Cary artist paints for presidents

Seton McGlennon’s ornaments popular at the White House

dmenconi@newsobserver.comDecember 22, 2012 

— The holidays are busy for lots of people, but that adjective doesn’t even begin to describe what the season is like for Seton McGlennon. The Cary artist paints on unusual canvases, including Christmas ornaments – thousands of them every year.

You name it, over the years someone has commissioned McGlennon to paint it on a Christmas globe: children, spouses, cats, houses, cartoon characters, logos of everything from football teams to fraternities, snakes.


“Yeah, one guy wanted me to do a snake on an ornament,” she said. “I guess he had one as a pet.”

McGlennon started painting a few decades back, when she was in real estate. For closing gifts, she would paint the house being bought on an ornament. She became a full-time artist in 1993. She also does “memory canvases” (priced from $450 to $2,700, depending on size and materials), which have gotten widespread attention, including a 1999 spot on “Oprah.”

But Christmas ornaments are a big industry for McGlennon. Her ornaments have wound up in high places by earning the White House seal of approval three times, starting with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s selection of McGlennon’s design as “Gift of the Millennium” in 1999.

Five years later, first lady Laura Bush got in touch to see if McGlennon could paint a large batch of White House ornaments for the Bushes to send out. How large? Only 924 of them, quite a project for a one-woman home business.

“I’m not a machine, and I paint everything by hand,” she said. “But of course I said I’d do it. It took almost a year, from Martin Luther King Day until November. ‘Four a day, four a day, four a day,’ that was my mantra. It was another four hours a day, on top of everything else I had to do. I finally finished and loaded them into a truck to drive up to Maryland for shipping. I was praying nobody would hit me, because there’s no way I could have replaced them by then.”

McGlennon got some nice thank-you notes from that batch, including one from Laura Bush’s father-in-law (former president George H.W. Bush). She scored an even larger follow-up order from the Bush White House in 2006, this time for 1,000 ornaments.

While McGlennon can’t sell any of the “official” White House ornaments she painted, she has another White House design available for $100 on her website ( Most of her other ornaments go for $50, although the price might be higher for next year’s very detailed “12 Days of Christmas” design.

“That one is too intricate for $50,” she said. “I don’t know how much that will be yet.”

As for this year, the cutoff date for orders is long past. But McGlennon will be busy doing last-minute jobs for local customers up to the brink of Christmas Day.

“The Christmas crunch seems to come later every year,” she said. “It used to be people would order by August, and October was the crazy busy month. Now it’s November, right up until Christmas.”

You’d think that McGlennon’s own Christmas tree would be festooned with fantastic hand-painted ornaments. But you’d be wrong about that.

“My tree has no ornaments,” she said. “Don’t tell anybody!”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or

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