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Clevelanders Line Up To Be Painted By 'Pretentious Artists'

The Pretentious Artists use paint, pastels, colored pencils and more [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

In a time when anyone can snap a picture on a smart phone some Northeast Ohioans are getting their pictures taken the old-fashioned way.  Once a week for the past decade, the Pretentious Artists of Cleveland have used paint, pencil and pastel to capture hundreds of local faces. 

In a side room at the Forest City Brewery Dana Smith has her eyes locked straight ahead for a recent portrait sitting.  She sits motionless, except for the occasional blink.  She’s held this pose for about a half an hour as 22 people paint her picture.

You’d think that maybe sitting there and having everyone stare at you would be kind of overwhelming, but it’s not, really,” she says.  “It kind of becomes this weird, almost spiritual experience, where you’re just sitting there, zoned-out, watching everyone draw you.”

Smith is among hundreds of Clevelanders who have given up their Friday evenings to pose for a portrait by the Pretentious Artists of Cleveland.  The name is a goof on the stereotype of artists being aesthetic snobs.  But there’s not much pretension among this friendly group.

Anyone is welcome to bring their art supplies and join these informal gatherings.  The Pretentious Artists are a mix of amateurs and professionals, sipping beers and soft drinks as they paint. 

You kind of have to get used to not judging yourself in competition with other people," says Nancy Lick, an art teacher. “You lose your self-consciousness after a while.”

Tim Herron says he and a buddy, Brian Pierce, started the group in 2005.  They were looking for a way to hone their painting skills using live models.  A bowl of fruit is fine, but there’s nothing like the challenge of trying to capture the essence of a real person.  There are several drawing groups around town that hire models to pose, but that’s not in the budget of most artists on a weekly basis.

All our models come from the public,” says Herron.  “That’s why we get a new face each day, and we get an unlimited stable of people.  When you draw in the drawing groups, I pay $10-$15 to draw the model.”

But, in this case the models get paid in paintings.  The sitters are given all of the portraits, once Tim Herron photographs them and puts them up on Facebook.  Herron notes that some of the artists weren’t too thrilled with that idea.

“A lot of times, artists are asked to give their art away and that can be draining,” he says.  “At the same time, the art does get published, they see it, and they have a new model each week.  They don’t pay anything.  It’s just like exercise.”

Stow native Anne Lyon is working with colored pencils this time.  She likes these weekly sessions, because they give her a chance to experiment.

I’ve done some regular drawing, I’ve done some charcoal, I tried a watercolor,” she says.  “And I wasn’t afraid to do it here, because if she doesn’t like it, she can throw it in the trash instead of me throwing it in the trash, so it doesn’t matter.” 

Howard Collier’s skills can be clearly seen in his charcoal rendering of Dana Smith.  But, he admits even a seasoned artist has more to learn.

“For me, every week is just trying to get better at the art of portraiture,” he says. 

Dana Smith’s two sisters have both had their portraits done in recent years, and the family is trying to figure out a way to display all those pictures.

We’re turning a wall into a shrine, actually,” she laughs.  “And it’s all my sisters, so I need to get up there, too!”

If you want to get some personal portraits up on your wall, you’ll have to get on the waiting list.  The next available opening is in October.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.