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Artistic License
Discarded dentures, scorpion carcasses and plastic toy soldiers are all fodder for Lee Wheeler's bizarrely compelling bar art

By Tom Dunkel
Sunday, June 14, 2009

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

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.

"I love that map," says Trusty's co-owner Mark Menard. "Whether sober or [drunk], people just go over and stare at it."

Bars have provided Wheeler with so much work that he sometimes wishes he had more spare time to do his own sculpting and painting. Yet it's hard to turn down work that pays $60 an hour and comes with a tremendous amount of creative freedom. Wheeler regards these projects as "building-size sculptures," but do they really qualify as art? After all, customers head to the Rock & Roll Hotel or the Red & the Black in search of a good time, not visual stimulation.

"That's what art's about, isn't it?" says Wheeler's neighbor Danni Dawson, an accomplished sculptor and painter who teaches at the Art League School in Alexandria. "It's supposed to take you to a place you've never been to and that you won't forget." She contends that Wheeler is, indeed, the real deal, absolutely brimming over with "brilliant" ideas.

"The history of the world in ants!" exclaims Dawson. "Who would have thought of that?"

She's referring to a multi-piece hanging sculpture -- "assemblages" they're sometimes called -- that Wheeler created for the Insect Club. It highlighted real and fictional march-of-time moments, from the crucifixion of Jesus to Frankenstein's monster to spacewalks. But with a twist: no people. All the protagonists were handmade plastic ants.

***

Wheeler is showing a visitor his studio -- a riotously cluttered attic room in his south Arlington home that has the feel of a demented Santa's workshop -- when the urge strikes to make a confession.

"I've always wanted a prehensile tail since I was a kid," he says matter-of-factly, the way other middle-age guys might say they've always wanted to play center field for the Yankees. "It sort of goes along with the idea that if I wasn't a sculptor, I'd be a geneticist."

For some reason, what triggers that admission is a pair of post-breast-surgery, cosmetic nipples hang-ing on a nearby hook. They are factory sealed in the original see-through plastic. They resemble large, orange-colored Alka-Seltzer tablets. On a shelf across the studio -- over by Mason jars filled with mini billiard balls and carcasses of about a dozen dead scorpions -- is a small leather pouch, only it's not made of cowhide. It's fashioned from a kangaroo scrotum. Wheeler's wife, Mim, bought the pouch on a trip to Australia: the perfect thinking-of-you present for her husband.

He took it straight to the attic. "I like collecting stuff that people don't know what it is exactly, then when they find out, it freaks 'em out," Wheeler explains with audible pride.

The studio is his go-to lair, a source of inspiration that also doubles as a bottomless prop closet. Wheeler hoards whatever catches his fancy -- his fancy admittedly being warped. His collection is beyond eclectic. Here's a Chinese binding shoe. There's a vintage sideshow ticket to see the incredible Monkey Girl. Don't miss the soft-porn "Women in Waders" wall calendar, a novel combination of fly-fishing and flashed cleavage.

Friends donate oddball toys and bric-a-brac -- junk with soul. Wheeler scours back alleys and railroad tracks, haunts garage sales and thrift shops. He enjoys "repurposing things" in his art. Thus, the three extra-large mannequins found a home at the Rock & Roll Hotel. They're now anchored to the wall above the main bar, set at jaunty angles like figureheads on the prow of a ship. All three have a cow skull for a head. One is dressed in sexy red tights.

The two pairs of discarded dentures from the Kentucky State Penitentiary could be infinitely more difficult to place unless somebody opens a D.C. bar named "Teeth." No problem. Wheeler already repurposed one set of uppers as a barrette. It made a great Christmas gift for his sister Becky.

***

"He's very different."

That's Tom Wheeler's opinion of his eldest son, offered with the respect and admiration that have come to replace decades of parental frustration. Well into Lee's 20s, the two of them had a relationship that could best be described as a bad connection. Tom, a lineman for Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co., didn't understand what was going on inside that bubbling brain.

"Some of his art has a dark side," says Tom, now retired and living in Texas Hill Country. In fact, some of the early work seemed "pretty sick."

For years, Lee Wheeler was a puzzle made up of pieces that didn't quite fit. He grew up in Woodbridge, and by the time he attended Gar-Field High School realized he wasn't made for the buttoned-down world. Still isn't. "I don't understand why people go for the norm," Wheeler sighs.

His artistic streak came from his mother, Sue Crane, a cartographer and amateur painter. (Wheeler's parents are divorced.) Her style was, and is, upbeat; in Lee's words it's "bird of paradise sort of stuff." Meanwhile, he fell under the spell of hippie cartoonists Robert Crumb and Vaughn Bodé. After high school, Wheeler bounced around: working at a fish cannery in Alaska, taking art courses at the University of Anchorage and Northern Virginia Community College. Eventually, he enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, partly covering costs by becoming a tattoo artist. One of his clients was a one-eyed character named Neon Charlie. They cut a deal: Tat work in exchange for one of Charlie's spare eyeballs, which Wheeler turned into a nifty belt buckle that he still wears on special occasions.

Along the way, Wheeler paid his share of brooding-artist dues, wrecking three motorcycles in the process. He says he broke a leg and accumulated some serious road rashes, but didn't injure anybody but himself. It was stereotypical young-and-reckless behavior -- but taken to a dangerous extreme. "I spent most of my life hoping to do away with myself," Wheeler concedes. The clouds didn't begin to disperse until years later, when he sought professional help. He continues to see a therapist for what's been diagnosed as bipolar disorder. In his words, "A day without meds is like a day without sunshine."

In 1984, Wheeler graduated from VCU with an art degree and returned to the Washington area. Two things happened that turned his life around. First, he got a part-time job at a downtown Washington frame shop and met Mim Hipschen, the office manager. They've been married 18 years. She was able to look beyond the angst in his artwork and glimpse his inner funnyman.

"A lot of people see it as graphic, but it's not really," she says. "It's more his wit and his humor and satire."

The second fortuitous event came on a summer's day in 1989. Wheeler ducked into the 15 Minutes Club on 15th Street NW for a drink and got into a conversation with co-owner Steve Zarpas, who mentioned that the bar could use a few embellishments. Emboldened by a beer buzz, Wheeler boasted that he could paint an eye-popping mural in 24 hours. Zarpas took him up on the offer. Wheeler delivered the goods, but apparently while in a doomsday funk. The finished product, he says, was a futuristic tableau of "mechanical robot babies with skull heads."

Not exactly eat-drink-and-be-merry decor. Nonetheless, patrons dug it. So did Joe Englert, Zarpas's 15 Minutes Club business partner. Suddenly, Wheeler found himself on an unexpected career path. Englert has gone on to become a bonafide impresario, opening a seemingly endless string of quirky bars, the latest being H Street Country Club. He likes to come up with a theme, supervise its execution and then enlist co-investors to handle daily operations while he moves on to the next startup.

The secret ingredient in that business strategy is freelance jack-of-all-arts Lee Wheeler. According to Englert, "He is my right-brained man and the reason we have been so successful." They continually bat ideas back and forth. To Englert, the worst thing a bar or restaurant can be is predictable. That's why he puts such a premium on getting the ambiance just right and, in turn, monopolizes so much of Wheeler's time. "What's ironic," Englert says, "is some of the best art in D.C. is in the bars."

Wheeler has taken his game to another level at H Street Country Club, which opened May 27. Englert envisioned a seedy, fallen-on-hard-times faux golf club. "I never thought it would be this detailed," Englert says. "Lee made it richer and livelier," the Augusta National of miniature golf courses.

While his imagination may run wild, Wheeler operates methodically, habitually doodling and jotting notes. For the Marion Barry sculpture, he did a preliminary to-scale sketch on graph paper, as well as a color drawing that's suitable for framing.

A few weeks before the installation date, Wheeler hunkered down in his backyard workshop. The raw material he chose was lightweight, two-inch-thick, easy-to-repair extruded polystyrene, more commonly known as Styrofoam. (Easy to repair being critically important when you place a sculpture in close proximity to people who have a drink in one hand and a golf club in the other.)

Before shaping the Styrofoam with a utility knife, back saws and a pliable hacksaw blade, Wheeler sprayed his clothes with Static Guard. That might have worked wonders if he were trying to keep his skirt from bunching up. Unfortunately, Static Guard proved useless as a Styrofoam repellent. As soon as the serious cutting got underway, a snowstorm of white flakes filled the air, covering Wheeler.

"This is why I would love to do this in a warehouse," he muttered to a guest watching his creative process. "My wife tends not to like the mess, but she understands."

Earlier, Wheeler had downloaded a handful of Barry photographs from the Internet and taped them to the wall of his workshop. The sculpting was done in stages. Wheeler, who's adept at visualizing objects in three dimensions, equates the process to producing a topographical map of someone. After sawing off a chunk of Styrofoam roughly three feet by four feet, he drew Barry's face on top with a felt pen. It took about an hour to get the look he wanted. Next, he cut eight more sheets, each progressively smaller and encompassing fewer features. The last layer, not much bigger than a deck of cards, would become Barry's nose.

"He's got this real distinctive brow. It reminds me of the American eagle," said Wheeler, alternately eyeing the wall photos and trimming Styrofoam.

Once satisfied with his rough cutting, he glued the layers together with spray adhesive, then reached for his hacksaw blade to round contours and sharpen lines. It was like doing plastic surgery without malpractice pressure. To make the sculpture more durable, he later applied a topcoat of fiberglass, a step that required a hazmat suit.

Over the course of two years, Wheeler estimates, he has devoted some 3,000 hours to H Street Country Club. It shows. The staircase leading to the second-floor golf course is lit by a flock of surreal birdhouse lamps. Ornamental squirrels with golf balls stuffed in their mouths cling to the walls. Even the insects are back: Two dioramas hanging near the kitchen show an ant colony thriving underneath a fairway.

Not every idea made it off the drawing board. The Arlington National Cemetery golf hole was scratched: It seemed profane to have putts ricocheting off fake tombstones. Wheeler thought of doing a wall painting of the iconic Iwo Jima Memorial, only with rats raising the American flag. Englert nixed that. Likewise, the "Iwo Jemima" parody with soldiers standing atop a mountain of pancakes.

Wheeler wound up painting a plain, black silhouette of the Iwo Jima Memorial. Then came a bolt of inspiration: He turned it into a mosaic, gluing 1,500 plastic soldiers within the outline of the silhouette.

"I started thinking it's not about just those four guys who raised the flag," Wheeler says. "It pays homage to all the others who backed up that big moment."

Not many bars make such sober visual statements. Not many miniature golf courses traffic in symbolism. But Wheeler likes to mix highbrow with lowbrow.

"He really can do anything," says Martina Pelot, a young artist assisting him with detail work. She talks about Wheeler while putting a last coat of paint on the Washington Monument. It's the ninth and final hole, adjacent to the Marion Barry hole and overlooking a Lilliputian U Street corridor, complete with a tiny Lincoln Theatre and itsy-bitsy Ben's Chili Bowl.

"Once people start boozing, who knows," says Pelot. "But hopefully they'll notice the artwork and realize how much time it took to do."

***

Joe Englert is waiting on the putting green as the pieces of the Barry sculpture are carried into the bar and wrestled into place at the eighth hole. To evoke the tarnished-metal look of the "Awakening," Wheeler used aluminum-colored paint with an ebony stain chaser. The face is spot-on Marion Barry in stately repose. This could be his death mask, presuming Barry hits a late growth spurt and dies 15 feet tall. The golf cup sits by his left ear.

"Spectacular, Lee!" exclaims Englert.

"Ohmigod, this feels good," replies Wheeler, huffing from lugging Barry's jumbo head up the long flight of stairs.

"This could be on everyone's to-do list along with the Air and Space Museum and Washington Monument," Englert gushes. "I'm serious."

Wheeler and his artist friend Paul Lucchesi ponder how best to secure the sculpture, otherwise known as "drunk-proofing" it. They settle on a combination of lag screws and heavy-duty Liquid Nails.

Most of the golf holes are complete. (The fourth plays toughest. It's a killer trying to putt a ball up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.) Wheeler improvised a clever backdrop for the second-floor bar, buying 2,000 used golf balls and pouring them behind clear, Thermopane panels. The Wall of Balls is framed by cubbyholes stuffed with curios, some of them -- like the fake shrunken head, raccoon skull and biography of Lobster Boy -- pinched from his attic studio.

Steve Fleming, the day manager at Rock & Roll Hotel, gazes around the room. A miniature golf masterpiece. Some truly kick-ass bar art. "I can't wait for the back nine," he jokes.

In fact, Wheeler has already scoped out a utility closet by the Washington Monument. There's room, he says, to construct a staircase. And up on the roof, plenty of space to expand to 18 holes.

Tom Dunkel, a Baltimore-based freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to the Magazine. He can be reached at tom@tomdunkel.com.

***

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