The American urban landscape contains hand-painted images that are often drawn by unknown artists and illustrators. Lancaster is such a place. Benjamin Leech and I have noted the need to somehow document the city's vernacular heritage. One of my favorite Lancaster murals is at White's Auto Sales and Services located on 4 East McGovern Avenue. So, one day, I decided to walk into the automotive repair store and talk to the owner, who gave me the name of the artist who did the mural, Jesse Vital. The next step was astounding. Through some initial research, I learned that Jesse Vital is currently a successful illustrator for Hollywood. The mural was one of his earliest projects. He painted the mural in return for some auto work on a van he had just bought, which would become his ticket out to California.
The story was amazing enough that I had to talk to Jesse, who generously granted me a telephone interview on May 24, 2014. What follows is the transcription of that conversation.
JV I’ll try to hit the major points. I was born in Lancaster and my dad, my family still lives there. I had moved around a little bit with my mom when I was a kid and wound up in art school in North Carolina, in the North Carolina School of the Arts, and then in Baltimore at Maryland Institute College of Art, I went there for a couple of years, too. At one point I just wound up moving to Lancaster, I didn’t really know what to do and that was around Y2K. I moved back to town, and I had a little bit of experience waiting tables, so I started to do that for a while. I was still pretty young, I’d say probably 23-24, and I had quite a fine art background. I did a lot of figurative work and painting, but it was more classical style than abstract.
KK I can see from your website that you’re pretty amazing realistic classical representation.
JV The website is reflective of the kind of commercial work that’s really popular out here in Hollywood, which is a very fast illustration, a lot of sketching. It’s very heavily figuratively based, so it suits me. It’s fast, it’s all done on the computer, it’s done with a screen tablet, so I draw right into the computer. It allows me to manipulate textures and brushes really fast. That style was something that was kind of new. At the when I was in Lancaster, I was doing a lot of oil painting and drawing, and I hadn’t done any illustration per se. When I was working at one of the restaurants, Symposium Restaurant actually, which is out on Columbia Avenue, I want to say. They needed a mural. They came to me because they knew I was an artist, and where like “will you do a mural in our new addition to the building?” So I took it on, and it was very, you know, it was kind of a big deal for me, but looking back it was like 1,000 dollars. You know, it was just fortuitous. Who else was going to do it?
KK Do you know if it’s still up?
JV I think it is. I wouldn’t testify to the quality because I really didn’t know what I was doing. I never had done this kind of thing before. So I was trying to scale up the painting I was doing to a mural. I really didn’t have any training on how to do murals or a good business model. I had no apprenticeship per se. So I just kind of jumped in because that’s the kind of person I am. So I did that one. I did a few others. From that I got quite known for doing murals because there was a small article in the paper, in the Life Style Section. It’s in the Lancaster Newspaper, I want to say it’s in the Sunday edition. I think I have the article if you need me to, I can scan it and send it off to you. I did a few projects. And I would always be working as a waiter. I also worked at Lancaster Galleries then for a little bit in the frame shop, and I was doing frame restoration with them. At the same time, I was also really into music, so I was playing a lot of gigs as a musician. And through my gigs as a musician, I got hooked up with this guy that was opening up a garage. He was like, “hey, I need somebody to help me create a logo and maybe a sign for my garage.” I guess, instead of him going to just a regular sign shop, he wanted something special, and I guess somebody told him that I could something a little special. I believe my friend Brett Stabley who is my dad’s friend hooked us up because he was a little bit older than me.
KK Is it the guy that’s there now because he is the one that gave me your name when I inquired?
JV This guy was named White, I can’t remember his first name. It was White’s, and it was his own personal garage. So, I said to him, “look,” this is the funny part of the story, I said “I just bought a Volkswagen bus, a 1976 Volkswagen Camper bus and it needed a lot of work.” I had actually bought a second Volkswagen bus that was in the process of being restored, so it had all the windows out, it was really just for parts. So I had these two buses, and I said, “I want to take the engine out of one and put it in the other, but I do not know how to do that. So if you guys can do that for me, I’ll do all your signage and your business cards and all your logo stuff.” And they were like, “OK.” So it was really a handshake deal. No official contract. It was just a trade, like a real down and dirty. I had the bus towed into his shop. I came up with some sketches. I said I want to paint a mural on the side of the building. Because he wanted to compete, there were a lot of car places in that area and he wanted his to stand out. And I said, you know, we should do something where we put the logo on the side of the building. And he kind of was like said, “OK, do whatever you want to do. Just do it.” There was no creative direction from him. He liked the sketches of the little logo I designed, which I had drawn by hand but scanned in the computer and finished off in the computer. So it had a real crisp graphic look to it. And then, what I did for the mural is, I printed it out and then I had a projector. I believe I borrowed a projector, and we projected it on to the wall and aligned it. Because I was so worried, I hadn’t done an outdoor mural, so I used Rust-Oleum paint, like in a can. I just bought the appropriate colors. Some of them I had to mix to get the colors right and I believe it held up pretty well because I think it’s still there.
KK Yeah. I don’t know how bright the original was but it looks very very clear.
JV I think it’s just. If it’s dulled anything, I think it’s just the white has maybe dulled just from dirt. I think that Rust-Oleum paint is pretty indestructible. I was very careful about it because it was more of a transfer. When I painted it on it was very precise. And then, he, I don’t know if it’s still there, but he had some signs out front, on the front side, above the garage doors which I painted. His logo that I designed across “White’s Automotive” and the phone number.
KK And the wrench, right?
JV Yeah, it has the wrench. Well the idea was that the wrench was just the simple logo and the other guy was the more complex logo. And again, I should emphasize, I had no idea what I was doing. This wasn’t something, you know, it wasn’t like you hired an advertising company and I was subcontracted. I was just trying to do what I thought was appropriate if I owned the garage. You know, this is what I would do. It was very simple. It was a learning experience because I had to learn how to use the computer to make art. It was one of the first times I had done that. Also, I think, around the same time, I did a mural on the side of the Alley Kat, which is I believe on Prince Street, or Duke Street, I can’t remember, it’s down there. It’s not far, in fact, I think I met the White guy from playing in the Alley Kat. I had painted some little cats on the doors in the Alley Kat, where there are these little cartoon cats are peeing. So, like the little cartoon cat man is peeing in the urinal and there is a little cartoon cat girl, she’s like a Siamese cat, and she’s sitting on the toilet. And they are fun and innocent, cute, little paintings because again, I knew the guys, and they were “well, what would you do?” And then they had that side of the wall and they wanted to just do something bigger and I painted the logo. But that logo on the Alley Kat I did not design. So the White’s one was much closer to my heart, I was personally invested in that one. And that’s one of the reasons why I was so anxious to actually have this interview because it was something that I really enjoyed doing.
KK …. Your mural is my favorite and I wanted to start with that one.
JV Yeah, I do know there is a woman who’s really known for it [Karen Hunt]. I can give you a little bit of background from what I knew from working because the art scene in Lancaster, if you were a struggling artist, was actually quite small, people that were handing out jobs to do, for example murals or a portrait. And I did a lot of informal portraits for people. For some reason I got known for painting a lot of people that had recently died. So, I did about half a dozen paintings from these old photographs of a dead grandmother or grandfather. But I knew a bunch of people that were struggling artists. One of the things that Lancaster has that not too many people know about is that there is a big sound stage company called Clair Brothers. And Clair Brothers, I believe are in the county, near the airport, I’ve never been there. But right next door is a separate company, kind of a sister company, a little bit smaller, it’s its own company, but I don’t remember the name of it, but they do stages, they do backdrops for the stages. [see Atomic Design] So Clair Brothers builds the stage, and they’ll build stages for Bruce Springsteen and Rolling Stone because there is a lot of space up there, it’s wide open, they just make these mobile stages, the ones that they brake down and put in like ten tractor trailer trucks. Then the sister company will make the backdrops and they will paint the logo of the band or they’ll design something specific for the set piece; they work with the art director. And that company has, … they’re doing these large large paintings, I’d say, you know, 30 feet across some of them, no canvas, that they roll up. They also work a lot with MTV. And I knew a guy that used to work there, and he worked at the Lancaster Gallery with me. And he knew a woman that also used to work there. She did a lot of the murals around town because she learned how to do murals by painting these backdrops. And she did the one that’s, I want to say, I’m really bad with my street names. She did one around town that’s on the side of the building, it’s on basically, if you were at Franklin and Marshall and kind of drove down towards closer to town, to Queen Street, you might run by it. [West End, Karen Hunt]. When I was living there, there was a tiny little bird store. It’s on the side of a block of row houses and it’s a scene of row houses. And it’s one that the mayor, I think commissioned her, and the neighborhood got some funding together. I don’t remember her name, but if you were to contact Lancaster Galleries they definitely would now, because they are much more closer related to the art scene in Lancaster. That would actually be a good place to do some research, too, because a lot of artists go through there…. There is not a whole lot of money to be had in Lancaster, if you are an artist. You can pickup a mural, you can pickup certain things, it’s kind of like, a portrait here or there. I would make a little bit of money, but I don’t think I ever, you know, made enough to definitely do it fulltime. Now being a commercial artist in Hollywood, I moved out here in 2006, and I was lucky enough to break into the scene. There is a lot more availability for illustrators and artists working in entertainment, but what I know now about how things are done, if I were to go back to Lancaster, you have to sell to tourists. You can’t just do things that people are asking you to do, you basically have to be a businessman, if you want to be successful. That’s my opinion.
KK If I may ask, how did you, did you already have a job and then move to the West Coast?
JV Oh no. It was my dream to move out here. So I spent from 2000 to 2006 in Lancaster and the whole time I would tell everybody, “well, I’m moving to California next year.”
KK You had the bus, right?
JV I bought the bus to move to California, that was the whole point. But then as it turns out, I ended up moving right to the middle of Hollywood. And the more I researched it and talked to people that had had some history and some experience with California, they said, “well, if you are an artist, you have to move to Hollywood.” That was the thing I heard over and over again. I didn’t necessarily want to move to Hollywood, it’s not the nicest part of California, it’s not as beautiful as San Diego, or some of the other beach towns, or San Francisco, but it was actually a very good decision because there is a lot of opportunity for artists in this town in all kinds of respects. But there is so many jobs working in movies, special effects, storyboarding, commercials, a lot of storyboarding jobs. In fact, that’s what I was doing last night. All the stuff you se on TV, every commercial you see on TV, every action scene in every TV show. I knew artists that were storyboarding on Jonas Brothers. They would go to the Disney lot every day and just draw with the director, for the Jonas Brothers TV show, which is kind of like a very low ranked TV show. They still need storyboards, they still need to show everybody what they’re going to be shooting for the day. And then I worked mostly on advertising, so I do a lot of the movie poster stuff, which suits me really well, and it’s kid of like a dream come true because for a while I was very much interested in movie posters as a kid. The West Coast is an image place so drawing, art in general, visual things really suits this place. New York, I have a friend there that does storyboards, and he can find work working for advertising companies and stuff, but it is even harder. It’s harder than here, where I get sometimes four calls a day. I’ve been very busy, very busy….
KK Would you come to F&M and talk to our studio art students about your experiences?
JV Oh totally. I really want people to know that if you really strive and this is really your passion, you can preserver. There is a lot of opportunity. It’s different kind of opportunity. Like I said, if I were to be in Lancaster and that’s where I’d have to make it, I would be much more along the lines of Tom Hermansader, are you familiar with him? He would paint local scenes, like the square, or the opera house, and then he would sell them at the mall, you know. You basically create a commodity, a product, and then everybody in town would end up buying one for very cheap, you know, 20, 30, 40 dollars, just a print, a framed print. I worked with him just a little bit, but he did very well. He was very successful as an artist and he owns two Victorian mansions in Columbia that are just gorgeous, restored, beautiful homes. I mean, he owns two of them, that’s not bad for an artist.
KK Is he like a local Thomas Kinkade?
JV Yeah, basically a local Thomas Kinkade, Yeah, exactly, almost the same kind of feeling, too. You know, it’s art that makes you feel good about the place that you live. And that’s certainly an opportunity that is available to anybody, but a lot of people. I always like to stress the point that creative people can sometimes be incredibly uncreative when it comes to making money. [laugh] You have to basically take the creativity, the creative spirit, and apply it to every aspect of your life because otherwise you’re dead in the water. As soon as you get boxed in with your thinking, “oh, well, if I don’t get another mural, you know, then I’m gonna go broke; let’s give up being an artist.” That’s not how it works. Sometimes you have to take that portrait job or learn calligraphy, or do whatever the market wants or needs and right now, even in my career, which is quite lucrative and very successful at the moment, I constantly have to stay ahead of the game, otherwise I’ll just get bored. So even when you are successful, I fell like you still have to be creative. Constantly. I don’t even like to do the same thing for too long. As soon as it gets easy for me, I get kind of bored.
KK Great. This has been very interesting to hear your trajectory and make the connection with the mural that I see everyday and you probably haven’t seen in years.
JV You know, it’s funny, every time we go back, I try to drive by it, I love it. You picked the one that I am really truly, I feel like it’s my baby. I’m glad to know that someone is interested in Lancaster’s artistic heritage. I do suggest that you go by and talk to the people at Lancaster Gallery. They are very much in, they carry the flame, so to speak, and they are very community oriented, and they know everybody. If you needed a mural, they would tell you ten artists that you can call, you know? They are that type of company.
KK What do you think makes Lancaster so unique in its art scene, is it because of PCAD and Millersville? Is it because it’s close to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York?
JV I knew a lot of the guys. My mother was divorces when I was very young and one of her friends was an artist. I believe he went to Millersville. He was very very good and I knew that he was, ever since I was a little kid. He would bring me comic books that his friend illustrated, people like Timothy Truman, who lives in Lancaster. Now all these guys, all the best artists in town, the really good draftsmen, the really classically oriented guys, guys like the one I’m speaking of, Jeff Guide, they all eventually coalesced around PCAD and became teachers there. I believe in the 80s, from what I’ve heard, the art scene in the 80s in Lancaster was very good. As far as a small town goes, people had a lot of money, the rich people were buying a lot of original art, it was a sort of Renaissance in Lancaster. And then, PCAD kept it going, when that started up, and kept all these guys with food on their tables. And then lately, it’s had another rebirth because of the whole Queen Street scene. So, I think form what I understand, as far as being an artist in Lancaster, the best times were in the 80s because you could have an art show and you would sell most of your paintings. Now you’re lucky to sell a few. But some of the best artists, some of the really popular ones that have collectible stuff, and have a little fan base, they’ll still do very well. In Lancaster Galleries they would have art shows once a month, once every six weeks and about two or three times a year they would have somebody in that would just sell out. All their work was very lucrative and very collectible. But most of the time, they were just doing it because they were supporting the artist. You know, they would sell enough to break even to make up for the advertising. But Lancaster, I think, I can’t speak of it now because I left in 2006, but my feeling is that in general people like art, they want it, they seem to now maybe need permission, you know, whereas back in the 80s it was much more of a competitive thing. Oh, you know, how successful your office is and how nice your art is on the walls. Everybody kind of knew and it was like a game. I remember going into my dentist’s office and it had these beautiful paintings by David Brumbach, I believe is his name, beautiful watercolors, they were done in the 80s. It was just amazing, large, city scenes, rainy wet Lancaster streets, but beautifully painted and they were all originals. And I found out later that that was his dentist [laugh]. They were just traded. The dentist would spend a lot framing them, making them look really beautiful and it would create an atmosphere of affluence, you know. And I didn’t see that kind of work in the 2000s, but I’m sure it’s coming back, whereas you are creating that vibe of affluence by having really nice art. I would be happy to talk to the students, and make sure that they know that there are possibilities and opportunities out there. Like I said, you have to be creative and you have to be really really stubborn, and incredibly determined. It’s definitely there. It may not be there in the way that they imagined in their heads, because I know I had imagined this fantasy about being this famous artist when I was a kid. Believe me, I don’t know anybody that has that fantasy. The ones that are the most successful are the ones that just work, 24-7. I can tell you a few friends that haven’t had a vacation in several years, but they are very successful artists.
KK Good, I think I got enough to get me going. I will definitely keep in touch with you.