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The coat of many colors

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Photo by Reve Portraits The coat of many colors that Cedaredge designer Mitchell Gronenthal created. He modernized the vintage coat and added a vibrant lining to reflect the personality of its owner.

People start working early in Montana and they know the value of money. Ask Carol Ann Rasmussen who began working when she was ten years old. As a girl she lugged Spudnut donuts around her Missoula neighborhood, knocking on doors, smiling and selling.

"I used to ask the people, should I come back?" she laughs, "I didn't want to waste my time going back where I wasn't wanted."

By 14 she was still working, this time as an usher at a local movie theater.

"It was either stay home and help with the housework -- which I hated to do -- or go to work," she recalls.

So she worked.

Then one day she was walking by the Montgomery Ward Store in downtown Missoula when she looked in the display window and saw the coat. It was white and sleek with a fancy hood.

"It was classy," she recalls, but also expensive, just the thing to catch her eye as a high school freshman. For about a second, she considered mentioning the idea of buying the coat to her frugal father, but she decided that he wouldn't approve of such an extravagance. So she turned to a more sympathetic listener -- her sister -- and her sister's advice?

Put it on layaway.

The year was 1955 and Carol Ann was working weekends and earning 40 cents an hour and it took her four months, but she got the coat. "How I loved that coat. I always felt special wearing it!"

She kept the coat and treasured it over the years. She wore it on her honeymoon. She even took it to South America in 1965 when she and her husband Dave and their children moved there for his work as a mining engineer.

Which is when the trouble began.

She had no access to dry cleaning so she washed the coat and put it in the dryer and it shrank. So she hung it in the closet until they were ready to return to the States when she stuffed the coat into a trunk along with the family's set of encyclopedias. The coat and the rest of the family's belongings were traveling by boat -- until the trunk fell into the ocean. When she unpacked the coat, the bottom hem of the pure white garment was dyed blue from moisture that seeped into the trunk's blue lining. So the shrunken and stained coat went back into the closet.

Although the family moved 20 times in 40 years and there were plenty of opportunities to sell it at a yard sale, Carol Ann couldn't bear to part with the coat. She calculates that she wore the coat for 10 years but kept it in the closet for more than five decades.

Every once in a while, Carol Ann would look at it longingly but, realizing that it was out of style, she left it hanging in the closet, until the family moved to Cedaredge and Carol Ann met Mitchell Gronenthal. The two first met at a mixer for the new Grand Mesa Arts & Events Center. It was a natural place to meet. Carol Ann is an artist specializing in the use of alcohol ink and Mitchell is a photographer and dress designer.

Carol Ann recalls asking Mitchell if he could remodel a coat. He recalls that he was reluctant to take on the project. His specialty is dresses. He'd only done one coat and that was a man's jacket. So the two let the subject drop until they reconnected again when Carol Ann needed a professional head shot. She'd been invited to give a TED talk at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction. The 15-minute presentation -- inspired by the Technology Education and Design (TED) conference -- will eventually become a You Tube video. Her topic was "So you think you can't paint?"

While she was posing for her photographic portrait, the subject of the coat came up again and Mitchell committed to the project.

"It was a challenge," he admits. He wanted to modernize and stylize the coat into a more contemporary wrap. He decided to go with a sleeveless look and the hood gave way to a collar and the heavy coat became a less bulky garment. He shortened the coat to eliminate the blue stain. Then, to make it a true coat of many colors which reflected the vibrancy of the wearer, he decided to sew in an innovative lining. It was all new for him and a steep learning curve.

"An hour before she was due to pick it up," he recalls, "My nerves were shot. Will she love it? What if she hates it?"

Carol Ann was amazed at the transformation. It was like having the joy of her old coat back again along with the thrill of an entirely new look.

"I love it," she said, "Just the thing to wear to an art opening!"

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Surface Creek
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