By Robert Beck
Pappardella, at 75th & Columbus, is one of my favorite places to eat, anywhere. It was gracious of Marion, the general manager, to let me paint there, as I took a couple of tables out of play for a few hours. The staff was helpful, professional, and good-natured, which says a lot about how the place is run.
As I’ve said in earlier essays, I’m not painting people, plates, and chairs; I’m painting a restaurant. I’m also trying to describe a vibe. The mural over the bar of the bridge in Florence is classic Italian restaurant. The couple in the lower left holding hands is something I’ve seen many times and done myself.
Customers generally leave me alone when I paint, although I enjoy talking with them when they come over. It’s the children that want to know what’s going on. For them, I am out of context; I’m a grown-up painting at an easel, and I’m not in a playroom. They probably have seen cartoon artists, but it is something new to them in real life.
Young people usually approach me with brief coaching from their parents—something like “Don’t bother him and don’t get close”—which I need to undo if I want to engage them. They are almost always polite and exhibit a sense of awe. I invite them to stand right in front of the painting so they can see it better. I sometimes ask if they paint, and almost all of them say they do. If they are open and conversant, I draw them in with questions, like what they think the painting needs, or what their favorite color is and where they would put it. If that works, I let them add a stroke. There is nothing they can do that I can’t fix, and they will carry the experience with them for the rest of their life.
This evening, three kids wanted to see what I was doing. One was hesitant to “bother me and get close.” Another boldly told me to include myself in the painting and showed me exactly where I should put that. When he left with his family after dinner, he asked me if I had done it yet. The last one was the youngest. When I invited him to get closer, he stood in front and delivered a long and low “Wow.” I asked if he painted. He kept his eyes on the image, shook his head slightly, and said, “I don’t paint anymore because I wasted my paper.”