If you had made a sketch of Robb Burnham a few weeks ago, on his way to the Lakeside Club in Mahtomedi, you would have needed only one color, dressed as he was in three shades of black: boots, skinny jeans, denim jacket. His eyeglasses, a slightly cat-eyed Buddy Holly frame, were also black. As were his accessories: iPhone, wallet, slim leather portfolio for carrying dice. (Really, he plays dice.)
Burnham’s distinctive hair — like Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart, with a little Liza Minnelli spike — tends to attract quite a bit of attention from strangers, who ask if it’s real and have gone so far as to touch it. (His secret? Getting it cut at a place with leopard-print barber chairs and faithfully adhering to his stylist’s instructions: “Don’t wash it. Don’t comb it.”) People have said he looks like a younger Keith Richards or Bob Dylan.
All that is to say, when Burnham pulled his (black) Mini Cooper up to the suburban supper club and stepped into its wood-paneled enclave, the metaphoric record scratch was practically audible.
Burnham, a 50-year-old creative director at a Minneapolis ad agency, was at the Lakeside in the role of his once anonymous, artistic alter ego, WACSO, whose charming illustrations chronicle everyday life in and around the Twin Cities.
The acronym (which he pronounces “walk-so”) stands for Walkin’ Around Checkin’ Stuff Out, and reflects a critical element of Burnham’s artistic process: gathering inspiration by exploring new and familiar places.
In an era where streetscapes are continually renovated or razed, far too often replaced by something chintzier and more homogeneous, Burnham focuses on documenting what’s distinct.
While he has drawn plenty of popular local icons, including the Grain Belt Beer sign and U.S. Bank Stadium, he prefers to highlight the out-of-the-way or under-the-radar. He’s especially adept at capturing small moments: a dude smoking meat at a roadside BBQ stand; a leatherworker hunched over a sewing machine.
“It’s the little things, not necessarily the big, obvious, important things,” he said. “Life is full of mostly mundane moments, but there are very interesting things at any time if you just open your eyes.”
Burnham doesn’t really consider himself an artist, but his illustrations have appeared in local newspapers and websites, as American Express window stickers and on Dunn Bros. coffee cups. Starting July 13, his work will hang in Gallery 360 in south Minneapolis.
In many ways, his art is like the subjects he prefers: It doesn’t draw attention to itself. Yet over the past decade, his low-key, intimate illustrations have become local shorthand for Things That Make This Place Cool. What catches Burnham’s eye reflects the soul of a place.
‘We just get lost’
Burnham and his wife, Pam McFerrin, spend most weekends exploring the edges of the metro area. Sometimes they’ll drive two hours for dinner, though they don’t often venture farther because Burnice, their princess of an English Bulldog, expects them home before bed.
Whatever obscure, secretly cool place you can think of — down to the manual car wash in your grandma’s tiny hometown — Burnham and McFerrin have probably been there. Saloons that lack windows and pretension, the sort with an Old Style or Schlitz sign swinging in the wind, emit an especially strong tractor beam. They can’t help but stop.
“We just get lost,” Burnham said. “Sometimes you really get some great food or some interesting characters. Sometimes it’s a little sketchy when you open the door to a little bar. It’s like, ‘What are we getting into?’ ”
(The feeling can be mutual, which he documented in a drawing called “What The?” which captured the shocked expression of a saloon regular as he encountered the two city slickers.)
The couple chat up staff and snap a lot of photos (before iPhones, they used to lug around Polaroids). Back at home, Burnham sifts through the images and selects a handful of favorites. Then he draws with a tablet and stylus, using the photos for reference.
Burnham started drawing as a creative outlet from his work in advertising. His father, Pat, was a lauded creative director, so Burnham grew up workshopping ad concepts around the kitchen table. (Although Pat’s now retired, he can’t help but critique. “When we go to their house, I try to stand in front of the TV during commercials so he can’t see,” Burnham said.) He and McFerrin met when they worked together at another local agency in the mid-1990s.
The man behind the acronym
Burnham’s artwork went public somewhat accidentally.
Years ago, he sketched two regulars of the former Java Jack’s in south Minneapolis. After one of them died, the cafe asked for the drawing. The Southwest and Downtown journals got wind of it and started publishing his illustrations in 2007.
Sarah McKenzie, who edited both papers, said she was eager to share WACSO’s work: “I thought he had a beautiful style and lovely way of drawing attention to these little moments in our life that some people might take for granted.”
Burnham invented the WACSO pseudonym because he wanted to keep his anonymity, but inevitably his identity slipped out.
He typically spends several hours a day drawing and creates more than 300 illustrations a year. You could lose a couple of days on his WACSO website, clicking through images of a Chinese restaurant, an old-school barbershop, a guy shoveling snow in shorts, and dog walkers, who often e-mail Burnham after recognizing themselves in his art. (Burnham, who loves dogs, has raised thousands of dollars for pet rescue groups by drawing pooch portraits for owners who make donations in WACSO’s honor.)
Burnham’s specialty is anything old: “Cool Old Volvo,” “Old Bridge,” “Old Man Fishing,” “Oldsters in Shades,” along with Old Dudes #1, 2 and 3.
South Minneapolis features prominently in WACSO’s work. Gallery 360 owner Merry Beck said her clientele feels a strong connection to Burnham’s graphic storytelling and his tributes to beloved neighborhood landmarks. “You can never capture the Lake Harriet Band Shell enough times,” she joked.
Burnham is, in fact, such a Harriet mainstay (“You’re like the elf,” McFerrin teases) that people who frequent the lake should know that their likeness might end up in WACSO’s portfolio. At Burnham’s previous Gallery 360 show, in 2011, a dog walker bought a work she recognized as the moment she’d ducked into a lakeside portable toilet, still holding her pup’s leash as it waited outside the door. (The upcoming show will feature recent works printed on stretched canvas, priced from $200 to $500 depending on size.)
WACSO illustrations have the loose feel of a sketch, even though many are highly detailed. While they’re grounded in realism, Burnham uses color and line density to emphasize some areas and let others recede. Many works capture the frisson of stepping into an unfamiliar room and freezing the scene. It might be a busy cafe full of diners slurping ramen, or a bowling alley’s pro shop with a guy drilling holes into a ball.
James Norton, founder of the local food website Heavy Table, observed Burnham’s “superpower” ability to engage strangers during the hundreds of hours they spent eating at independent restaurants to create guides to three Minneapolis dining corridors.
“He doesn’t look like a journalist, he looks like an aging rock star, but he makes people feel comfortable,” Norton said. “He wants to connect and wants to hear people’s stories.”
Burnham shares his stories about each drawing through captions that add wry, nostalgic commentary. An illustration of a guy who shined Burnham’s shoes, for example, notes that the service came with a gentle lecture about how he should take better care of his boots.
The detail and humor in his writing brings out more of his subject’s personality than the drawings alone could. “That’s what makes his work so endearing,” Beck said.
The caption for a drawing of the Minneapolis fish shop Coastal Seafoods reads: “I always have the dumbest questions about how to cook stuff and they are always happy to help, although I’m sure they’re rolling their eyes thinking, ‘Are we really gonna sell good fish to this guy that has no clue what to do with it?!?!’ ”
For “Statue Cleaners,” which depicts workers washing the crevices of Fernando Botero’s voluptuous dancers on Washington Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, he offers a succinct theory: “I suppose they make the new guy clean the butt.”
The text accompanying an illustrated VW van hints at WACSO’s spirited approach to life: The world’s one big party and he’s a curious, genial, up-for-anything guest. “I was walking around the lake late one night and I saw this crazy cool tricked out VW van and noticed a bunch of people on the lake gathered around a bonfire. How cool is that? So I walked home and grabbed Pam and a bottle of bubbles and headed back to the scene … but when we got there everyone had left and the fire was out. Bummer.”
The Lakeside Club sits at the intersection of several Burnham interests: scratch-made food, stylish signage, old folks, old places. It hasn’t changed a lick since 1962. Though it’s only minutes from Willernie’s main street, it feels as remote as when “Fargo” police chief Marge Gunderson pulled up in her squad car to question a couple of prostitutes (a scene shot at the Lakeside).
As soon as Burnham and McFerrin slid into a corner booth, he asked Sue Mahmood, waitress and co-owner, for the history of the place. Mahmood gave them the rundown: Her dad and his brothers ran the property’s original joint, the Hula Hut, after the war. Before they owned it, the Hut had supposedly been a Ma Barker and Al Capone hangout.
Mahmood’s relatives went on to build the Lakeside, which still has the original kitchen equipment, right down to the nickel-topped grill. Pretty soon, Mahmood was giving Burnham and McFerrin a tour of the place, including a peek inside the original wood-lined walk-in cooler.
When the trio descended into the Lakeside’s basement bar, out of earshot, a patron remarked: “The guy looks like a rocker guy, like a Tommy Whatever-his-name was with all the tattoos,” presumably referring to drummer Tommy Lee from Mötley Crüe. (Although he doesn’t have tattoos, Burnham does play drums with Tim Casey and the Martyrs.)
Burnham and McFerrin returned to their table — and an order of onion rings, side salad with homemade Thousand Island dressing, and a slab of sirloin big enough for four.
And because Mahmood said she made all the desserts, they had to try the banana cream pie.
Periodically, Burnham snapped photos, somewhat indiscriminately, not wanting to get too focused on his camera as to miss soaking up the experience. Still, he was picking up on elements that best represent the Lakeside’s essence, thinking: “How can you capture the flavor?”
When we say a place has “character,” what do we really mean? To Burnham, it’s an artistic distillation of the lone regular drinking at the bar, the cook’s T-shirt promoting a custom exhaust system shop, the paper place mats printed with the menu.
Burnham hopes his illustrations encourage people to go check out new places beyond their usual scratching posts.
“It’s far more interesting to be in places where you maybe don’t belong,” he said. “Everyone knows that Colita’s a great restaurant, and I’m fine going to Colita,” he said, referring to the trendy new Minneapolis eatery run by a four-star chef. “But I’d rather come out to something like this — it’s just a different world.”
The internet has made it easier for Burnham to uncover hidden gems. But all the blogs and Yelps and Trip Advisors in the world will never replace the thrill of just randomly driving around on little back roads, as Burnham and McFerrin did taking the long way home from the Lakeside.
He snaked the Mini Cooper through a former resort community made up of little lake cottages plopped haphazardly into a web of narrow roads. How else would he find an over-the-top patriotic lawn display of a U.S. flag next to a red, white and blue Uncle Sam cutout holding his own Stars and Stripes?
Burnham slowed the car to a crawl. There was no way this thing would outlive its residents. And certainly not the inevitable condo development. It deserved to be recorded.
So he reached across his passenger, leaned his phone out the window and snapped.