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Bartender Parlays Chalk Menu Designs Into Profitable Art Career

Bartender Chalks Up Unique Art
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A Washington-area bartender who is as creative with chalk as he is with cocktails is now creating one-of-a-kind artworks for high-profile clients.

During quiet hours on the job, Patrick Owens started drawing chalk images advertising the day’s specials on the A-frame sandwich boards outside the bar where he works.

He has doodled since childhood but never pursued art as a serious endeavor. Once he started working on the sandwich boards, Owens drew inspiration from popular American culture, including music, books and movies.
The artistry of bartender Patrick Owens' menu boards led to private commissions. (Courtesy Patrick Owens)
The artistry of bartender Patrick Owens' menu boards led to private commissions. (Courtesy Patrick Owens)

We were on a strip of the street where there were tons of bars and everyone had these boards out and they all said the same thing: ‘$3 Rum & Cokes,’" Owens said. "So I tried to be as creative as possible…That was my whole point was to prompt interest for somebody walking down the street to say ‘Oh, that’s interesting. Maybe I’ll check out this place.’”

Soon after he started drawing, his art started to get noticed and he started getting private commissions.

Compass Rose

One of Owens' recent clients was the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, the most visited museum in the country.

He got the job after a museum intern searched the Internet looking for a chalk artist. After an interview, Owens got the job.

Owens was selected to create an artistic version of a compass rose, a traditional design on a map showing the principal directions, for the museum's new "Time & Navigation" exhibit.

Owens created a compass rose in chalk at the entrance of the museum, “both as an entryway treatment partially to get visitors in,” said Mychalene Giampaoli, an education specialist at the museum, “but also to echo the fact that maps are very extensively used in navigation.”

Owens spent nine hours working on the project in the area leading up to the museum's main entrance.

“The building crew didn't want to take down the stanchions [barriers] because they didn't want anybody walking on it to ruin the art."

She asked Owens how he felt about people walking over something so beautiful, “and he goes, ‘what I love about my art is that it’s so ephemeral.’”

The museum gave Owens an image to work from, but allowed him some creativity.

“They had the scale and the dimension,” said Owens. “They knew where they were going to put it outside, but the specific image they left up to me. I wanted to integrate an actual rose in the center of the compass and they were all for that.”

As Owens' art keeps evolving, so does his technique.

These days he can often be found using a chalk marker instead of regular chalk to create his one-of-a-kind pieces.

Food-themed art

Another recent project was a wall drawing he created for a client who wanted a character called the "Swedish Chef" from a popular U.S. TV series.

A real chef, José Andrés, commissioned Owens to create a unique welcome to his restaurant; a large mural of a hand, holding a pair of tweezers, sketched and then completed with a black chalk marker, over the door leading to his bar.
Patrick Owens sketched and then completed this work with a black chalk marker, over the door of a local bar. (Julie Taboh/VOA)
Patrick Owens sketched and then completed this work with a black chalk marker, over the door of a local bar. (Julie Taboh/VOA)
Like the Smithsonian project, he was given an image to work from, and had to replicate it many times larger than the original.

“Basically they came to me with an exact image and I just had to find a way to put it on the wall,” said Owens.

The hand mural took about seven hours to complete, with most of the time spent measuring and sketching it out.

The mural was just one of the many designs Owens has created for Andrés, who owns about a dozen bars and restaurants in the Washington area.

Today, Owens could easily afford to leave bartending and do his chalk art fulltime, but says he would miss the social interaction.

“With the bartending I do enjoy it quite a bit, the social aspects of seeing friends roll in and meeting new people," he said. "I could split off in either direction; I could easily go fulltime as a bartender, or a bar manager or something else, or I could go full time as an artist and I’m being selfish right now because I kind of want the best of both worlds.”

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