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'Art Man' Bryant K. Adams seeks to beautify D.C. through found art

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; C01

You've probably seen the "Art Man" whizzing around D.C. on a vintage bicycle, with a blue child's chair attached to a six-foot-high pole attached to his bicycle seat. Like a flag, the little blue chair sways in the draft. The chair and the Art Man dodge in and out of traffic.

The chair riding high above all.

The Art Man, speeding down the street, oblivious to stares, on some kind of mission.

People fixate on the Art Man in his black French beret, World War II goggles, white doctor's coat covered in paint, hands covered in paint, boots covered in paint.

There he goes down Martin Luther King Boulevard past Good Hope Road.

And watch: He's stopping at that blue horse standing outside an art gallery on W Street SE. Across the street from the Big Chair, that famous Anacostia landmark.

The Art Man turns the key to the rented space where his I Am Art Experience Gallery is located and goes inside where more mystery lies. He moves through his studio explaining things. In the corner are three sculptures of women sitting cross-legged. The sculptures are made of foil and are actual molds and imprints of real women. "I can't tell you how I got the real women out of there," says the Art Man, whose real name is Bryant K. Adams.

Adams is a former cafe owner and former trucking company owner who is now devoting his attention to creating street art to beautify this city. Make people think. Cut into the dullness of routine, draw in the curiosity of youth, spread art so far and wide in this city that people's minds are expanded. Because if you are thinking about art, you can't be doing much wrong.

He has constructed art for public viewing throughout the city: another blue chair on a pole, this one attached to a bike in the front yard of a house in Northwest; a ladder swinging from the top of an abandoned building in Southeast; an arrangement of suicide-prevention poles from a bridge in a field in Northeast. Screeching in the wind. People drive by and wonder: "What in the hell is that? Who in the hell is putting this stuff up around the city?" The Hill Rag ran a short series of articles asking about the "mystery chair" that Adams installed in a vacant field. "Who put up the mystery chair?" the headline asked.

Throughout the city, Adams has pasted photos of himself proclaiming: "I AM ART." On paint cans, coffee cups, utility boxes, all prompting one person to ask on the New Columbia Heights blog: "Lately I've noticed a lot of these stickers around the neighborhood -- it's a guy in goggles with the caption 'I AM ART.' They're kind of neat, though I'm not an art expert so I'm not sure who is depicted -- or if it's a famous person at all. Anybody able to enlighten me?"

That is exactly the kind of question Adams wants people to ask: Who is he? What does he want? Who is the mystery man obsessed with spreading art.

"I want people to elevate their minds," he says. He is sitting in a coffee shop on H Street NE. He is covered in paint, a walking Matisse. He dresses this way all the time because that is how an artist should dress, he says. Even when he goes to church.

. He lives and breathes art. "I am in my zone. I like to maintain my zone, occupying a certain space in order to create," he explains. "No matter the weather change, certain seasons, I have to keep my mind in certain space. Like a form of meditation. I can't change. Just because my location changes, my mind doesn't change. I keep all my clothes covered in paint, because I'm always studying, always creating, covered in metal shavings and wood shavings. I have spoken to a couple of friends at church; they ask me why I come to church like that. I talked about maintaining the zone."

"It makes people think. I Am Art's mission is to encourage the community to use a higher percentage of their mind," he says. "Whatever percentage you are using now, you can use more. Whatever you are doing, you can do it better. "

A thinking man

In his gallery in Southeast stands a mannequin of a woman. Her left leg is missing. In its place, he attached a bicycle wheel.

A few feet beyond that is the bottom of a mannequin. On top, he attached a handle bar. "This, I call 'Get a Grip on Life.' "

The gallery is lined with old bicycles. Upstairs, there are rooms full of fallen leaves and swings attached to ceilings, from which white parachutes billow. And shoes carved from old roof rafters. And art installations in rooms containing lonely rocking chairs sitting in corners. And black-and-white photos of the Art Man frozen in a running pose on the bank of the Anacostia River, and in an abandoned house with its roof missing, in front of a gushing water main break. "I call that my 'Thinking Man' pose."

The Art Man is talking.

"The time and the ability to think, that is the freedom of all men, to be able to think. This is how I came up with the idea of using foil: I thought foil wraps a hot dog well. It can also wrap the body. It catches light and some darkness and represents how fragile. FRAGILE!" he shouts. "It represents how fragile life is."

The three foil sculptures sit on the floor of the gallery. One is lying on the coiled springs of a rusted mattress, as if it were waiting.

Possibility everywhere

His collaborator, Steven M. Cummings, an art photographer and grad student at the Maryland Institute College of Art who owns a studio in Northeast, is explaining how much Adams is obsessed with art. When Cummings, 44, met Adams last summer at an open house in Anacostia, he was impressed by the artist's mission, his creativity, his need to live and breathe art. The artist and the photographer became almost inseparable, each encouraging the other to push his work beyond self-imposed limits.

"I've learned so much about art from dealing with him," Cummings says. "I thought this [Adams's] work should be seen. It's got to be seen."

Adams lives in a Never Never Land of art, obsessed the things he finds -- things some would call junk -- and making them beautiful and then putting them in places that might otherwise be ugly, desolate and neglected. And then he watches as other people look at what he has created. There is glee as he sees people's reactions: puzzled at first, and then they either get it or they don't.

There are people among us who see possibility everywhere. You see bicycles, and they see limbs. You see discarded store mannequins, and they see veterans returning from war. You see an abandoned building in Southeast, and they see a way to climb to the top, install a pipe and bind a ladder to that pipe so it swings in the wind.

You see graffiti, and they see poetry. You see junk, and they see the most beautiful pieces of sculpture.

You are cold, and they are oblivious to the wind chill and walk across the field as if they are on a mission, intent on completing the art installation before dark.

"It's not fake," says Cummings, walking through the I Am Art Experience Gallery. "He lives this thing. It's rare you find someone willing to starve for art."

Adams says sometimes he literally starves for his art. "There are days when I don't have a dime in my pocket, but somehow I make it." He sells his art at the gallery and at Busboys and Poets, a restaurant on Fifth and K streets NW, where it's on exhibit.

Sometimes a piece will go for $300. Sometimes a piece will sell for $1,000. All told, he doesn't make much.

Cummings is talking to a reporter about an NFL playoff game and the interception Brett Favre just threw.

Adams interjects: "And who is Brett Favre?"

A creative haven

Adams, who says he is in his mid-30s, is a self-taught artist. He grew up the third of five children. His mother works as a court clerk. . His father is a retired firefighter. Adams grew up in Brookland, near Catholic University, and graduated from Calvin Coolidge High School.

"It looked like a perfect neighborhood, but the worst things happened there," he recalls. Odd things happened. "My friends were shot. The one who was slightly shot in the arm died. The next guy got shot eight times and he's still living. I learned if you wake up and you live and you have a blessing to be able to live, if you choose to be happy, you can leave a legacy with people."

"One hundred percent of his time now is geared toward art," says his wife, Donna Adams. Last year, he went full time as an artist, she says. "The art was always there. When he was doing other things, it was taking away from his art. He wasn't happy." She supports herself and the couple's two sons, ages 6 and 4, with her income as a radiographer.

Adams's creative haven is a big, white Victorian house on Maple View Place SE, which he uses as a studio. The house is covered by a fraying blue tarp that looks like blue Spanish moss. It stands on a hill, with marvelous poise. From behind its original polished glass windows, you can see the Capitol below and other Victorians. And you can see the remains of the grandeur that Anacostia once exhibited.

Leading from the curb to the house, with its big wraparound porch, are broken chunks of a concrete sidewalk, torn up by Adams and rearranged as if they were a rock path leading to a river. Looking at the path, you can see that he is an artist, someone who sees the world and wants to rearrange it.

There is art in the front yard, art in the side yard, art in the back yard. The "Fire House," "The Chair That I Talk to My God," "The Resurrection," "The World Chasing Its Tail."

Serious question: What does your wife think of your art? "This is my house. My wife has her own house," in Suitland, where the Art Man lives, too. He usually stays with his wife, but sometimes he gets lost in his art and simply stays at the Victorian house on Maple View, with its gaping roof, because he needs his space to create art.

His wife has patience. "His type of art, I would die if I had it in my house. I'm a more modern person. I'm the total opposite of him. I know he loves what he does. I love what he does. It makes him happy. That is part of being married, that compromise. It is not always the way you want it to be.

"Maple View is the place where he can be free to do what he wants to do without me saying, 'I don't want that there.' That is why we got Maple View," she says. "The purpose and plans were so he could have a space to do what he wants to do."

In the Victorian house, there is no door to the bathroom. Adams didn't want one. Instead, there is glass paneling. And inside the bathroom, vines are growing on the wall. It's a thing of beauty, like one of those eccentric bathrooms you see in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, with the concept of bringing the outdoors inside. Except in this bathroom, it is literally true. The window will never be fixed.

In the back of the house, in the kitchen, you stand at a sink Adams has installed. You look up and you can see a blue sky peeking through a gaping roof. Much of the roof is gone. But Adams isn't worried about that. First things first. He wants you to see a vintage antique stove he bought at a garage sale. He lifts an iron plate. This is from the '20s or '30s. In the corner is a box of pebbles from an aquarium. The pebbles are beautiful. And somehow looking at the pebbles and the paintings on the wall, you begin to see the house's original beauty and not all its imperfections.

It was through these windows that schoolkids peered, wondering what Adams was doing in there, turning bicycles into sculptures. They started calling him "Art Man." And he liked the title.

Eye of the beholder

Traffic whizzes by a vacant lot at Third and H streets NE, where Adams is picking up poles that once formed a suicide-prevention fence across a bridge. Adams has painted the poles yellow and is inserting them in a straight line.

What is this called again?

"This is the 'Bridge of Leadership.' "

"Why in this spot?"

"There is nothing like having a field like this to display art in," he says. "It encourages the city to take a field like this that is not attractive, and while it is available to use it for art. Make the city beautiful."

The wind whips. You drive away from the field, a field that you paid no attention to before, and you notice that the weeds seem to have reduced themselves, and in the middle of the field, there is the line of yellow poles. You squint and you can see it: It is a bridge of leadership. And just like that, in the middle of a busy day, in the middle of a field, the mind has been elevated.

browndl@washpost.com

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