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Yvette Kraft taps her artistic inspiration from D.C. eateriesand a few diet colas.
Yvette Kraft prefers Booeymonger’s Miami Burgersmoked salmon peeking out between halves of a bagelwith tomatoes, without onions or lettuce, and light on the nonfat cream cheese. More often than not, however, in her four to five visits per week to the Friendship Heights sandwich shop, Kraft opts for either tuna or cold turkey with tomato on rye. And a large Diet Pepsi. Always a large Diet Pepsi.
“I like the atmosphere in the Booeymonger a lot,” explains Kraft, a D.C. native who now lives in upper Northwest. “There are a lot of varieties of people.”
Which makes the home of the Duke (a cheddar cheesesteak with mushrooms) and the Patty Hearst (turkey breast, bacon, provolone) a great studio for the artist of the everyday manas Kraft likes to think of herselfor at least as everyday as the upscale Friendship Heights shopping district gets. This particular Saturday afternoon, for example, Booeymonger noshers include Metrobus drivers, Neiman Marcus shoppers, and teenage refugees from the General Cinema across the street in Mazza Gallerie.
Kraft usually settles in the slightly elevated section of the dining area, preferably at the weirdly curved four-top in front of the sign announcing Booeymonger’s $7.25 dinner special. From this perch, she scouts her artistic models: the tall, African-American woman wearing a leopard-skin bandana, the white man with square glasses studying the newspaper, and, especially, all the women and men sporting interesting hats.
Kraft has a thing for people in hatspeople like the Booeymonger patron she spotted one afternoon in January: “She had a most dramatic face…and this wonderful, big fur hat,” Kraft recalls, nursing a large diet soda. Kraft spied the woman sitting a few tables away and then, as she often does at Booeymonger, swiftly squiggled and swirled with her black Caran d’Ache pencil. Within “five to eight” seconds, she says, she had rendered a striking image in the three-hole spiral notebook that serves as her sketchbook.
And then she sketched the woman again. And again.
The artist’s own flamboyance eventually caught the fur-hatted woman’s attention. “You don’t see people come in here dressed the way she was,” explains Kraft, dressed in a red snakeskin jacket and firetruck-red lipstick. “I told her that she was dressed in the Billie Holiday era, with all that dramatic glamour.” Kraft flips the pages of her notebook to show me her sketches, then reaches for her portfolio. She pulls out an 18-by-24-inch whirlwind of purple, green, yellow, red, and orange. It’s her completed portrait of the woman in the fur hat.
Booeymonger isn’t the only D.C. eatery that offers Kraft artistic inspiration. She also draws at the Burro, a Tex-Mex burrito shop on Connecticut Avenue NW in Dupont Circle. And before the Burro, Kraft honed her skills a few blocks away, at Giorgio’s Pizza, a greasy spoon that’s the closest thing D.C. has to the joint in John Belushi’s famous “cheebuggah, cheebuggah, cheebuggah” Saturday Night Live skit. “Sometimes I get tired of the places I sketch,” Kraft says, when I inquire about her desertion of Giorgio’s. “I moved on from Giorgio’s to the Burro….I also sketched at Chesapeake Bagel Bakery [in Dupont Circle] before it closed.”
“If I do, like, 60 sketches at the Burro, I’m drained for the Booeymonger,” Kraft explains. Right now, she has more synergy further north on the Red Line. “I haven’t seen her for a while,” says Burro manager Eduardo Centeno, when I inquire about his restaurant’s own Toulouse-Lautrec in residence. “She used to get a lot of rice and chicken….Lately, she just has plain rice and Diet Cokes.”
Centeno also mentions that he appears in the pages of Kraft’s sketchbook himself. Only once, Kraft says, has a subject of her fancy objected to an artistic rendering. “There was someone once who looked upset by it,” she says, noting that it was an older woman with her husband sitting at a close-by table at Booeymonger. “They felt uncomfortable, so I stopped….I went up and apologized that I had sketched them.”
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Otherwise, Kraft seems quite a popular attraction at her hangouts. “The lady that does the artwork?” asks Booeymonger manager Vasantha Priyala de Silva, who mentions that both he and his wife are painters as well. “I don’t know her name…but she orders large Diet Pepsis and sometimes a breakfast special.” After announcing over the loudspeaker that “George” should pick up his own breakfast special, Booeymonger employee Roxanna Reyes overhears our conversation about Kraft and lights up. “She likes the Miami Burger and large Diet Pepsis,” Reyes notes, beaming.
Pablo Picasso began his formal artistic training at the Academy of Fine Arts in Barcelona. Paul Cézanne began his at the Atelier Suisse in Paris. And Yvette Kraft began hers at Blackie’s House of Beef, the venerable D.C. steakhouse on 22nd Street NW, where she worked as a hostess in 1983. “That’s where my life as an artist began,” Kraft admits.
In between escorting lobbyists and lawyers to their tables, Kraft started sketching customers on the restaurant’s paper menus. “They used to let me sketch when it was slow,” Kraft recalls. “I have tons [of sketches] that I have saved at home.”
Kraft eventually sought more formal training, studying under Corcoran School of Art Professor Leon Berkowitz from 1983 to 1987 and Professor Bill Christenberry from 1991 to the present. Before settling on painting, Kraft had tried on many artistic hats, including acting and playwriting. “I don’t love words enough. I decided that was not going to be my choice art form,” Kraft explains about playwriting. “Someone very influential in my life suggested I go into painting.”
But Kraft has never let go of her restaurant roots. When Mel Krupin sliced corned beef in his restaurant on Connecticut Avenue NW, across from the Mayflower Hotel, Kraft persuaded him to exhibit one of her works on an easel in the waiting area. The piece attracted the attention of many of Krupin’s patrons, including one very loquacious one: Larry King. “I never met Larry King, but Mel Krupin told me that he bought my work,” Kraft says proudly.
Krupin has since moved his operation to Tenleytown. Even though Kraft munches every so often at Krupin’s new location, the deli hardly sparks her creativity. “It’s just not one of the places that strike me,” says Kraft. “I’ve never really considered [Krupin’s] as a place I’d like to sketch.”
Kraft’s talents have been showcased in other D.C. landmarks, including George Washington University Hospital, Shiloh Baptist Church, and American University. “I’m very proud American University has one of my paintings, because I don’t think that they just go and take paintings from people and put them up,” says Kraft, who then smirks: “My next goal is Princeton and Harvard and Vassar.”
A few blocks from the Burro, the America Oh, Yes! Gallery displays a large painting of an African-American jazz singer, priced at $950. It’s a energetic burst of reds, browns, and oranges. The artist? Yvette Kraft.
America Oh, Yes! specializes in outsider art and seems a suitable venue for Kraft’s work, given her choice of studio space. “The style of art she [creates]…looks like outsider art,” says America Oh, Yes! Washington director Jim McAndrew. (America Oh, Yes! also has a location in Hilton Head, S.C.) “We try to keep it simple. If it looks like it fits, it must be.”
Unlike many outsider artists, Kraft also studies the techniques of the big names in the mainstream art world. “I live at the museum. A lot of the guards even know me,” says Kraft. “When I go to an exhibit of an outstanding artistlike Alexander Calder [at the National Gallery of Art] or the ‘Degas to Matisse’ show [at the Phillips Collection]I study five to eight paintings at a time. Sometimes, it takes me 16 visits to get through.”
But Kraft believes art is about more than connoisseurship. “I want to figure out how to put the social issues I believe in into paintings,” she says. To that end, Kraft has been an artist in residence at various D.C. public elementary schools. In the early ’90s, she directed an art program for the homeless. The classes took place in the grassy stretch along Connecticut Avenue NW across the street from Zorba’s Cafe and the Childe Harold restaurant.
“I didn’t call them homeless people; I called them city people,” says Kraft. “I thought that was much more respectful: Project City People.
“The first day, no one showed up,” she continues. “I was really, really discouraged. The second class, one person showed up, then eight the next time.” But by the end of the summer, her pupils had completed 85 paintings that were later displayed at the University of the District of Columbia.
“I’ve decided that I really want to do art with toddlers,” Kraft says of her next pursuit. Although Project City People has ended, she still takes residents of two of the District’s homeless shelters to local art museums.
And she hasn’t tired of Booeymonger just yet. At one point in our interview, I ask Kraft to choose whom she’d most like to sketch. She surveys the crowded restaurant and points to one of the Latino busboys. “The busboys here interest me,” she says. “Even when I worked at Blackie’s, I noticed [the busboys’] energy back and forth into the kitchen.
“I find them more interesting than anybody,” she proclaims.
Why? “Nobody really notices them,” she says. And it might not hurt that they wear puffy white painters’ caps. CP