Art junkies shelling out big bucks for turtle paintings

— When Koopa paints, he gets down and dirty.

His feet are covered in all shades of blue and yellow, and his slow-moving belly helps form the abstract swirls that make up his art.


AP Photo

Koopa, a Gulf Coast box turtle, creates a custom-ordered painting for a buyer in Australia at the home of his owner, Kira Varszegi, in Hartford, Conn. Koopa's paintings are selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars, and his pieces hang in 36 of the 50 states.

Koopa the turtle's latest masterpiece has an "Australian Summer" theme with a pale green background and lots of earthy tones. The piece is being sold for $140 (plus shipping) to an Aussie who lost out in a bidding war on eBay.

She begged Koopa's owner, Kira Varszegi, to make a custom painting for her.

"She said she would ideally like it by Christmas, and that kind of caught my attention. It was like, 'OK, she must really want this if she's willing to wait that long for it,"' Varszegi said, laughing.

Lately, Varszegi has been finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with Koopa's art requests. The Gulf Coast box turtle's paintings are selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars, and his pieces hang in 36 of the 50 states, as well as in Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

Varszegi just shakes her head at the thought of setting a price on Koopa's art. She prefers to list them on eBay -- about five or six each week -- with a starting price of just $1. From there, she lets the bidders take over.

"Oh, we've had a few bad bidding wars. Thirty people will fight over one painting," the 28-year-old said.

Koopa's more popular paintings have sold for as much as $480, she said. She named Koopa after the evil turtles in the popular Super Mario Brothers Nintendo video games.

Careful documentation

It all began two years ago when Varszegi, who also paints, found Koopa sitting on her palette in the living room. She immediately scooped him up and took him to the bathroom to wash off all the oil paint.

"But when I returned, the paint almost looked like a perfect rainbow because it had the three primary colors and white on there. He just blended them perfectly," she said.

Varszegi now only uses nontoxic paints with Koopa, who had to go through a month and half of training before he started perfecting his craft. Fearful that Koopa might retract into his shell covered in paint, Varszegi would practice rinsing him off in the shower and holding him upside down.

These days, the duo works as a team. Varszegi squeezes the paints on a canvas, which can vary in size, and then lets Koopa blend the colors with his legs and stomach just by walking. She documents each art project with at least 30 photographs that she sends along with the piece.

Varszegi, who has been accused by a few critics of pushing Koopa, will only place the turtle on the edge of the canvas and gently stroke his shell to get him started.

"A lot of it looks like brush strokes, too. I think, without the photos, who's to say a human didn't paint it? That's why I make sure I photograph everything," she said.

To date, Koopa has done about 160 paintings, including nearly 30 custom pieces. Varszegi has donated $1,700 from the proceeds to different turtle charities, including the Massachusetts Turtle Rescue Inc. in Springfield, Mass.

For the love of turtles

Koopa counts Carole Gray, of Ocala, Fla., as one of his biggest fans. Gray stumbled across the turtle's work on eBay in December 2003 and bought her first painting for an employer. She later bought one for herself for $49.95 that is comprised of blue, purple and green shades.

"I'm addicted now. If I buy any more paintings at all, it will be through them," Gray said.

Koopa has been all the rage in the United Kingdom ever since he was featured in a London newspaper article. That's exactly how Mark Jones, a London trial lawyer, first discovered Koopa. He paid $90 for a custom painting that he named "Love on the rocks with no ice."

"It looks like the sea to me," Jones said. "When you see something as strange as this, you have to sorta seize the moment."

Animal art is nothing new. Zoos use art as a form of behavioral enrichment for elephants, bears and apes. Each November, the Buffalo Zoo in New York holds an Art Gone Wild event, where it sells and auctions off art done by all kinds of different animals. Snakes will slither in paint and primates will even use their tongues to make designs.

Most of the proceeds go back to the zoos and benefit the animals. Ruby, a famous painting elephant, was able to raise $500,000 for the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona. She died in 1997.

Varszegi says being able to help raise money for turtle charities is a big part of why she wants Koopa to keep painting. Her apartment speaks to her love of turtles. Koopa's paintings line her living room, turtle pillows crowd her sofas and she has ceramic and plastic figurines of the reptile in nearly every corner.

Koopa is free to roam around the apartment, where he has a winter home: a heated box with white fabric for fake snow. He's even found a girlfriend in one of Varszegi's bobble-head turtle figurines, Varszegi said.

Varszegi makes her living with Koopa's art but wants to also train to be an electrician. She posts her own paintings from time to time on eBay

"My stuff doesn't sell as well. It just doesn't have the appeal a painting turtle has I guess," she said.


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