It's a Beautiful Life:
Hamburgers, Housework, and Happiness
By Jeff Bell
As a stay-at-home father, our cover artist Paul Volker has dishes to do, carpets to vacuum, bathrooms to scrub, laundry to wash and a bright, energetic four-year-old son to entertain.
But those domestic duties have not dulled Volker's off-kilter imagination and playful sense of humor. His many fans in the Columbus art community can rest easy: The painter who created "Dog With Toaster Hat" and "Medieval Paintings of Christ on Wonder Bread" is every bit as whimsical as ever.
Talk with Volker for an hour or two and you discover that his brain is brimming with off-the-wall ideas for future projects. Some examples:
¥"Pooh Riot" paintings in which "Winnie The Pooh" characters take part in the Watts riots. Picture this: Piglet dashing down a riot-torn thoroughfare with a portable TV set tucked under his arm.
¥A "Noisy Cereal" series in which the snap, crackle, pop of breakfast staples are juxtaposed with images of animals, Mt. Fuji and Johann Sebastian Bach.
¥A dream of creating computer work stations with rough, textured surfaces and uneven angles that are the antithesis of the smooth, well-ordered design of typical high-tech gear. "They'd have nails and splinters sticking out," says Volker. An unglazed ceramic mouse pad would be part of the package.
The only downside to being a domestic engineer, notes the artist, is it limits the amount of time he can devote to launching such projects and keeping up with the brisk demand for his pop-art paintings. (Volker says he has 400 collectors spread across Columbus and the country.)
So he squeezes in an hour or two of work in the mornings when his son, Garret, is at preschool and maybe an hour at night after Garret has gone to bed. "I have to be more efficient and make better use of my time now," he explains.
His wife, Lori, whom he married in 1993, is an asset in that regard. "She has been great in keeping me focused and looking at things more realistically," says Volker. "She's a realist. I help her dream, she helps me focus. We are identical but coming from opposite directions."
Volker's male ego doesn't seem affected in the least by the fact that Lori, a project manager with a software company, goes off to work everyday while he stays home with Garret and the domestic chores. "I realized a long time ago that I better quit worrying about what people think of me," he says.
However, he makes exceptions on that count for Lori and Garret. He seems a bit crestfallen when noting his
house-cleaning efforts sometimes don't meet his wife's standards. And his eyes sparkle when he talks about Garret, a cute, kinetic kid who loves to read and create art on a little easel that sits in the front room of the family's Clintonville home.
"What kind of price can you put on that?" Volker says of the time he devotes to raising his son. "We cut corners and don't buy all that [material] stuff so one of us can be home with him."
Fatherhood has been a boon to Volker's art at times. "My son has never been much on sleeping, especially the first two years," he points out. "Sleep deprivation greatly enhanced my perspective. My brain was fried,
and I was not able to think sequentially. Your brain tries to put things together, but it's grasping for structure you can't provide. Daytime became dream time for me."
Such a drowsy state enhanced Volker's mastery of the non-sequitur. That theme runs across much of his work, with domestic or wild animals often matched with oddly juxtaposed items. So we see a frog holding a hotdog above the caption "Frog With No Mustard" or an ape looking at a bottle in "Orangutan Reading Ingredients Label."
Volker also likes to match things big and small. In one painting, his dog, Paco, a Chihuahua mix, sits at the feet of King Kong in "Little Dog With Blue Kong."
That work, part of an exhibit at the Northwood Artspace this past fall, was on heavy poster paper that is perfect for the bright latex house paints Volker delights in using. But the work, which measured 7 1/2 by 5 feet, is much larger than what he typically produces. His trademark is what he calls his "hamburger art" &endash; 6 by 8 inch paintings on plywood.
It's hamburger art because it provides Volker with enough income to avoid having to flip real hamburgers to make ends meet. Working in his basement studio, he takes sheets of plywood purchased at home improvement stores and cuts them into 96 panels. A black border is applied to each, and then Volker sits down and paints one of his "Wild Beasts" creations ("Prairie Dog Frying Chili Peppers" perhaps?) on the plywood.
The paintings sell for $30 to $40 and provide a nice little return on Volker's investment of time and materials. A sheet of plywood costs about $12, and he buys returned cans of latex house paint for as little as $5 a gallon. Working in an assembly line fashion, Volker averages three minutes on each black border and 10 minutes on a painted image.
It's part Picasso, part Henry Ford, and the comparison doesn't bother Volker one bit.
"A lot of artists don't want to talk about money," he says. "It's dirty to them. They don't want to put a price on their work. They feel it prostitutes their art. But I'm really fascinated by marketing. What I'm trying to sell is the experience of 'Wow!' I want people to see a wall of my paintings and say 'Wow!' and then buy a painting as a souvenir of that 'Wow!' experience."
In addition to his Wild Beasts, Mt. Fuji and Bubble Pipe Dog series, Volker paints one-of-a kind pieces that fetch considerably higher prices. His art continues to pop up in Short North galleries, including Transformations & The Painted Monkey, Acme Art Co. and Roy G. Biv. And he still likes to display his work in hair salons, coffeehouses and
other places where it can be enjoyed by persons from all walks of life.
Volker is also hooked on the Internet, where he exhibits and sells his paintings on his Web site at www.volkerworld.com. There are hundreds to choose from &endash; 100 alone from the Wild Beasts series, 37 hilarious views of Mt. Fuji and a dozen or so Bubble Pipe Dog renderings. By next spring (or maybe next summer), he hopes to create a virtual gallery where online shoppers can view and purchase the work of local artists.
Volker's art is priced for both the average Joe and the deep-pocket collector-- anywhere from $20 a painting to $2,000. This dichotomy reflects Volker's left-wing past (high school dropout, Ohio State art student, radical illustrator for Yippie publications and cook at a Buddhist monastery) and his more centered present (husband, father and homeowner).
It seems unlikely, though, that the serious responsibilities associated with being 40something will detract from Volker's offbeat view of the world. After all, this is a man whose paintings include "Bubble Pipe Dog With Illusion of Floating Sausage," "Mt. Fuji and the Cross-Dressing Cowboy," "Aardvark With a Plunger" and "Loch Ness Cat."
"I'm serious about my work, but my work is seldom serious," he says with a smile. "There already is enough serious, dour subject matter in the world. I want people to look at my paintings and laugh because the images tickle a part of their mind that hasn't been touched before."
Even a dog with a toaster hat can see the great good sense in that.
Jeff Bell is a freelance writer who lives in Bexley