The Road Warrior

Where the sidewalk ends: Ken Avidor appreciates the splendor of sprawl from up close

Where the sidewalk ends: Ken Avidor appreciates the splendor of sprawl from up close

It's amazing what you'll see in the Twin Cities once the snow tide has receded and all the dormant things have come back to life for the warm months. Aside from all manner of earth-moving vehicle and orange highway obstruction, on a recent sunny Monday afternoon on Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis one could see a hirsute person of uncertain gender painting an old blue Ford pickup truck with stars and flowers and feel-good slogans such as "One Love" and "Life Is a Dance." Meanwhile, way out in Eden Prairie, if you didn't blink as you were passing by, you might have seen a Minneapolis artist named Ken Avidor painting en plein air in the median strip of Eden Prairie Road at the corner of West 78th Street, also known as State Highway 5.

The tradition of plein air painting--that is, painting out of doors--is not so novel. Generally speaking, the popularity of the practice goes back to the French impressionists of the mid-1800s who legitimized this approach even though it was frowned upon by the established academic painters of the time. Still, it is somewhat novel for an artist today to practice such an age-old technique amid the particularly unaesthetic void of tarmacadam, highway berms, and malls that make up the primary landscape of modern suburbs. After all, it's hard to imagine Monet finding anything worthwhile to paint here.

"It's a dilemma most artists would rather not have to deal with," says the 45-year-old Avidor. "Most artists want to paint what they love. But I feel years from now people will want to know why artists of this time didn't sketch and paint this," he points to the corner, which is not significantly different from countless such corners across the country.

You could say Avidor has a pretty good shtick going. He is known locally for his comic strip Roadkill Bill about a squirrel who is regularly bowled over by such characters as the repugnant, SUV-driving Anger Man. "It began as therapy," says Avidor of the strip, which is done in a style of line drawing that recalls classic R. Crumb. It has appeared locally for the past two years in Pulse, and of late has been getting picked up by national publications such as Funny Times (a 12-year-old monthly anthology of comics and humorous writing), Auto-Free Times, and Car-Busters. It has even been translated into Polish. And despite what could be called a limited topic for a comic strip, Avidor claims to have hundreds of ideas for it. "They come to me usually when I am cycling and a guy cuts me off and I almost get killed."

Back on the street, Avidor sets his wooden case down on the five-foot-wide concrete median that separates us from the two lanes of speeding traffic on either side. He unlocks the legs on the side of the box, swivels them into position, and opens the top of the box, creating a mobile easel for his pad of Aquarelle watercolor paper. "It's no wonder we have an epidemic of depression in this country," Avidor says as he surveys the scene. "It's all the same. There's a U.S. Bank there. And if you go just up the road what do you think you'll find? Another U.S. Bank."

Aside from the bank, there is a Burger King across the road to the south, a Blockbuster Video kitty-corner from the BK, and across from the Blockbuster to the south a SuperAmerica and a Walgreens. As Avidor looks back and forth, trying to decide between the Burger King and the SuperAmerica, a suburban mom with her child strapped into a safety chair behind her looks at us from a few feet away in a four-door silver-blue Buick Regal, then she pulls out a raspberry-colored cell phone and makes a hurried call before the left-turn-lane light turns green.

Once he is settled into place, Avidor makes pencil marks as a quick compositional guide, then takes a fat Prism ink pen and begins to fill in details. "I try to get all the details that people don't normally see," Avidor explains. "Gas pumps, cell-phone towers, lighting fixtures, wires. Details are what make a really good suburb drawing."

As he works, people who pass by in their cars demonstrate varied reactions. Most drivers scarcely seem to notice, their faces masks of inexpressive boredom. Others examine Avidor with a kind of quizzical look that sometimes changes to confusion or to something like anger or challenge. A kid on a school bus yells repeatedly, "Hey! What are you doing?" Taking no notice of him, Avidor continues to work. "Nobody has thrown stuff at us yet," he says. "This is amazing. But then it's not rush hour. At five o'clock, there's a lot more irritation."

Once the pen lines are in place in his image, and the scene is generally sketched out, Avidor dumps some water into a cup, dips his brush into the water, and spreads the water onto the surface of the image. Then, he dips his brush into some watercolor paint and spreads the color onto the wet paper.

Though Avidor talks as he draws and paints, he is difficult to hear with any regularity. Approximately every 30 seconds, large dump trucks filled with the earth of Eden Prairie roar past us, heading west on Highway 5. The landscape is changing around us on a rather vast scale.

"I would like to see more artists accept the challenge to show the world as it is," says Avidor. "People in cars never get to see the filth of the streets. I want to share that kind of experience in order to open up people's eyes....People in cars are in a virtual world. They don't experience anything about the environment, good or bad. I think that's why people are depressed. They're not experiencing anything at all." It is only when we are back on the freeway heading home and stuck in rush-hour traffic compounded by an accident and several construction bottlenecks that Avidor admits that his art probably won't have much of an effect on people in the end.

"But I'm hoping people will give this a try. Maybe even I can start a movement."

Not very likely in this traffic.