Temporary art: Meet the guy who makes those elaborate, irreverent works of chalk art you've seen at bars around the city
Patrick Owens was frustrated. As the bar manager for Bourbon's Adams Morgan location, he noticed more and more chalkboard stands on the 18th Street sidewalk advertising drink specials with bland happy hour cliches rendered in slapdash lettering. The lack of effort perturbed him. "It's a defeatist attitude: 'Oh, it's just going to get wiped away, so we don't need to make it look nice at all,'" he said.
It was a mind-set Owens couldn't relate to. During art class at Fairfax's W.T. Woodson High School, he had been the student who would take a five-minute drawing exercise and work on it for the entire period. "The teacher was really impressed," he recalls, "but she was like, 'You kind of missed the point.'" His emphasis has been to put as much effort as possible into his creative endeavors -- no matter the shelf life.
So, although other bar managers seemed apathetic about the outdoor signs, Owens, 31, saw an opportunity to stand out. "It popped in my head," he says: "What if I put an insane amount of effort into it?"
When it came time to switch the outdoor board on a spring afternoon in 2008, he let loose: Using Crayola chalk, he spent three hours sketching and shading an intricate depiction of a stag before a blazing sunset with the beckoning word "Open." The intentionally cheesy subject matter was an homage to Bourbon's bartenders, who have matching tattoos of the animal. He proudly set the board atop four barrels outside the bar.
But when Owens returned to work the next afternoon, he was met by a guilt-stricken co-worker. The staff had put the board out again that morning, only to have it fall victim to an unforeseen rainstorm. Once Owens got over his initial disappointment, however, the ruined illustration represented a fresh start. "It was like, 'Oh, well, back to the drawing board,'" he says. Before long, his artwork was a regular fixture along the sidewalks of Adams Morgan.
Others might be frustrated working in the impermanent, fragile medium that is chalk art, but not Owens. "That's what made it special," he says. "The impending doom of it." It's a concept he's familiar with as a bartender: He's used to watching his creations disappear in a few gulps.
Following the demise of the stag illustration, Owens began sketching his next dusty creation behind the bar during slow hours of the day. It was a convincing replica of Grant Wood's "American Gothic" -- except that the heads of the stoic man and woman were replaced by those of a buck and doe. His first work had taken three hours; this one took 15.
Owens unveiled a new piece every month or so, replacing the boards when they became too weathered or smudged by the fingerprints of passersby. Other than taking a few undergraduate classes at George Mason University, he has developed his freehand style by himself. There was "Epic," a rendering of a stag proudly riding bareback on an owl/horse/cobra hybrid framed by the phrase "If you think this is epic, try our cocktails."
"The Brunching" depicts a child confronted by ominous twin eggs at the end of a long hallway (a nod to "The Shining"). His drawing of the snarling, horned skull featured on the metal band Danzig's 1988 self-titled album solicited the strongest reaction -- one patron sought out Owens at the bar and told him, "I saw that and knew this was the place to go."
Of the eight sidewalk boards he drew for Bourbon, "Epic" is the only one still in use at the bar. Though Owens left for a bartending job at Jaleo in March, Bourbon vice president Stephen King says he'd love to have Owens fashion more chalk work -- but King will have to wait his turn. Other establishments have been approaching Owens about his art.
His freelance work has ranged from a simple board listing pool table rates at Breadsoda in Glover Park to a 4-by-2-foot champagne glass that has served as an elegant bar backdrop at the Gibson since last summer. Currently, he charges $25 to $30 an hour or a flat fee that's agreed upon with each establishment.