(Original publication date: Oct. 14, 2001)
The van is parked at the CVS drugstore on Spout Run Parkway. Artist John Grazier huddles inside, eating rice pudding from the all-night grocery and downing it with Busch beer. He’ll sleep here tonight, scrunched up on the brown shag rug on the floor, though he knows he won’t get much rest. “I keep worrying I’m going to roll over on the paintings.”
The paintings are why he’s here. They’re why, a week ago, he drove 220 miles from his home near State College, Pa., where the rent is due, his two children need to be fed, and he’s got less than $13 in the bank. He has no other job, no other paycheck to meet the bills. His entire income, what little of it there is, comes from his art.
He needs to sell a painting.
Three of them lie, wrapped in blankets, on the floor beside him. He knows they are the only thing that can save him from absolute destitution.
For the last seven days, he’s been cold-calling Washington’s A-list of law firms, entrepreneurs, journalists and deal-makers, trying to peddle the paintings. But it hasn’t been going well. He’s kept a tally of this direct-marketing campaign in chicken-scratch handwriting as elongated, thin and exhausted-looking as he is:
ANALYSIS OF SALES ATTEMPTS:
Number of firms e-mailed — 34
Negative phone response — 16
Friendly phone response — 13
Expressions of interest — 5
Private viewings — 3
Sales — 0
When he’s feeling optimistic, he looks at the “13.”
When he’s feeling like failure — and these days, that’s most of the time -- he stares at that “0.”
He’s 55 years old, and he’s still the gifted-but-starving artist. Still living at the edge. Still believing his creations will “be worth a fortune someday.” Still sleeping in his van.
“I think a museum should give me a one-man show,” he announces one afternoon while driving his bright red 1966 GMC Handi-Van down Connecticut Avenue.
“I think the Corcoran should give me a one-man show. It’s been a long time since I had a museum exhibition.” He pauses for a red light, then turns left slowly. The speedometer in the van is busted. So are the horn, the radio and the gas gauge. Behind the driver’s seat are his navy blue sport coat, and his one pair of good shoes -- tan loafers.
“But the guy at the Corcoran doesn’t like me. They say: ‘Yeah. We know who you are. And you’re annoying.’ “
“Well.” He downshifts angrily and starts talking faster, as though the curator of the Corcoran is actually in the van. “Maybe I’ll just have a show at the National Gallery of Art instead of you.” He tosses his head. “Screw you.”
He knows that, in the sometimes savage subculture of D.C.’s art world, he is the crazy old uncle — the 6-foot-tall, slightly deaf man with ice-blue eyes and several missing teeth. He is so gaunt, even his nose looks skinny, and his middle-aged, salt-and-pepper hair has the same messy appearance as a 5-year-old who just got up from a nap. Someone once told him he looks like Clint Eastwood, but he thinks he’s more like Nicolas Cage.
He lives at the fringe, shunned by galleries and dealers who grew tired of his quirks and neediness years ago. In a world soaked in eccentricity and skewed perspectives, John Grazier is the ultimate at being strange. He swings from bouts of homelessness to raking in $100,000 commissions. When he’s down, he paints on the living room floors of friends’ houses -- with no easel, no chair and no dropcloth.
And because he can’t rely on others to sell his paintings, he does it himself, like some Wild West art cowboy, blazing trails in his Handi-Van, hawking pictures and making small bursts of money. When he gets flat broke, like now, to the point where he doesn’t have two quarters to feed a D.C. parking meter, he starts making phone calls and office visits. He does a tremendous job at selling his own stuff -- better than most artists in Washington, says one gallery owner.
Of course, that’s probably because no other artist in D.C. does it the way he does. And while it would be easy to dismiss Grazier as a kook, the truth is: The guy is good. He’s legit. He has achieved, over the last three decades, some astonishing and giddy successes.
He had his first show when he was 26, at the Baltimore Museum of Art. From the beginning, art critics raved about his work. The Washington Star called it “magnificent,” and The Washington Post proclaimed, “He is an artist to be watched.” When he was still in art school, he brought his drawings into one of the most venerated art houses in the city, the since-closed Fendrick Gallery. Post art critic Jo Ann Lewis happened to be there, reviewing the current exhibition. But her published piece advised readers to skip the stuff on the walls, and ask to see John Grazier’s drawings. He’s in the permanent collections at both the National Museum of American Art and the Library of Congress -- and he was once represented by some of the most respected art dealers in the world, including Harry Lunn, the man who made Ansel Adams famous. Along the way, though, Grazier has ticked off everyone he’s ever worked with. Which has left him absolutely alone.
Back in the van, Grazier starts thinking: “What am I doing wrong? — because everybody, from guards to people I see in elevators, has responded so favorably to my paintings.” Earlier in the week, he had slipped his navy sport coat over his T-shirt and jeans, put on his tan loafers and visited three of the city’s most venerable law firms — big, impressive places where secretaries speak in clipped consonants, the partners wear French cuffs and Italian heels, and the office air is hushed and chilled. In one of them, Nixon Peabody on Ninth Street, one of his large drawings from the mid-’70s hung framed in the lobby. He was thrilled. This was a sign. He dropped off his paintings and eagerly came back 45 minutes later only to discover: He’d sold nothing.
At Hogan & Hartson, one of the managing partners liked the largest picture, “The Visitor,” an off-kilter, 4-foot-by-3-foot painting of a Victorian front porch and a brown suitcase left by the door. The sky is a lurid, royal blue. There are no people — there are rarely people in Grazier’s pictures — but the colors are vivid, and the style surrealistic. Much of his work appears to be seen through the eyes of a lonely and frightened child. The perspective is never head-on. The viewer often looks at a scene that’s all angles and exaggerations.
But Hogan & Hartson’s office manager told Grazier he couldn’t spend more than $7,000. Grazier was asking $18,000. Later, in the offices of sports agent David Falk, who has represented Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Allen Iverson, a young security guard pointed to “The Visitor” and said, “I love this picture.” But Falk couldn’t see Grazier because he was traveling, said his secretary. Not that it really mattered, Grazier scoffed later, in a weak, discouraged moment. “He’s more interested in signed basketballs than art.” And the phone has yet to ring with power lawyer Abbe Lowell on the line, returning his calls. Grazier expects that Lowell is “probably too busy with Gary Condit.”
Yet, all sarcastic excuses aside, the glaring “0” next to “sales” on his analysis list bothers him. The trip has been, he berates himself, a “failure” because “there was no check handed to me. And that’s what I wanted.”
So before he goes to sleep in the back of the Handi-Van, he makes a painful decision: It’s time to lower his prices.
* * *
Next morning at 8 o’clock, Grazier drives into Adams Morgan, to his friend Wallace Dickson’s sunny and sumptuously decorated two-bedroom apartment. He takes a shower and a few deep breaths, then goes to the kitchen and picks up the phone. He calls some of the law firms he had visited earlier in the week and leaves messages.
“The market determines the price, not my egotism,” he says in his deep, wheedling voice as he gives the good news: He’s having a sale on Graziers. Then he slouches into a black Chinese Chippendale chair in the dining room and waits for someone to call back.
The phone rings. Grazier answers it, listens carefully, then hangs up. “That was Arent Fox,” he says. “They said, ‘Call Monday. The director of facilities isn’t in until Monday.’ “ The phone rings again. Nixon Peabody. “Another ‘No,’ “ Grazier says as he hangs up. “I really wish I could get somebody to see me today, damn it.”
He slouches lower for a moment, then begins flipping through a tall stack of 3x5 cards. He lands on WETA’s phone number, stands up, calls and asks for Jim Lehrer’s secretary, whom he’s known for a long time, ever since Lehrer bought one of Grazier’s drawings of a Greyhound bus. When she comes to the phone, he asks if she knows any rich people -- potentially wealthy collectors he hasn’t yet tried. He hopes to persuade rich people to collect his stuff, and he returns the favor: He collects their names.
He winds up with Washington developer Conrad Cafritz’s number and dials it immediately. “Hi. It’s John Grazier,” he tells the receptionist. “I’m an artist here in town.” He is put on hold, and while he waits, he covers the phone with his hand and rolls his eyes. “The music,” he announces sardonically, “is Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man.’ “ He finally gets through to Cafritz’s voice mail. He listens, then hangs up. Cafritz, he says in a small voice, “sounds like a very, very, very powerful man. I don’t leave messages for those men. You have to talk to them in person.”
The room is silent except for the classical music whispering from Dickson’s home office, where he is working on the computer. Grazier sits down again in the dining room, next to one of his 1974 drawings, “The Meadow Porch,” which hangs on the wall. He bangs down his hand.
“I want this to be a productive day,” he grumbles. “I want something to happen.”
The phone rings again. It’s the guy from Hogan & Hartson. Grazier launches into his spiel:
“Bob,” he says, trying not to sound too desperate. “Let’s be very realistic about prices. You like my work ... And I have to sell some art.”
* * *
Nobody does this. Nobody tries the direct-marketing approach to sell expensive paintings. And very few artists try to make a living from their art alone, because, as Grazier well knows, it can lead to poverty, desperation, even homelessness.
Most artists — including those critically acclaimed and sold in the best galleries — also take jobs in galleries, or work in museums, or teach at art schools. Even Ivan Witenstein — a professor who teaches the business of art at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, and who finds the term “business” next to the word “art” to be so crass that he changed the title of his course to “Contemporary Practices” — is acutely aware of the artist’s financial pitfalls. He recently finished graduate school at Yale University, moved straight to New York and has two shows running this fall — one in Atlanta and one in SoHo. Yet he holds two jobs beyond the job of creating sculptures: He teaches, and he sculpts for another artist in New York.
“You can’t do it if you don’t have an outside income,” says Barbara Fendrick, who was Grazier’s first dealer and one of the District’s premier gallery owners for decades. She sold Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly and most other luminaries of that period, serious art that was also being collected by museums. Grazier, she says, is a perfect example of what can happen if you try to make it on the art alone.
Ask Grazier about his annual income, and he blanches. In 1990, “I grossed $180,000,” he says — a phenomenal sum earned mostly from doing 18 airbrushed murals of buses for the razzle-dazzle, art-deco conversion of the former Greyhound station at 1100 New York Ave. NW to an office building. But that money was a highlight in an otherwise bleak decade, and it was soon gone, says Dickson, who prepares Grazier’s taxes. “He has not been profitable in many years. I’ve seen the big, fat zeros [on his tax returns] ... and the minuses, because of expenses.”
Ask him why he doesn’t teach — or why doesn’t he get a job — and he reddens. First, he isn’t educated. He has a high school equivalency degree, one semester of college and two years of art school. Even if he wanted to teach, he couldn’t. “It’s not going to happen.”
And he despises working for other people: “I’d rather sleep under a bridge and starve.” Which he’s actually done.
A couple of years ago, Grazier expanded his marketing empire. Dickson noticed a full-page newspaper ad for a new Web site, artnet.com, and decided, “This would be perfect for John.” The gallery owners wouldn’t deal with Grazier? Fine. He would create his own space, a personal John Grazier Cybergallery, “a one-man show you can see anywhere in the world.”
Now, when Grazier makes phone calls, he sends people to his personal page at www.artnet.com/grazier.html, and they can surf his latest stuff before he shows up to make the pitch in person.
Grazier says it has helped with sales, but not enough. When he’s away from home, he still has to sleep in the van.
* * *
A drug arrest led Grazier into the art world.
He was 17 and got caught, in Arlington, possessing a nickel bag of marijuana. This was 1963, and he was a “rebel without a cause,” says his friend Dickson, who was his attorney at the time and has, over the years, established a “kind of big brother relationship.”
Grazier didn’t have a father growing up. His dad died when he was 2, but he looms large in the artist’s psyche. The family owned an elegant Victorian hotel, the Bellevue Inn in Pennsylvania near the Delaware Water Gap. Grazier insists he can still taste the honeysuckle that grew up the front porch in the summer and still smell his father’s wool suits.
After his father’s death, the family sold the hotel, and his mother, he says, was overwhelmed by being a single mom to two children during the ’50s. She was a teacher with a master’s degree in psychology, and she was “very, very, very bright,” Grazier says, “but very cold. She never hugged me.”
It was not a happy childhood, and he believes that if his father had lived, and if he’d grown up at the Bellevue Inn, his life would have turned out better. Much of his artwork focuses on the hotel’s architectural details, as though Grazier has been trying to meld the lonely, isolated childhood he had with the privileged, well-appointed childhood he should have had.
And yet, Grazier says, he wasn’t driven to be an artist so much as he stumbled into it. “I had no idea I was going to be an artist.” He wound up at the Corcoran only because the judge in the drug case told him, “If you go to school, I’ll let you go.” Grazier was a quick learner, and he enjoyed, especially, doing crosshatch drawings in pencil. After a year at the Corcoran, he spent a year at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He dropped out when a hotshot professor from New York stood near Grazier’s easel, critiqued his work and, in the process, “spit on me.” Then the professor -- and this still enrages Grazier -- had the gall to flick the spittle from Grazier’s shoulder. Just flicked it. Like it was some transgression Grazier had committed. And that’s the only reason Grazier gives for leaving.
He moved in with his sister, started doing drawings, and entered into a short-lived marriage. His second wife was the court reporter who transcribed his divorce proceedings. Pregnant, she moved into his two-bedroom apartment in Alexandria. Up to that point, he’d been sharing the apartment with six pet squirrels.
Grazier spent much of the ‘70s selling his work through Barbara Fendrick, the doyenne of D.C. art dealers. By 1980, he’d made a deal with Harry Lunn, who, Grazier says, paid him a $1,000-a-month stipend. The arrangement worked nicely for 18 months, and then Grazier was on his own again — he says dealers can’t handle him because he’s “too demanding.” Lunn died a couple of years ago in Paris.
Meanwhile, Grazier became obsessed with Greyhound buses. He studied them, dreamed about them, drew them over and over again, and by the early ‘80s, he was collecting them. He bought two, and even though they were dangerous old junkyard things, he drove them. And he had a “fabulous marketing idea.” He would transform one of the buses into a gallery of his Greyhound drawings, and he would drive it around the country, to all the major museums. On the day they were closed, he would park in front and have a one-man show “at the Metropolitan Museum” -- but not in the Metropolitan Museum.
“The idea,” he says, “is beating the system. Which is what I do.” But the scheme fell apart after one of the buses broke down and the radiator of the other exploded and burned his arm.
By 1990, he was homeless, living under bridges near Spout Run Parkway and making calls to potential clients from pay phones. Despite this, he was awarded the $125,000 commission to do murals for the renovated Greyhound building -- a major comeback, but not enough for his second wife to stick around. She took off to New Mexico with their two children, who are now 16 and 21. The subsequent divorce, Grazier says, sucked his bank account dry.
“I made it in nine months,” he says, “and it was gone in nine months.”
Grazier spent the ‘90s couch-hopping around the country, staying with friends from New Mexico to New Hampshire to Fairfax County. For a time, about three years ago, he lived in an artist’s studio with 30-foot ceilings in Baltimore. One afternoon, as he carried a six-pack of Busch beer across the Guilford Avenue Bridge, he was mugged by a couple of kids. They hit him in the mouth and knocked out several of his teeth.
It took Grazier a while to recover from the attack. When he finally did, he painted several pictures and sold them to a wealthy entrepreneur in Arlington for $15,000, he says. At the bank, as the teller counted out the money, Grazier watched, stunned. When she hit $7,000, he told her, “Honey. Stop there. I have to take a Valium.” After which she handed him the rest of the money.
These days he’s renting a house in Pennsylvania and painting, for the first time in his life, in color. The inspiration to discard black-and-white came one day, back in Virginia, when he was still living under an overpass. He hadn’t been eating well, and “when I’m not eating well, I have trouble walking.” As he slumped into D.C. across the Key Bridge one morning, during rush hour, he saw a triple rainbow, and “I heard a chorus of angels singing complicated music, and I started weeping.” And that, he says, “was when I decided to start working in color.”
* * *
Hogan & Hartson is interested. On the phone, Grazier tells Bob that, if $18,000 is too much to ask for “The Visitor,” he will take — and here he pretends to sound casual -- you know, “Five, six ... maybe seven thousand.” Bob answers, Okay. Drop by our art consultant’s office — that’s Hemphill Fine Arts in Georgetown — and if he likes it, he’ll issue you a check.
Grazier hangs up the phone and claps his hands. “I hope it’s a big check,” he says as he dials George Hemphill — a gallery owner he’s known for years. Hemphill says: Drop by at 3.
“Wally! Hey, Wally!” Grazier shouts, bounding into Dickson’s office. “I think I sold a painting!” He expects to get five grand. He tells Dickson he’s going to bring all three paintings — because, who knows? Maybe Hemphill will like the other two, and maybe this moment is just the first step to something bigger — something better. Maybe now, finally, it’s all going to come together.
Three hours later, he’s maneuvering his 14-foot van down 33rd Street, by the canal, in Georgetown. He sees the gallery’s huge picture windows and, right in front, he finds a parking space. “Lookit this!” he says, gleaming. “How lucky!”
But his mood goes from exultant to cautious as soon as he unwraps his canvases from their blankets. His hands are shaking. “I know Hemphill,” he says, closing the back doors to the van. “He could kill the sale. But I don’t think he will.”
The gallery is a glaring white space with 15-foot ceilings, a cold flagstone entry, and a front desk that whispers a sleek minimalism. The assistant director, Mary Early, stands by the door. She is dressed entirely in black. Her computer is the latest flat-screen model, and her cup of newly sharpened white pencils coordinates perfectly with the walls. Grazier has shown up in jeans, a gray T-shirt and his old work boots, all splattered in paint.
He looks at the art on the walls — huge murals of textured white and sea foam and apricot. He leans his three canvases beneath them, and in silence, he and Early wait for Hemphill to arrive.
“Are you an artist?” he finally asks. Yes, she says. She does sculpture.
“Are you educated?”
“Yes,” she says. She got her degree from Bennington College, in Vermont.
“I’m uneducated,” Grazier says, a little too loudly. “Totally self-taught.”
Early nods. Time passes. Grazier begins to wilt, sliding down the wall until he’s sitting cross-legged on the hardwood floor.
Finally Hemphill walks in. It’s a sweltering afternoon, but the art dealer’s khakis are crisp, and his black shirt wrinkle-free. Grazier scrambles up, but Hemphill pays no attention. He has business to attend to. He passes Grazier, and without looking at him, says, “John, I’ll be with you. Hold on.”
Grazier stands still. He looks again at his paintings, then looks at Mary and softly says, “It’s nice to see these in such a big, big space.”
After several minutes, Hemphill returns. “Hello, John.” He glances at “The Visitor” and asks, “You’ve agreed on a price?” Grazier gulps, and says, “Didn’t Bob talk to you about it?”
“Six thousand,” Hemphill says. It’s a thousand more than Grazier expected. He agrees, “Okay.”
Hemphill steps back, and Grazier frantically gestures to his other two paintings. “What about these?” he asks quickly. “I’m working in color for the first time in my life — ”
“They’re fine. They’re beautiful,” Hemphill says and walks out the door. Grazier watches him leave, then crouches in front of “The Visitor” and stares at it for a while. He spent about three months working on it -- three months of seeing it in his head, working out the angles and colors, and meticulously layering the paint. He rubs his hand across the painting’s flat, perfect texture and says, “I’m wondering if I’m going to miss it.”
The phone on Early’s minimalist desk rings. “John,” she says. “That was George.” It’s going to take about 10 minutes to cut the check. “He suggested you could load up these other two paintings, and if you want to hit Dean & DeLuca” — she sort of smiles — “for the next 10 minutes. ...”
Dean & Deluca? The gourmet grocery store? With $3 avocados? Is she kidding? Grazier can’t even afford to hit a hot dog stand. But he says nothing. He grabs his paintings and lurches outside. He loads them in the van and smokes his first Marlboro in five hours. “I need this,” he says, as he inhales and strides to the canal, fuming. Sure, he sold a $6,000 painting, but he feels humiliated. “He could have said,” Grazier fumes, “ ‘John, your work is going great. It’s looking good.’ “ He inhales faster. “But no. They don’t like me because I’m doing it without their help, and the hell with them.”
Two Marlboros later, he’s perked up — he sold a $6,000 painting! He hustles back up 33rd Street, to the BB&T Bank on Wisconsin Avenue.
“Hi,” he blares as he walks inside. “George Hemphill just called you. I’m here to cash a very large check.” Five people in line turn to listen. A banker near the front door shrugs and tells Grazier to get in line.
So he waits, with everyone else, until he finally hands the teller his check and says, “Can I have all 100s?”
Moments later, she is pushing six $1,000 piles toward him.
He frowns. The process happens too quickly. Too simply. He asks, “Do you have an extra Federal Reserve canvas bag I could have as a souvenir?”
She looks up. “What?”
His eyes widen. He tells her never mind, that was just a little joke, and then, trying to recompose his genteel demeanor, he deepens his voice and says, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”
And he turns away from the window, pulls out his empty billfold and finds a big chair near the door.
“Now,” he says, his fist stuffed with cash, “I’m going to sit down and see if I can fit this in my wallet.”