The exchange isn’t entirely one-sided. Spagnola simply likes to make art, but she’s also motivated by marketing. It’s a way to get her art out in the world. “Ultimately that’s my goal,” she says.
She got the idea while studying in Rome, in 2006. A Carnegie Mellon University art major, she sculpted an army of clay robots that she couldn’t take home on the plane. So when the show ended, she gave them away to viewers. This experience was rewarding enough that Spagnola continued it in the States. “It seems selfish, but it’s cool to have your stuff desired,” she explains.
Now Spagnola’s wait-list numbers 1,500, and she has shipped her work all over the world. In June, she finished her 2,000th free painting. Often people request cute pictures of dogs or children; they become “covetous of this painting,” she says.
But sometimes people try to challenge her. She’s had requests for ninja bunny robots and samurai monkeys. One painting, which she titled "Mess," is her attempt to capture a shark licking its chops in front of a stack of pies, two rainbows, Christopher Walken and all the Lucky Charms, plus the words “oh crap.”
How has she found the time to finish a painting almost every day for six years? “I don’t know, how do you brush your teeth every day?” she says. “If I didn’t do it, I’d feel crappy.”
She takes donations and has a tiered donation system, from a $25 “Keep Ali in the Black” donation to a $1,000-or-more donation for people who would like to pay what their painting “will be valued at in the future once Ali is famous.” Of course, the donations are not required and most paintings she does for free, shipping included.
“Painting is the simplest medium” for this kind of project, she says. If it were feasible, she might make free clay sculptures instead, since she specialized in sculpture at CMU.
Spagnola is also a musician, but she compartmentalizes her passions. Partying musician Ali is very different from benevolent painter Ali, she says. She plans to continue on both parallel paths as long as possible.
All 2000-plus paintings are up on her blog, where she adds witty captions. She calls it “pop art plus puns” and hopes to foster a following with her daily humor. Perhaps one day she’ll compile her paintings in a coffee-table book, a tangible version of her blog. “It seems a lot of books come from popular blogs,” she says, and “I already have 2000 pages.”