PEORIA — For her upcoming show at Exhibit A Gallery, Carrie Pearce created a series of small paintings inspired by the question, "If toys could talk, what would they say?"

“When I was a kid, I really, really, really believed my stuffed animals had feelings,” said Pearce while sitting in the studio at her Peoria home recently. “I thought they got sad if you didn’t play with them. I really thought they wanted my attention.”

Pearce creates portraits of children using 19th century photographs purchased at estate sales, flea markets and antique stores.

“Old photos are easy to find,” she said. “People abandon their relatives because they don’t know who they are. I would never do that. I would make something up — this is my great aunt so-and-so.”

Pearce takes up where other people have failed, weaving a story around the discarded likeness. She creates dream-like fantasy scenarios by including various props, many of which come to life beneath her brush. In one painting, animal crackers dance. Pearce’s collection of props is vast.

“People have given me a lot of these things,” she said while standing beside a bookcase filled with dolls, doll heads and old toys. In a nearby bank of drawers, her collection becomes even more interesting. Insects, skulls, a snake skin, and lots of interesting miscellany fill the drawers.

“I actually sat on the sidewalk with an X-acto knife and cut him out,” said Pearce while holding a piece of dried sidewalk caulk that once encased a dead baby bird.

The unusual and the macabre clearly hold a fascination for Pearce, though she bristles when people describe her art as "creepy." While some of her paintings contain macabre references, many are simply portraits of children surrounded by their toys. The reaction baffles her.

“Even kids with tattoos and piercings all over walk by my booth at art shows and say, 'Ew, creepy,’” she said.

The reaction may be due to the muted colors Pearce chooses, or the somber expressions of the children, a pose typical to 19th century portrait photography. For Pearce, the style is more about dreams and whimsy — she has long been fascinated with Grimm brothers' fairy tales.

In spite of the occasional negative reaction, the theme is working for Pearce. For about six years she’s been able to create art full time. Her larger works are selling across the country for $8,000 to $12,000.

Pearce has been creating her whimsical portraits since 2008. The theme evolved after an ah-hah moment the artist remembers well

“I was sitting on the back porch of our old house. At the time I was still doing faux finishing in people’s houses and teaching kids' art classes — I was just working my butt off. I thought, oh my gosh, what am I gonna do? I really wanna do art, but I hate all the methods. I’m not good at just making up faces, but you can’t use just any photograph because of copyright issues.”

The idea of hiring a model and taking photographs was a process too long and drawn out for Pearce. Then the idea came to her — antique photographs. With the photographer and the subjects long dead, the images are in the public domain.

Under Pearce’s brush the dead get new life and adventures they likely never had.

“Her name is Mouse,” said Pearce of a portrait of a toddler riding a mouse displayed in her studio. “I’ve painted her three times now. I call her Mouse ‘cause I just think she looks like a mouse, and I always paint her with a mouse.”

Though Pearce occasionally paints adults, she prefers children.

“They are more pliable to my ideas. I can make them do whatever I want. With adults, you can see, even in their photographs, that they are not going to let you paint them how you want,” she said.

Pearce’s process is intuitive. She eschews advanced planning.

“Everyone says you need to plan before you begin painting — I’ve been fighting that forever,” she said. “I’ve learned that you shouldn’t fight your process. I just start painting. I start with a face, and it morphs from there. I’m creating a person, and the story comes to me in a certain way.”

When she displays her work at art shows, Pearce hangs written stories next to each painting. She learned it’s a great way to keep people in her booth longer.

“People will stand there and read every one of them,” she said.

Pearce likes to make her art fun for people. It's not about lofty principles or making an important statement.

“I think art should be entertaining, like a ballet or a book.”

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.