Florida schoolteacher Cindi Decker went to a painting class with a friend and came back with a vivid egret she’d painted on canvas.
More than 24,000 people “upvoted” it within a few hours that evening of Jan. 15, which tickled both Decker and her son, Matthew Decker.
They had no idea the chain reaction of hilarious and masterful paintings that were about to follow.
The next day, an artist in Sweden — Kristoffer Zetterstrand, who is known for his paintings in the video game Minecraft — saw the posting and decided to paint Matthew’s photo of his mother holding her painting.
He posted on Reddit a photo of himself holding his painting with the caption: “I painted somebody’s mom.”
Pretty meta, right? But wait.
Two days later, a journalism student in Canada named Laila Amer painted a picture of Zetterstrand holding his painting. She posted a photo of it on Reddit — with her holding it, of course. “Took a while and not perfect,” she wrote. “But I painted the guy who painted the other guy’s mom.”
From there, it took off.
Hours later, an artist in Chicago named Seamus Wray posted a painting of Amer holding Zetterstrand’s painting holding Decker’s painting.
And hours after that, artist Traci Sethre painted Wray and the others and posted it on the social media site.
Then, Indiana artist Travis Simpson saw what was going on and wanted in. He said he knew artists everywhere were painting fast so they could get their painting up before others could. He stayed up all night to paint the latest iteration, then posted a photo, writing on Reddit, “When it sinks in that I stayed up most of the night to paint a meme for internet points...”
On it went for many more layers of paintings over several days, until the painting of Decker was so tiny you could barely see it. Flow charts and doodles of the paintings appeared. And by this time more than a million people had seen the antic and Decker, 55, had been nicknamed “the honorary mom of Reddit,” she told The Washington Post.
Decker, who lives in Jacksonville, joined Reddit with the name “imthemomwhopaints” to thank everyone and bask in her brief moment in the social media spotlight. She said at first she was nervous when her son told her he posted her painting on Reddit.
“I was in fear I was going to read a lot of hateful comments,” she wrote in a post. “You all have proven me so wrong. I’m assuming most of you could be my kids, and y’all get a bad rap in this world. You all are compassionate, caring, and a ton of fun! Thanks for uplifting me! You all have inspired me instead.”
So how exactly does a meme like this happen?
Zetterstrand said it all started when he saw Matthew Decker’s post. (Matthew said he posted it for Reddit “karma," which is a virtual reward for posting popular content.)
Zetterstrand said he was on his way to work and noticed on Reddit some posts of people showing their mother’s paintings. He often paints what he calls “warm-up” paintings when he arrives at his studio, and he picked Decker’s photo to paint.
“So this day I decided to do that photo, just for fun,” Zetterstrand told The Washington Post. “It took a couple of hours. Then I thought it might be entertaining to post a picture of me holding it — at the same place on Reddit I got it from.”
Amer, a Canadian journalism student who enjoys painting, said when she saw Zetterstrand’s art, the idea struck her right away.
“I just thought it would be a really fun thing to do, albeit kind of stressful,” she told The Washington Post. “I knew people would get a kick out of it, so I thought ‘why not?’ ”
The artists, most of whom say they have not been in touch with each other, have been blown away by the enormous response. Each photo and painting gets tens of thousands of “upvotes” and hundreds of comments.
Zetterstrand called it “hilarious and weird.” He said he has gotten thousands of comments on Reddit, as well as hundreds of messages and emails. He estimates that between several social media sites, millions of people have seen his painting.
“Many have contacted me and told me that it made them genuinely happy,” he said, adding that people have contacted him asking for tips about painting and becoming a professional artist. “It’s touching, really.”
He said apart from the paintings he did for Minecraft, he works in Stockholm as a professional artist.
“It’s a bit absurd to see a quick oil sketch that I did for fun completely blow all my serious work out of the water in terms of views,” he said. “I’m not complaining, and it IS funny — but it makes me scratch my head.”
Zetterstrand and Decker have communicated, and he has shipped her the painting he made of her. She said her mother knit a hat for Zetterstrand like the one he’s wearing in the photo.
“So many people have been so kind,” Decker said. “They say, ‘Keep us updated and post your next painting.’ But I’m not going to. I don’t want to wear out my welcome.”
She said she’s content with her one burst of notoriety.
“It’s put a pep in my step, that’s for sure,” she said.