Submerge founders are shaking up D.C.’s art scene

October 25, 2012

After a night of drinking, Brandon Hill and Peter Chang slid into a booth at Plato’s Diner in College Park with friends.

Hill had just graduated from the University of Maryland, and Chang was finishing up his senior year. Neither was putting his major to much use yet. Hill, with a graphic design degree, was shlepping from Towson to Baltimore every day to work in visitor services at the National Aquarium. Chang, living in a College Park group house, was working part time at the Burtonsville Hobby City.

Their real passions were what they did after work: Chang toured and competed with the All Ways Rockin’ Dance Crew, which he helped found. For Hill, it was art. He had begun experimenting with photo-realistic-style drawings and woodworking techniques he learned from his father, a carpenter.

“I built a sail,” says Hill, 29. “It was one of my first really nice wood pieces that had no [expletive] purpose in life but to exist.”

As they dug into the hamburgers, steak ’n’ cheeses and fries before them at Plato’s, the conversation turned to what qualifies as art. Earlier in the evening, Chang had leafed through a book that mentioned the 1960s performance artist Yves Klein. Some of Klein’s well-known pieces were made by dragging and pressing naked women covered in blue paint onto large canvases.

“When I saw it, I thought it was so dumb,” recalls Chang, 28. “Someone said, ‘It’s almost like you guys break-dancing with paint.’ All of us got silent.” He pauses. “I thought everyone was going to throw up.”

And that philosophical musing about Klein’s art has reverberated throughout Chang’s and Hill’s lives — and Washington’s — now for seven years.

***

Within weeks, Hill and Chang and his break-dancing buddies were gathered around a canvas at U-Md.’s art studio. As Chang blasted hip-hop from a small boombox, they threw back beers, wolfed down McDonald’s and kicked out designs. Their jeans, sweatpants and T-shirts soon became slathered in coats of acrylic.

They poured paint onto the sheet, then started break-dancing. They windmilled arms and legs, and crisscrossed their feet for hours, sneakers sliding in a rainbow of hues. It wasn’t long before they realized they could create certain patterns by using particular dance moves. “A quickstep, I know exactly what kind of pattern that creates with paint,” Hill says. “I know what air flares create with paint.

“It was like, ‘These guys are non-artists creating something that’s arguably higher than fine art.’ ” And Hill decided this art needed an audience.

But how to find it? No one had connections, so Hill started showing up at galleries — no appointments — with a binder of photos. Not surprisingly, in a world in which shows are often planned a year in advance and artists are vetted before meetings, there were no takers.

“For two months, we were going gallery to gallery,” Hill recalls. “That didn’t go anywhere. That’s not how art gets pitched. I just didn’t know.”

Rather than give up, Hill and Chang tried crashing exhibit openings and pitching venue directors and owners on the spot. Their first stop was the D.C. Arts Center, a nonprofit organization in Adams Morgan that exhibits emerging artists.

“They came up and said, ‘Will you look at this?’ I was in the middle of working at the opening,” recalls DCAC Executive Director B. Stanley.

But he decided to give the guys a shot. It wasn’t so much that their concept was novel — he had seen artists do something similar dragging bowling balls sliced in half. He respected their passionate, if slightly misguided, hunger.

The show, called “The Document,” exhibited over two weekends in August 2006. It featured a dozen smudged and splattered pieces, ranging from 4 by 4 feet to 9 by 12 feet. A respectable 75 guests came on opening night, a cross section from hip-hop, break-dance and skateboard crowds.

“The resulting abstract paintings are like the love child of a Jackson Pollock painting and a Levi’s ad: frantic streaks of paint and prints from hands, shoes and jeans pockets,”The Washington Post wrote.

No paintings were sold, but Stanley pushed the pair to think beyond the project, he says.

“ ‘What do you want to achieve with this? Do you want to impress your friends? Or do you want to create something that is going to have some forward momentum to it?’ That was stuff they weren’t thinking about yet. I think they thought, ‘This will make me an art star.’ Then what? I was more into the ‘Then what?’ Why should I care? They began thinking like that.”

The goal for Hill and Chang became getting their work in the public eye. Now all they needed to do was figure out how to go about it.

***

Hill and Chang pushed onward, landing shows at DCAC and at National Harbor’s Art Whino gallery, which promotes fresh talent. Their art evolved from the break-dancing canvases. Chang would go on to create a series of brightly painted wood blocks featuring prints of Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Hill would create portraits of musician Muddy Waters and others on skateboard decks. Their works would sell for $100 to $200.

Although their street cred was growing, it wasn’t enough to make ends meet. Chang held down a number of jobs, such as club promoting and marketing for Art Whino. Hill kept the National Aquarium gig.

After three years of doing art on the side, the pair decided they weren’t going to wait to be discovered by galleries — they were going to bypass them. Hill, Chang and Chang’s former Art Whino co-worker, Francisco Esteban, a painter and mixed-media artist, moved into a house in Fort Totten in 2009 and dedicated themselves to their art day and night.

They hatched events to promote themselves and other emerging artists. They called themselves the No Kings Collective, a reference to the three biblical kings and their three unique gifts. The “no” symbolized how they didn’t equate themselves with arts-scene bigwigs.

The No Kings launched their first happening in February 2010, getting the events blog ReadysetDC to promote it. A real estate broker lent them a split-level townhouse in Columbia Heights for a two-weekend temporary gallery featuring their work as well as pieces from seven area artists. It drew 600 attendees, even during the “snowpocalypse.”

Later that summer, another real estate agent asked them to create an event at the Josephine, a 20-unit condo building on Rhode Island Avenue NW, to drum up interest in the location. They turned 10 condos into micro-galleries for three weekends. Opening night had 1,400 people, mostly 20- and 30-somethings, including Capitol Hill wonks, bartenders and local art aficionados.

Their popularity was rising, but they were only breaking even. The No Kings were exhausted, with nothing to show for their efforts.

Were they artists? Event planners? Networkers?

“What we realized is that we turned into this monster marketing machine, but our ability to market is exponentially larger than what we’re marketing,” Hill says. “It almost seemed like we’re working backward.”

The No Kings took a hiatus. Hill went solo and landed a show. Chang supplemented his income by tending bar at the Dunes in Columbia Heights and promoting for ReadysetDC. Esteban moved to Gainesville, Va., and focused on his art.

The No Kings had lived up to their name.

Then Chang got a call in July 2011 from a friend working with a new group, Art All Night D.C. It was trying to create a one-night arts festival, Nuit Blanche DC, in the Gallery Place neighborhood. Would he be interested in hosting a soiree?

Chang called Hill. He was on board, but Esteban had bowed out for good.

“It really did take a toll on us as artists because it was the event, the event, the event,” Esteban says. “We would put art up at the events, but for me, I never felt like I had the time to concentrate on the art rather than the events.”

They called this latest bash Submerge. The name paid homage to the international contemporary art fair (E)merge, which had just been launched at the Capitol Skyline Hotel by Leigh Conner and Jamie Smith of Washington’s Conner Contemporary Art gallery (now Connersmith) and New York art promoter Helen Allen.

The focus was to make Submerge an after-hours event following (E)merge, not a distraction to it. Conner and Smith say there were no hard feelings about the No Kings’ decision to piggyback on their date.

“Is there room for people to exhibit at the same time and ride on the coattails of (E)merge? Sure,” Conner says.

Submerge featured a dozen area artists selected by the No Kings. There was a 12-foot, voluptuous woman’s torso by graffiti artist Asad Walker. An 18-foot “tree” made from household materials and found objects by Baltimore painter and sculptor Paul Mericle towered over the guests. Chang says about 9,000 guests stopped by the free event over the four days. (E)merge, according to Conner, counted 5,500 attendees who paid $15 to browse the 80 exhibitors, many international artists.

This time, Chang and Hill turned a profit, though they won’t say how much. They had gotten corporate sponsors, charged more for drinks.

Submerge would become an annual event, they decided. Or, as it sometimes went with Hill and Chang, whenever it happens.

This summer, they stood outside the site where they hope to have this year’s Submerge: a brick buildingtopped with barbed wire near Logan Circle. Chang pointed at it. “You know what I’m seeing right now, Brandon? I’m seeing from here — the PNC Bank — all the way to the other side of the block, just a mass of people. Every restaurant and bar in this area is going to love us.”

***

Painters and sculptors started lobbying for spots in this year’s Submerge festival, putting Chang — who likes to think of himself as an anonymous underdog — in an uncomfortable position. “Now that we’ve done these shows, people are like, ‘How can we get in the next show? Can you see some of my art?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not a gallery. I’m nobody. I don’t have an arts background. I just have an eye for what I like. That’s it.’ ”

Established movers in Washington’s hip arts scene started respecting their grit, if not their brand of art. Self-made arts “connector” Philippa Hughes of the Pink Line Project — whom, along with promoters Brightest Young Things, the No Kings count as competition — sees the No Kings as a work in progress.

“They’re definitely not organized, but they’re such hard workers,” she says. “I give them a ton of credit: They make stuff happen, and they’re out there a lot. A lot of people never figure it out and just talk about it.”

It’s more than the No Kings’ can-do spirit that impresses Michael Clements, who two years ago founded ArtJamz, a storefront in Dupont Circle where participatory painting parties are thrown. “The one word that comes to mind when I think about No Kings Collective and Peter and Brandon is just ‘authenticity.’ They’re real,” says Clements, who had the pair paint the storefront. “Their work remains consistent. ... They’ve stayed true to who they are as artists, but they’ve also been able to keep an artistic business alive without selling out.”

But will it last? B. Stanley points out that the duo is providing an outlet for those who get bored with mainstream art events, but is wary about the No Kings becoming victims of their own atypical archetype. They may be becoming big fish in the off-the-cuff arts events pond, but they’re still minnows in a city that houses such museums as the National Portrait Gallery and the Hirshhorn.

“There’s a lot of attraction to the DIY,” Stanley says. “But that’s also because most of the art scene is so boring anyway. To go around with a plastic glass full of half-decent wine while people stand around and talk is not what a lot of people want. They want a lot of stimulus. Especially today. Not just young people, people of all ages today — their attention span is really short. They’re not going to the Prado and walking around all day to look at El Greco. Despite how good El Greco is and being an alternative artist of his day, that’s not going to turn their crank. ... One of the dangers is that after several years [No Kings]’ll just be relegated to that.”

Not that the No Kings are stopping to ponder this; they’re too slammed. Their to-do list continues to expand in the ramp-up to Submerge, which will be held Nov. 10-18 in a building at 14th and P streets NW. That is, if the building permit comes through in time. In mid-October, Chang is worried that they may need to find another location.

Wherever Submerge ends up happening, the No Kings’ plan for it this year remains unchanged: They’ll feature fewer artists (10) and give each more room to showcase their work.

“We’ve knocked out a lot of [expletive] this year that more legitimizes it,” Hill says. “I’m not saying we weren’t legit. ... Now we’re more strategic about what we’re trying to do and where we’re trying to go.”

***

As the summer wore on, Hill and Chang picked up gigs as they could. Over the summer, Ora Nwabueze, owner of VeraCruz, a new gallery-bar hybrid off the U Street corridor, asked Chang to brainstorm the creative concept for the spot. Duties included suggesting paint schemes and lining up artists whose work will be shown on the bar walls on a rotating basis. Hill painted a 10-by-14-foot lucha libre wrestler torso by the bar.

The duo didn’t get paid for the work. Chang lives in Nwabueze’s basement gratis, and Hill gets all profits on any pieces sold through his “Tough Guys & Dames” exhibit.

“It’s all barter,” Chang explains. “It’s worth it for me to spend four or five days building this place out and then being able to use the space for free and being able to make five, six thousand dollars off of one night.”

A local sandwich chain, Taylor Gourmet, asked the pair to paint a mural at its Dupont location. In return, the business provided a supply stipend and $50 gift cards. The chain will also team with the duo to create a specialty hoagie that’ll be available during Submerge.

When asked what it’s like living on the verge, Chang bristles. “In the sense of ‘making it,’ we’re not wealthy, we’re not ballin’,” he says. “But when people ask how much we make, I say, ‘I eat when I want, I drink when I want, I pretty much do what I want.’ ”

But in August, Chang stopped bartending at the Dunes and took a full-time job with the offbeat deals Web site Scoutmob D.C. as an experiential event producer in September. The bulk of his duties will consist of creating unique events for in-the-know Washingtonians.

Sound familiar?

“It’s not really a problem,” says Hill. “His days are just a little longer. He starts a little earlier. Most of that [expletive] gets knocked out before noon, and then we’re back on the clock after that.”

***

One evening, after finishing brews at Churchkey, Hill and Chang head out to the hubbub of 14th Street. A tuxedoed waiter whisks by a nearby window, bearing a tray of hors d’oeuvres. It seems Fathom Creative’s art gallery is having an opening.

In seconds, a decision is made.

They don’t know who the event is for or what it’s about, but the never-say-never No Kings see an opportunity.

“Looks like they have a sign-in,” says Hill, devising a strategy to get them inside.

Moments later they’re breezing through the gallery door and climbing a set of stairs to see where their next artistic turn will take them.

Freelance writer Kris Coronado is a frequent contributor to the Magazine. Send comments about this story to wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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