Fred Folsom’s lost weekend lasted 13 years. For the last six of them, he was drinking in the Shepherd Park, a long-closed stripper bar that straddled the D.C.-Maryland line on Georgia Avenue. Since 1982, Folsom has been chronicling those days in “the Park,” painting seven huge, realistic tableaux filled with religious symbology and peopled with reeling drunks and idealized nudes. He has also done 35 portraits and smaller group studies based on the club. “I don’t figure stuff out fast. I puzzle over things for years,” he says.

A brand new Shepherd Park mural, Naked Lunch, will appear with most of the others at Folsom’s show at the Artists’ Museum, which runs to Sept. 29. The self-organized exhibition, he says, “is not a retrospective. A curator has to do that.” He is, however, showing about 83 paintings and drawings dating back to 1976. “Everything will be there, even [the pieces I’ve got stored away]” Folsom says. “You don’t want to be your own biggest collector.”

Scattered through the crowds of bikers, cops, and civil servants in the large canvases are historical figures, Washington notables, and bar regulars including, always, Folsom himself. His appearances are more Jackie Chan than Alfred Hitchcock: He painted himself taking a punch from Park regular Alan Schwartz in 1982’s The Fight, crawling up the bar, glasses askew in 1984’s The Reunion, and spilling beer in his lap in Last Call, the 20-foot triptych he finished in 1987. Folsom keeps bearing the brunt of the joke or the violence, he says, “because there’s got to be a fall guy in there.” The dancers stand impassively on their platforms, like working-class cousins of Vargas angels. Some are classically posed; all transcend their surroundings by being unaware of them. “I don’t paint the dancers dancing…so they’re protected. Naked is vulnerable, nude is not,” Folsom says. Within the paintings’ cosmology, “someone needs to be vulnerable, and I like playing the fool….I’m the one who doesn’t go home pleasantly drunk, the one who releases the tension.”

In 1990’s Happy Hour, Folsom abandons his courtly defense of the go-go dancers and trades his role as sacrificial lamb for some fire-and-brimstone action. The scene is based on a 1977 fire at Shepherd Park started by a patron who returned after a fight and threw gasoline and a match into the club. A beer truck blocked the emergency exit from the burning room: Fifteen people were injured and one died. Heaving a firebomb in the painting (past a startled young Rembrandt) is Fred Folsom.

The club closed in 1987, but Folsom never stopped gilding the Park in his trademark warm yellow light. That light is more celestial than ever in the 10-by-7-foot Naked Lunch—and the “dancer” more detached. The glowing point of a pyramid of figures, the blonde sits on the stage, shielding herself with one pulled-up leg, the other tucked under her. Fanned out beneath her are one harried waitress and 15 male patrons, but the dancer’s gaze is riveted on a handsome young man in a leather jacket front and center. A tableful of people who’ve given Folsom good reviews—including the Washington Post’s Henry Allen and Hank Burchard, and Channel 9’s Gordon Peterson—ignore the dancer and share a laugh in the direction of the waitress. She is taking money from the leather-jacketed man, who has a huge cloven hoof and a tiny horn. Behind the stage, George Custer eyes the blonde, and alone at a side table Folsom sketches the room. He has just swallowed his drawing ink instead of his whiskey, a gag Folsom cheerfully admits he stole from his first art hero, Jack Davis of Mad magazine.

Folsom grew up in Tenleytown, a few miles—but socioeconomic worlds away—from Shepherd Park. Son of a Justice Department lawyer and a copy editor at U.S. News and World Report, he struggled in school due to a later-diagnosed case of dyslexia. “When you have a disability, you act out. I was class clown…but one thing I always could do was draw,” he says. He went to Pratt Institute in New York in 1964, where he studied architecture and commercial art. At Pratt, he became friends with avant-garde playwright Robert Wilson (who appears in Last Call) and performed in Wilson’s first “theater movement piece.” Other classmates included Robert Mapplethorpe and Michael Clark, owner of the Georgetown gallery MOCA, formerly Clark and Co.

Along with the New York influences, Folsom was taking in prodigious amounts of alcohol. “My junior high-school science project was a still,” he says. Folsom kept refining his invention, until “by the time I was in college I had a nice 5-gallon job, nice gaskets, a nice copper worm….I had a still up ’til I was 25.” His moonshine was “close to 200 proof,” he says. “I used it for lighter fluid, too.”

He left Pratt in 1967, took a screenwriting course at the School of Visual Arts, and then drifted back to Washington. His painting during those years was “splashy abstract, then abstract expressionism, then impressionistic expressionism, then impressionism, ’til my friend came over and said, ‘Fred, try my glasses.’” Folsom was 24 when he put on the glasses, and then he “saw how each leaf had edges and veins. Everything had just been a smear before.” With the borrowed glasses, he began to draw every day, “starting with nudes and interiors.”

Throughout the early ’70s Folsom drew, worked menial jobs, and drank. “I’d get thoroughly drunk at home, then walk over and nurse a beer at the Park for 45 minutes.” Folsom recalls how the booze and the naked women awoke a primitive sense of competition: “Four hundred guys, one woman…it was easy to get in trouble there.” He explains how the bizarre group dynamic “made sense when you were drinking, because a drunk randomly smears his emotions. Everything’s intensified, either, ‘I love you man,’ or, ‘Don’t mess with me, man.’ All that emotion is random. Comes from nowhere, goes nowhere…so you could be thinking about how things are going with your girlfriend and crying while you’re watching the dancer.”

In 1975, Folsom quit drinking, got his own glasses, and began taking painting classes. He remained fascinated with the lost souls he’d passed the bottle with and painted affectionate portraits of men like the late Danny Robeson, a former St. Elizabeths patient who ran a local halfway house, and Norman Lane, a homeless man sheltered by a group of merchants in Silver Spring. In 1982, he ventured back into the Park and began painting his sprawling series. It was a few years after he had embraced Christianity, and all the paintings include allegorical symbols like spilled wine, dropped keys, Choice credit cards, and shadowy death’s heads.

Though Folsom’s first New York show was not until this summer, he is successful, even beloved, locally. Over the years, he has shown at Gallery K, Washington Project for the Arts, MOCA, and elsewhere, and was recently voted best painter in Washington by his peers in KOAN. Three of the Shepherd Park murals hang in the large Arlington home of Catholic (and catholic) collectors John and Dede Brough. Folsom shares wall space there with Lucian Freud, Beverly Semmes, Robert Longo, Andres Serrano, Roy Lichtenstein, Manon Cleary, and David Bates, as well as a huge Richard Phillips painting and a Philip Lorca DiCorcia photograph the Broughs picked up at the 1997 Whitney Biennial. John Brough, who teaches aesthetics in Georgetown University’s philosophy department, says Folsom’s work “illustrates Hegel’s view that painting can capture all aspects of humanity, including the spiritual.” Dede Brough adds, “Fred’s stuff is pretty tough, and he shows it all to us beautifully.”

Though they don’t own it, the enormous Last Call is in the Broughs’ basement. An Episcopal priest from North Carolina bought the painting for $80,000, even though he must drive hours to visit it. Folsom’s devoted fans, particularly the Christians among them, praise the warmth and forgiveness in his portraits. Folsom admits he puts no ironic distance between himself and the 300-pound bartender in the “Fuck Off” T-shirt, the girls woozily answering the call to “Show us your tits,” the tattooed Vietnam vet in the wheelchair. “I feel so tenderly toward those people,” he says. “I’d be embarrassed if people knew how tenderly, how prayerfully I put someone in these paintings.”

Though his favorite painters are Rembrandt and Vermeer, Folsom also admits a debt to Norman Rockwell. “I used to hate Rockwell, because I thought he told lies, like Walt Disney, and because I thought he had a formula,” Folsom says, but he now credits Rockwell for deftly solving the technical challenge of showing the emotional connections among groups of people. Though Folsom’s gritty subjects often appear isolated in their emotionally smeared moments, they smile, laugh, and mug at the viewer in a way that recalls the beloved illustrator’s kindly doctors and mischievous children. If biker mag Easy Rider were to go Saturday Evening Post and run whimsical illustrations of its dirtball readership, Folsom would be their man.

Folsom admits that “every American artist wants a show at the Whitney,” but knows that his work could hardly be less cutting-edge. Unlike the few realistic painters embraced in New York—among them Freud, Phillips, Elizabeth Peyton, and Hung Liu—Folsom paints sweet, not dour, and he is unfashionably straightforward besides. His subject is not the death of painting or the act of seeing but the struggles of the losers in the Park. It is with a mixture of resignation and pride that he admits, “I really am a regional artist. I love things particular to my community.”

Folsom says his 1980 conversion to Christianity was inevitable, that his “concern with Jesus was like something sticking to your sweater and you can’t get it off. I tried to reject it, say, ‘No, that’s archaic. I have no use for it,’ but it wouldn’t go away.” Since 1982, he has been married to a fellow Christian, calligrapher Rose Folsom. From his vantage point of emotional, physical, spiritual, and financial health, Fred Folsom’s fascination with the mélange at the Shepherd Park seems to hold a fair amount of “There but for the grace of God go I.” It’s as if painting the bar in enough photographic detail could help him see the reason he got out and so many others didn’t.

Though he says he’ll probably keep doing Shepherd Park paintings, new preoccupations are taking over in other works. Eros and Thanatos was spawned, he reports, when a friend remarked, “You get past 50 and that’s what it is, Eros and Thanatos. You’re facing death, and you know what love is.” In the 1996 painting, a naked woman sits on a trunk with a ring of keys in her hand, staring down and ignoring the skeleton reaching his arm around her shoulders. On the wall beside her is a broken pay phone. Unlike the Shepherd Park dancers, the subject is not idealized. Her flesh has a blue undertone, and her somewhat grim expression (behind glasses) telegraphs no clear emotional state. Folsom explains, “She’s saying [to the skeleton], ‘Yeah, I know you’re there. I know I’m going to die—but I’m not really going to die.’” He then points out how the phone signifies prayer. “The two halves of the receiver are connected with just one wire, so the conversation is one-way, just outgoing,” he says. “And it’s important that it’s a pay phone. Even though you can’t hear, you’re making the investment.”

Last year, at 51, Folsom began painting his first landscapes, which are forcing him to struggle with new aspects of depth and light. He has been spending more time in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia, where his daily run takes him to the top of a cliff. “One day,” he says, “the valley was overcast, everything was gray, when suddenly a sliver of light appeared in a cloud. And the Shenandoah River was lit up with this platinum light, and you couldn’t even see the source….I want to paint that light, and it’ll be years before I can.”CP