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Few things move Lawrence Amos to utter more than a few words at a time. The soft-spoken artist doesn’t care to deconstruct his intricate drawings; to make them, he says, he puts down “whatever pops into my head.” And he doesn’t want to talk about the great mastershe says he doesn’t really follow the works of other artists.
But Amos, 59, will pipe up if someone unfamiliar with his workcompulsively detailed streetscapes, drawn on the diagonal and teeming with comic characters, advertisements, and other hallmarks of urban liferefers to his pens as “Magic Markers.”
“They’re good-quality pens,” the artist says of the oil-based implements he prefers. “I don’t use cheap pens. You need something that holds color.”
A Chicago native now based in Mount Rainier, Md., Amos started doodling stick figures as a child, moved on to re-creating detailed maps, and finally settled on his current style. “I’ve been drawing all my life, and I progressively got better,” Amos says. “But I’m never satisfied.”
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His works capture busy streets (and, less often, interiors) filled with humorous details so numerous that it’s impossible to catch them alleven after several hard looks. A woman cuddling an aardvark, a Metro station marked with a graffito reading “SEX CALL KIM 717-3000,” a Peeping Tom watching a woman unhook her bra, and a halfway house named the “Lady Astor Home for Drunken Fools” complete with red-nosed, bottle-clutching residents peeking out of its windows are among the gems hidden in the works displayed in Amos’ third solo show, “Urban Voyeur,” currently on view at the Margaret W. and Joseph Fisher Art Gallery at Alexandria’s Northern Virginia Community College.
To ensure that only the best of his work ends up on gallery walls, Amos destroys any piece that isn’t up to his perfectionist standards. “If it’s a light color, I can camouflage it, turn it into something else,” Amos says of minor mistakes. “But a bigass tree in the middle of nowhereyou can’t camouflage that. It’s like a sore thumb.”
Although Amos says the cities he creates could be anywhere, some of his images are indisputably D.C.-inspired. Last Stop on the Red Line and MetroAboveGround are pieces set in bustling Metro stations, for instance. And distinctly recognizable subway cars and red-white-and-blue buses appear even in works without specific transit themes.
That may be because the daily commute between Mount Rainier and Alexandria’s Washington House retirement community, where Amos works as a nursing assistant, informs much of his art. The artist also finds inspiration in newspapers, books, and especially magazines: Much of his characters’ colorful attire comes from the pages of fashion mags, and National Geographic helps him with images of naturealong with visual cues for such characters as a woman in kabuki dress and a Native American chief. A feature in Architectural Digest about Oriental carpets influenced a series of interiors Amos created in the late ’90s, with colorful patterned rugs showing up on floors, walls, and ceilings.
Several of those works appear in the current show, but Amos has moved on from his rug period. “It’s over. It’s too hard to do,” he says. His latest obsession is no less difficult to render, though: In addition to working on both underwater and outer-space drawings, he’s creating a large-scale piece that will feature a hotel with 50 windows, each framing its own scene, and a façade composed of 15,000 to 20,000 tiny, individually drawn bricks.
And this time, a mistake or two may have to be tolerated. “That one,” Amos says of the work in progress, “will not be destroyed.” Sarah Godfrey