December 19, 2017
STRANGER: Jonathan Blum
LOCATION: Rasika, 633 D Street NW, Washington, DC
THEME: Dinner with a portrait painter
Watching Jonathan Blum sell his artwork is witnessing a masterclass in hustling.
Every December he sets up a stall at a holiday market in downtown Washington, DC, where the portrait painter uses his natural charm to entice customers to look at, and ideally buy, his unique pieces that feature the same handful of iconic images in a broad range of styles. Rabbis, llamas and other animals with fruits on their head, foreheads: These are classic Blum paintings.
If it seems like an eccentric mix, that’s because the man producing them is a charming eccentric. Within minutes of meeting Jonathan at his stall before our dinner interview, he jumps from one topic of conversation to three others, lures some punters to check out his work, closes a several hundred dollar sale, and has a debate with me about where we’re going to eat.
Jonathan, 52, uses his rapid-fire way of talking — and being able to converse about any topic imaginable — to woo his customers, lured in by the amusing images and vibrant colors of his paintings. In the 10 minutes I watch him sell the night we meet, he closes at least two sales and puts smiles on the faces of more than a dozen people who stop to browse his work.
He looks casual and approachable, with unkempt thick black hair dashed with gray, a dusting of silver stubble across his face framing a mouth that often breaks into a warm smile, and a loose-fitting dark shirt-and-sweater combination that speaks to his lack of pretension. He projects the image of the cool professor at college, the one whose class everybody wants to take.
“Want to see a painting of a dog thinking about a guitar?” he asks one visitor.
“Very unique,” says the woman as she browses Jonathan’s art and chats with him. It’s not clear whether she’s talking about the portraits, the painter, or both.
After spending two hours with this talkative, engaging man it’s clear that the way he acts isn’t a shtick to make money. Nevertheless, he puts his vibrant personality to good use in helping to sell his art, which is vital given that he’s his own boss. “I’m a one-man band, I make the art, schlep the art, sell the art . . . the benefit of doing it all myself is that I make a living out of it.”’
That’s why he was hustling in mid-December at the District’s holiday market, just one of many places he can be found. He also sells his wares throughout the year at other venues, including DC’s Eastern Market, his own rented studio in Brooklyn, and elsewhere.
As I’d learn during dinner, Jonathan’s unpredictable schedule should be expected because it fits a lifelong pattern of random adventures and unexpected outcomes around the world. One unexpected outcome in his life: If I’d never met New Orleans Dr. Brobson Lutz for a dinner interview back in the Big Easy in October 2014 I would never have met Jonathan.
Several years ago, Brobson commissioned Jonathan to do a series of portraits of him and his friends. But these weren’t regular portraits. Instead, these were part of his forehead series. The first time I visited Brobson’s house, I saw the paintings hanging in the kitchen — bright primary color backgrounds for the top-half of heads, with just enough identifiers for each person, such as Brobson’s unmistakable circular-rimmed glasses. I’d never seen paintings like that before, and Brobson suggested that if I ever got the chance to meet Jonathan he’d make for a great interview.
That’s how, several years later, the painter and I reminisce with our off-the-record stories about Brobson and New Orleans while Jonathan closes up his holiday market stall for the night. Once he’s done with that, we finally agree on Indian restaurant Rasika for the meal, and off we go.
We’d both eaten at Rasika before, which has two locations in Washington and received rave reviews from the Washington Post and many others. The great food and city center location (we chose the Penn Quarter Rasika near the market, rather than the one further away in Georgetown) mean that it’s also very busy throughout the week, so we’re lucky to grab a small two-top. The dining room is fairly dark with furnishings in beige, brown and gray. It makes for an intimate atmosphere, and even though the place is packed, the ambient noise doesn’t prove intrusive.
While we check out the menu — Rasika serves up dishes for the entire table to share – I share with Jonathan how impressed I am with his salesmanship at the market.
He confides that on a good day he can make up to $2,000 selling a mix of prints and original paintings, a not-insignificant sum. He has to pay $400 per day to rent the market space, but as he’s a one-man operation there are no other overheads. “Some of my friends who sell in galleries, they don’t make much of a living because the galleries take 50 percent,” he says. “But I do it all on my own, I can make the deals and often help people buy their first piece of art.”
Jonathan delights in delighting people with his art. At the market, his already animated personality ratchets up several notches whenever someone shows more than passing interest in a piece. Treating them like a new best friend, he explains the idea behind a piece and then takes a genuine interest in learning from the person what caught their attention about the picture. And he’s like that with each visitor, regardless of whether it ends in a sale.
At Rasika, he’s just as spirited when we talk about some of the works I mention I’ve seen on his website. One portrait features a deep burgundy background contrasting with Chloe, a beautiful furry white dog with a slice of aged cheddar on her head. Another, the “Nuzie Family Portrait,” features the foreheads of five family members against different-colored backgrounds, each with a different item on top of their heads (the items represent their thoughts, he says).
When I recall the pieces, Jonathan’s face lights yet again. He tells me that he paints because it makes him happy, and he wants others to experience that pleasure. “I’ve always had humor in my work,” he says. “I might not be able to bring about peace in the real world, but maybe I can create peace with my art.”
Selling art in DC is always a homecoming of sorts for Jonathan, who was born in the city on July 2, 1965. He grew up in the area and went to public schools, always interested in drawing and doodling but never taking it seriously. “It wasn’t until college that it changed,” he says.
During his studies at the Museum of Fine Arts and Emerson College in Boston and trying to figure out his goals, Jonathan says “one good teacher” was all it took to set him on his professional path. The tutor saw some of his student’s random sketches and was impressed. “He loved my work and said he wanted to train me, so from early on I had this great confidence instilled.”
During his time in Boston, Jonathan saw that a local independent magazine was asking for submissions so he sent in a caricature he’d done of his own face from the eyes up, making the forehead the prominent focus of the picture. Ever since then, foreheads became an image that he’d return to over and over in his work, painting them in different styles.
“And then — hey, are you going to get a picture of this? Wow!”
Jonathan interrupts telling his biography with another conversational tangent, praising the arrival of the starters. Our fantastically informed and chatty waiter sets down several dishes, including the palak chaati. It’s crispy baby spinach mixed with sweet yogurt, tamarind and date chutney, and it’s exceptional. Light, refreshing and incredibly moreish. I could make a meal of this alone.
Second starter is the cauliflower uttampam, a dish that consists of a rice lentil pancake with cauliflower, topped with a tangy, slightly spicy tomato chutney. Jonathan’s wow factor is right, two dishes and two strong winners, underscoring why Rasika is so popular.
Sadly the third starter lets us down. We try the tawa baingan, small circular layers of eggplant and spiced potato drizzled with olive oil and coated overall by a peanut sauce. An earthy texture and flavor best describes this dish, a muted contrast to the lively flavors of the first two appetizers.
While we eat, Jonathan continues his abbreviated life story, saying that his university years included a junior year in London. “I had another good teacher in London,” he explains, which reinforced his decision to focus on painting for a profession. “Just think — this spinach, by the way, I feel like I could eat it forever — if I’d had a good teacher in advertising, I could be doing that instead. It was almost like they pushed me to be an artist,” he says.
Humor has always been an important part of his life and his work, he jokes that he stuck with doing foreheads because it was easier than painting a full face. The foreheads evolved from simple portraits to adding a lighthearted twist by painting an object on top of the forehead, meant to represent what the subject is thinking about. That’s why his collection includes a family all with different items on their foreheads, and Pope Francis with a pigeon on his pate.
After graduation in 1987, Jonathan moved to New Orleans on a whim at the suggestion of a friend.
The city had, and still has, a vibrant arts scene and he was quickly connected to notable people, including the owner of a large art gallery. “He was a weird guy, but he knew his art and he had a huge warehouse, and said he wanted to sell my work,” Jonathan reminisces.
Among the humorous pictures were a series of animal portraits (such as llamas, dogs and others with objects on their heads, another subject he often paints) and a series featuring the forehead of Bert from Sesame Street, which Jonathan says was an “obsession” of his from 1988 to 1998. Things were looking up, and it’s during this time selling via the gallery that he met Brobson. The doctor, who used to be the city’s health director, commissioned forehead pictures for him and his friends.
Then, in the dead of the night, the gallery mysteriously burned down. “And so I lost a lot of beautiful paintings and — they said ‘mysterious’ but I always wondered if it was deliberate,” says Jonathan, running down two parallel conversation tracks. “But Brobson was great, he said he still wanted me to do his paintings. He told me later he’s just glad he got in before I started adding objects like fruit to the heads. ‘I’m glad I got ya before the fruits,’” Jonathan says, recalling Brobson’s quip.
So he stuck around in the Crescent City, working on his art. He lived in apartment across the street from century-old restaurant Antoine’s, often sitting on the balcony with his artistic friends watching the world go by. It was while down there that he experienced “the best story of my life.”
With a grin, he says “Want to hear it?”
One day in New Orleans, Jonathan met Geraldine Swayne, a painter from Newcastle in England who specialized in large paintings — sometimes covering entire walls. They met at a coffee shop and she shared her frustration about a creepy roommate at the dorm where she was living. So Jonathan offered her the futon in his apartment, and they lived together for a short while. They would spend long days together painting and talking. On Geraldine’s last night in town, the two had sex. In the morning, they made plans for a European adventure, visiting England and Berlin.
Jump forward to the summer, and Jonathan lands in London where he expected to meet his paramour at the airport. She wasn’t there. He calls her. She says she can’t leave Newcastle, but he should get the bus there in a couple of days. So he hangs out with some friends he knew in London, then later in the week gets on the bus. “And as it’s pulling into Newcastle, I see her, and oh man,” he says ruefully, “She’s there holding this guy’s hand. Long story short, she had a boyfriend. That’s when she told me that she wouldn’t be going to Berlin with me.”
Jonathan decided to go through with the Germany plan alone. “All of a sudden, oh my god, I’m a Jew and I’m in Berlin!” he says with mock horror. Cafes must be a good luck charm for him, because it was at one in the city where he met the owner of a major art gallery. The man loved Jonathan’s work, and “promoted the fuck out of it” as he describes it. It was a major success. “And that was the beginning of me being a professional artist for the rest of my life.”
After a little more traveling — Prague, back to New Orleans — Jonathan settled in Washington, DC, from 1992 to 2000. It was during this time that he spent six months in Israel that would add another iconic image to his art portfolio. What was it?
“Oh my god, this cod!” comes the response.
Jonathan quite rightly is taken aback by the thick, fresh flavorful black cod entree served with dill, honey, star anise and red wine vinegar. Two huge, perfectly cut slabs of fish, buttery and sweet. Within seconds we agree this is by far the outstanding dish of the night.
But we still have praise for the second entree of chicken tikka masala, a nice somewhat spicy sauce that doesn’t overdo the tomatoes coating tender chunks of poultry. Two large, fluffy pieces of garlic naan bread are the perfect tools for sopping up what sauce we leave behind.
“Rabbis,” Jonathan offers out of nowhere as we chew. He’s bringing the story back to the next iconic image he added to his portfolio, following the foreheads, animals and Bert. During his time in DC, Jonathan and his best friend were both reeling from breakups with their girlfriends and so they decided on a whim to make a Jewish pilgrimage to Israel. So I went to Israel for six months to paint — and by the way, what do you think?” says Jonathan as he diverts to the topic of President Donald Trump’s call to move the U.S. Embassy in the country to Jerusalem. Then he’s back on track, telling me that he had a successful show at an art cafe in Tel Aviv. After that, Jonathan went to Jerusalem where he lived at a yeshivah; an Orthodox Jewish seminary.
“I didn’t grow up religious, but I did have my Bar Mitzvah,” Jonathan says. The rabbis gave him room and board for two months, as well as a studio for him to work on his art. That’s where he started doing sketches of the rabbis, including forehead paintings of them. As part of the yeshivah requirements he had to take “intense” classes in Judaism, but he was fine with that given the freedom he had to paint as much as he wanted. “And painting the rabbis was a breakthrough stylistically and philosophically because I started doing their whole faces, not just foreheads.”
That’s how rabbis in unusual situations — titles for his work include “Rabbi Blessing a Basketball” and “A Rabbi, a Nun, and an Imam Taking a Stroll on the Brooklyn Bridge” — became as important to his work as forehead paintings and animals. There’s a dedicated page just for rabbis on Jonathan’s website, and his Twitter handle is @rabbipainter (same as his email address).
“Most artists are pursuing a particular style and do different thing in their styles. I have a few subject matters but I do different styles,” he says. It’s clearly working for him, and he says he’s able to bring in about $60,000 a year as a self-employed painter.
Despite the massive amounts of food we’re demolishing, Jonathan and I manage to polish off dessert: A rectangular slab of chocolate panna cotta, with cinnamon, nutmeg, almond, served atop a crisp caramel cookie. “This is so good,” Jonathan says, “I just want to pick the plate up and lick it.”
After a few more sips of coffee we get ready to head out. I’ve got to pack for a trip to England for the holidays, and he has a long car ride back home to New York. That’s where he lives with his wife Barbara Spindel (they married in 2001), 14-year-old daughter Lucy and 11-year-old son Nathan.
“If you ever come to New York, you’ve got to see the space I rent,” he offers. When he’s not traveling, he works from his studio in Brooklyn. And it’s a story from that location that Jonathan shares when I conclude by asking how he’d describe his style. “My paintings are recognizable,” he says, thinking for a second. “But get this: One day I’m working in my studio. This kid comes in and he looks at my work. He says, ‘Mister, let me get this right. You paint kids’ images for grownups?” Jonathan’s eyes bulge open and he grins at the memory. “Yes! Wow! That’s exactly right. He got me,” but before he could say anything, the kid had left the store.
The perceptive child might be gone and never to be seen again, but anyone wandering through Park Slope should head to 285 5th Avenue. With any luck, Jonathan’s door will be open. Peek inside, and the visitors will get to see the man who paints kids’ images for grownups, living a life that never stops bringing him joy, trying to create a little bit of peace with a painting.