Attracted to the bright warm lights against the night shadows, artist Rick Biehl and a friend were strolling down 14th Street NW one Halloween night. Biehl suddenly realized, he says, that "this strip is not going to last" and so he set up a tripod to take photos of the area. It wasn't until "a guy walked up to me and said, 'you could get killed for just standing here taking pictures,' " that he remembered there was more to 14th Street than esthetic pleasure.
The silk-screen prints that followed pay tribute to the gritty, seedy side of Washington that will soon be prettified in the name of urban renewal. Take, for example, "Blue Moves," a night backdrop of cool, dark blues with red, yellow and white explosions of neon, fast-food joints and marquees. "Blue Moves" is 14th Street in all its unadulterated, unyuppied splendor.
Biehl is not the only artist to have found and documented beauty in the the overlooked, widely avoided and unrenovated pockets of the city. Several local artists, in fact, confess to an affection for neighborhood bars, fast-food stands and neon lights they can't find in Georgetown or Palisades.
Nancy McIntyre -- who has lived in, painted and silk-screened scenes of Capitol Hill and Shaw -- recognizes an antigentrification streak in her art.
"I like places that don't have a self-conscious look, or places with an unsophisticated sense of display . . . I used to live on the Hill, before all this . . . urban renewal," she said, emphasizing the last two words with distaste.
"Everytime I do a print of some place, it gets torn down," she lamented, citing the Capitol Hill barbershop that inspired "Barbershop Window," a print with 92 colors. The shop was closed and is now The Man in the Green Hat, a posh, three-martini lunch spot. Before she left Capitol Hill, McIntyre also captured the Tune Inn and the Hawk and Dove bars, and Cheryl's Bakery on Pennsylvania Avenue.
When she moved to Shaw, she found herself again trying to beat developers to the neighborhood. In her eight years in Shaw, she made silk-screen prints of the shoe repair shop on H Street, the tailor's at P and 11th streets and the flower shop on F Street, among others.
Like Biehl, McIntyre saw herself recording a piece of local lore, history and architecture soon to be irrevocably lost. And like Biehl, she saw her urban artwork treasuring "things that are not so prized."
Painter Val Lewton focuses especially on transitional neighborhoods, like Chinatown, that "metaphorically stand for change," although he says he loses interest in an area once it's completely made over. "New things are harder to paint," he says. "They don't present any patinas, but an old wall with stains . . . has character."
Documenting transition often involves "crazy juxtapositions where you get a collage of textures. For example, when they tear one building down it exposes another layer of building." In pursuit of such documentation, Lewton painted a former gas station on Ninth and H streets NW, first in its original state, then after it was abandoned, and finally right after the building was burned. He called the last painting "Esso's Last Stand."
Joseph Craig English, whose prints of grocery stores, Mister Donut shops and Little Taverns also portray some of the least glamorous landmarks of the Washington area, described his main reason for choosing these locations:
"I've been into these kinds of urban images for 15 years, and mainly what attracts me to a potential subject is color. Walk down F Street and look at the colors of the stores; they're painted blue and pink and green. It's exciting to look around. If you look at the new sections of town, you see what is missing -- color."
These artists say they rarely include Washington's monuments in their works, with notable exceptions: Biehl's screen print of the Capitol relegates the dome to the background, while cranes crowd the foreground. English included the Capitol in an acrylic painting of a North Capitol Street night scene, which silhouettes the street's row houses against red and white car lights.
Gallery directors say the strength of artists such as these is their avoidance of post card-perfect Washington scenes, and their affinity for locales that only insiders can recognize, love and appreciate.
Suzanne Whelton, director of the Jane Haslem Gallery, talks about McIntyre's work, which her gallery handles:
"Nancy takes what most people would think of as an unattractive storefront and makes you want to look inside," Whelton says, noting that many of McIntyre's prints of run-down districts sell to people "who probably wouldn't want to live in these areas."
What they want is "the feel of the city," whether the print's location is home to them or not.