Wallpapering/Painting Duo Often Called Forces of Nature
There are a couple things about hurricanes that are certain: they move extremely fast, but eventually they do slow down.
The same is true of Shirley Martin and Judy Hanes, sisters from Portsmouth, Ohio, who’ve hung wallpaper and painted Scioto County homes, inside and out, for more than 50 years. They are known for getting jobs done right and faster than anyone else around.
“We were painting the home of a doctor’s wife in Portsmouth around ’87 or so. She just looked at us and called us ‘The Hurricane Sisters.’ I guess because we moved so quick. And pretty soon other people were calling us that,” said Martin, now 77 and living in Wheelersburg. “We had a reputation of being good and fast.”
Martin’s daughter, Melissa Martin of Portsmouth, has another name for the painting duo. “They are Energizer® bunnies. And, even though they are supposedly retired now, they still work harder than anyone I know.”
The sisters learned their trade from one of the best – their mother Lydia Cunningham, who started painting homes for friends and neighbors after her job in a steel mill went to male soldiers returning from World War II. “I was nine when I started helping her paint and Judy was five,” Martin said. “We both loved it.”
If the jobs were close by, they’d walk. If they were across town or across the county, Cunningham and her children rode there in their blue Corvair, ladders hanging off the sides.
“There was no one like my mother,” Martin said. “She was a wonderful example for us.”
One of the many examples the mother of six set for her painting protégés was in how she treated older people and those who were struggling to make ends meet, a practice the sisters continued. “She always reduced her prices for them,” Martin recalled. “And she would clean their windows if they weren’t able to get out and do it and help them in other ways.”
Martin has fond memories of those early years. “We met so many great people. And people were just different then, you know? When we would go work on a farm, the women there would cook us this huge, wonderful meal.”
As young women, then as young wives, and then as young mothers, Martin and Hanes kept right on painting beside their mom. “We just kind of took over the business, and she kept right on painting with us.”
Cunningham painted with her daughters until she was 84 and was climbing up on ladders until she was 82. Her painting skills remained strong, even if some of her other senses started to fail with age. Martin remembered one time she and her mom were painting the outside of a house, and Martin had climbed the ladder to paint the dormer. “My ladder slipped and I couldn’t get back down. I yelled and yelled for Mom, but she couldn’t hear me. Finally, the man next door came over and helped me get down.”
Cunningham’s been gone since 2000, but the skills and ethics she taught her daughters virtually guaranteed them a bounty of work. “I have no idea how many houses we’ve done – thousands and thousands. There are some we’ve painted five or six times,” Martin said. “We’d go to work for one person, and before we were through, we’d end up painting five or six houses on that street. People waited sometimes as long as six months. We hated to turn people away, but there were times we had to.”
They were hired to paint restaurants, stores, nursing homes and hospitals, in addition to homes. And they never spent a penny on advertisting. “It was all just word of mouth. Someone would like our work and would tell someone else. That’s it.”
The sisters were so good, in fact, that they ruffled a few feathers of some male painters over the years. On a job in Frankfort, Kentucky, Martin said the (male) contractor remarked several times that he couldn’t believe “a couple of women” were going to paint the enormous stairway. But, “By the time we got done, he was trying to get us to come work for him.”
Martin and Hanes worried briefly that their painting business would suffer after the steel mill in New Boston closed in the early ‘80s, and many of those out-of-work men decided to go into the painting business. “It didn’t hurt our business at all. As a matter of fact, we got lots of calls to come and straighten out some of the jobs they did!”
The Hurricane Sisters recently hung up their brushes and ladders, but they
still paint for some of their older customers and work on their own rental properties.
“We’ve enjoyed every minute, and we’ve made a lot of wonderful friends,”
Photos Ashley Gallaher Quinn