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Artistic License: Lee Wheeler's Unique Style Graces D.C. Bars and Clubs

Arlington artist Lee Wheeler mixes whimsy with the unconventional to create compelling bar art.

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By Tom Dunkel
Sunday, June 14, 2009

The bed is packed with precious cargo: body parts -- specifically, pieces of Marion Barry.

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Wheeler, a 49-year-old artist with a flair for the offbeat, has made a super-size sculpture of Barry from what looks like solid silver, but is actually painted Styrofoam. It was commissioned by the owners of H Street Country Club, a funky new bar and restaurant that comes complete with an indoor miniature golf course.

Wheeler designed the nine-hole course, relying heavily on local landmarks such as the Springfield Mixing Bowl and a replica of the Washington Monument. But Barry -- the indefatigable civil rights leader, disgraced mayor, born-again city councilman and tax amnesiac -- also leaped to mind. His turbulent life reminded Wheeler of the gigantic "Awakening" figure that used to grace the tip of Hains Point.

"There's a lot of Barry in that sculpture," Wheeler says. "Combining the two seemed natural to me." Now his vision of Barry is about to be installed at the bar's eighth hole -- a different kind of immortality for a different kind of politician. Barry will be depicted rising from beneath the putting green, figuratively clawing his way back from adversity.

A half-dozen H Street Country Club employees and friends gather on the sidewalk on an afternoon in May, eager to help. They grab Barry's huge appendages from the truck and tote them inside. Left hand. Left leg. Right arm.

Wheeler reaches behind the front seat of his truck. Out comes a massive silver head, three feet long from chin to hairline. He prefers carrying this bit of Barry into H Street Country Club all by himself.

"I wouldn't trust it to anybody else."

***

Lee Wheeler is likely the city's only full-time bar artiste. A sculptor, painter and illustrator, he looks the part -- sporting a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey wisp of gray goatee. His customary business attire is a baseball cap, a T-shirt and paint-splattered pants.

Wheeler's handiwork has graced nearly two dozen local watering holes, from the dear departed Insect Club, 15 Minutes Club and Crow Bar to the still-hopping Big Hunt and 18th Amendment. Of late, the Atlas District along H Street NE has been keeping him busy. He has helped transform a series of forlorn storefronts into the Rock & Roll Hotel, the Red & the Black, the Argonaut and the Palace of Wonders. His involvement is top-to-bottom, encompassing everything from helping to develop the overall concept to making collages that adorn restroom walls.

A drinking tour of Wheeler's work might start at the 18th Amendment on Capitol Hill, where he crafted a long, classy bar out of inlaid light-and-dark plywood. It looks like a high-end backgammon board that can seat 40 players. Wheeler rates that his most "polished" piece of bar art. On the opposite wall, he switched gears and painted a bawdy mural of a satyr chasing a buxom blonde across a meadow.

Other potential tour stops: the rear patio at the Red & the Black, where the cement bar and benches evoke a New Orleans cemetery crypt; the Rock & Roll Hotel, which features guitars with angel's wings suspended from the ceiling, and a photo gallery with faces of rock stars superimposed on the bodies of famous presidents; and Trusty's on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, done up in the gritty style of a roadside gasoline station. A map of the continental United States dominates one wall of Trusty's. All 48 states are in their proper places, but Wheeler monkeyed with the fine-print geography. Roads and cities have been bumped up a few notches in size or transplanted from, say, Oregon to California. Think Rand McNally on drugs.


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