Denison. Until then, you can play “Busy Bea,” a game for iPhones which Denison dreamt up with a friend, which sees Arthur flying amid palm trees collecting—what else?—cheesecakes. And, yes, Denison is a fan of those too.
See Bea a Day here