Daniel Shay reminds me, his back-seat passenger, to strap on a seat belt. It sounds like particularly wise advice considering that Shay will be working on three different paintings while driving through rush-hour traffic.
“I’m working with watercolors now,” he explains. “It’s automatic transmission.”
As he waits to turn onto an eastbound lane, Shay, a Vietnam vet known to friends as “the drawing and driving guy,” dips his brush into one of the little Evian bottles taped to the glove compartment of his Suzuki Samurai. He dabs a little blue wash onto a painting he started three months and 2,500 miles ago.
“It takes about 800 miles to make a complex drawing,” notes Shay, who at any given time has several pictures in the works.
He finally manages to pull away from the driveway of his studio, part of a converted warehouse that sits on a block of K Street NW a world away from the lobbyists who made the corridor famous. The neighboring buildings have been demolished, leaving behind a big vacant lot piled with rubble and junk. One of the building’s brick walls has been plastered with ads for hiphop parties and bad syndicated TV shows.
But Shay is no starving artist. His brown and gray beard is neatly trimmed, and he wears a white shirt and necktie to work. Shay supervises the hanging crews that install paintings at the National Gallery of Art and is one among the dozens of artists the Galleryalong with most other museums in Washington with sizable staffshave granted safe haven and a living wage.
Arts funding cuts have become a cliché of the times, but the National Gallery is one government agency still lending succor to the arts, simply by giving jobs to so many practicing artists. Sucking on the government teat allows them to act, in effect, as their own patrons and spares them the isolation of the artist painting alone in a garret.
“They do enjoy working at the Gallery, even though it’s stressful and government work, because they’re in the element,” says Dennis Bult, a Gallery painter (the kind who puts layers of latex on the walls).
The work of Shay and four other artists employed in various capacities at the National Gallery is being highlighted in a small, loosely connected, but entertaining show called “Day Jobs…Night Obsessions,” hanging at the Target Gallery in Old Town Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory to Oct. 5.
“I think the great thing about the Gallery is there are a lot of people here who were trained in art and art history and have a keen appreciation,” says Mark Leithauser, who designed the installations for such blockbuster shows as King Tut and Vermeer. “They’re living with it and thinking about it in some capacity all day long.”
The show was inspired by a talk
Leithauser gave about the Gallery’s art colony at the Torpedo Factory in March and includes three of his masterfully detailed, playful oils. The intensely colored An Early Exchange contains many personal references to Leithauser’s life, but its form mimics that of the same Hokusai print that inspired the Ocean Spray logo.
“I get so many images all day of art, and when I start painting I’m sure I’m conglomerating them,” says Susan Clay, who orders and processes books at the National Gallery library. The Target show contains four of Clay’s surreal, vaguely sexual dreamscapes, each dark and foreboding, albeit in a lighthearted way. In Stand/Stay, a blue dog stands on a ladder too short to bridge the chasm it crosses. The dog obeys the admonition to stay given by an aluminum hand that grows out of the picture frame, even though a tornado is whizzing ever closer. The dog doesn’t mind; it shares the magical ability of cartoon characters to defy gravity by not looking down.
Clay denies that the dog has anything to do with Cajun artist George Rodrigue’s famous series of blue dogs, although a number of people have drawn the comparison. The dog in Clay’s painting “looks just like my dog at home, except it’s blue,” she says. “It started out as green, but it looked better blue.”
Five of Shay’s completed “Drawing/Driving” studies are included in the show. Each features a circle roughly filled with abstracted figures rendered in bright colors and surrounded by various notes Shay has written to himself or phrases that occurred to him while on the road.
Driving down K Street, Shay spots a police van double-parked outside Club 360.
“‘Evidence technician,’” he reads. “I like that, so I’ll make a note here.”
He points out that painting on the Beltway during his hourlong commute home to Montgomery County is smootherbetter for writing. Washington’s infamous potholes present a unique problem for an artist who is trying to hold his brush steady.
“New York Avenue is like the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” he complains.
In 1984, the same year he went to work at the National Gallery, Shay discovered the drawing and driving technique. On a trip to the northeast, Shay took the wheel from his wife, painter and collage artist Loretta Russo, and continued working on a picture he’d begun while she was driving. He took to the technique naturally and now finds it triples the time he has to make art.
Shay claims never to have gotten into an accident across some 115,000 miles in three vehicles since then. He did get a ticket once for running a red light. The patrolman took one look inside the artist’s van, one big palette with old colors drying all over the dashboard, and said, with a coplike lack of curiosity, “I don’t want to know.” Shay proudly sold the ticket as part of a later work.
He carefully notes the start and completion date and mileage of each picture, his impressions of time and motion deepening his drawings like crosshatching.
He sometimes uses his roadworks as studies for huge abstracts of more classical forms that take years for him to complete in the studio. “The [car] drawings provide a spark for easel painting that [otherwise] can be too predictable, too safe, too boring.”
Other artists in the show mention that they don’t like being confined to a studio. Silk screener Glenn Perry paints his unpeopled, leafy landscapes outside his cabin in West Virginia. John Olson, who helps take down National Gallery exhibits, makes found-object sculptures out of the junk he has collected ever since he was growing up in northern Minnesota. Back then, he had to compete for the best stuff with black bears that gathered at the town dump in spring and fall.
Olson’s four works at Target bring figures out of Greek mythology to life with atomizers, vented light fixtures, cocktail spears, and carved wood. Hades wears a top hat crowned with antlers and a medal naming him “past president.” He holds a spear that smashes the head of a rubber baby, its skull punctured with tiny holes where once hair grew.
As Shay drives along, much of the color has been washed from the passing buildings by a threatening, overcast sky. The heavy traffic forces him to wait through a couple of lights before he can turn off 1st Street, but this gives Shay time to add a little color to each of his three studies.
Other drivers don’t pay him any mind, their thoughts focused on the long lines of cars blocking their paths toward dinner and home. “For a lot of people, their commutes can be a voyage of strife,” Shay says sympathetically. “For me, it’s really not.”
Shay, who has lectured in Russia on drawing and driving, does not recommend that other people take to the canvas as they take to the highway unless they’re bad drivers to begin with. “If one is a bad driver, this helps because it keeps you engaged,” he claims. Despite his heightened state of concentration, though, Shay recognizes that having a lot of people painting behind the wheel would frighten a lot of others out of their cars, but he maintains that this would prove a boon both to public transportation and air quality.
“If I notice anyone not driving correctly, I’ve been known to put down their license plate number [on the canvas],” Shay warns.
Maybe 10 people have quizzically made eye contact with him over the years, and despite his occasional use of nude models in his vehicles, Shay says, “I’ve only been spotted with the model in the van once, and that was by a Japanese tour bus.”
He points out the liquor store on North Capitol Street where it happened. “It was a Sunday, and the male model asked whether he could put his robe on. I said, ‘Let’s see if we can make it back to the studio,’” Shay recalls. “I got caught at a red light, and this tour bus pulled up. Now they know more about the process in Japan than in Washington, and that’s how I like it. I kept on working.
“As long as one keeps working under whatever conditions, that’s what counts.”CP