Adam Dennis’ brush strokes come in quick, fluid succession. Then, he leans back to study his composition.
The piece, which delves into the French Revolution, extends from floor to ceiling. Hundreds of hours of painstakingly detailed work have gone into its creation. The size and scope of it are evidence of Dennis’ formal training and aesthetic grasp.
But the artist’s medium, on this day, is drywall paste. His masterpiece, rather than hanging under glass in a gallery, is housed in a bar — Uptown’s Coup d’Etat — where, hours earlier, cocktail-fueled patrons were leaning against it, brushing past it and knocking holes into its surface with stray chair backs.
And if the owners decide they want to do something different, the artwork gets simply washed away.
It’s made from chalk, after all.
“A little heartbreaking,” Dennis said with a smile. “But it comes with the job.”
“Job” is a term used a little loosely with Dennis, a multidisciplinary artist who is self-employed through Adam Dennis Arts and Uffda, his two creative houses. These days, a large percent of Dennis’ clients are restaurants, where he creates menus and murals with chalk.
At Coup d’Etat, Dennis maintains a pair of mammoth columns bearing 360 degrees of chalk art. He’s also in the process of spray-painting a mural in the private dining area. But the Mound native, 36, has just about run the artistic gamut.
Wakeboarding and face painting
Out of high school, he moved to Florida, where he became a professional wakeboarder. While there, he answered an “artist wanted” ad and started work as a face painter at Disney World and Universal Studios in Orlando.
He took a short stint teaching wakeboarding in the United States and Europe, but went back to art, studying at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. There, he worked for a digital and media production company that built virtual sets and animated storyboards for movies such as “Transformers.”
On the side, he began freelancing design work for Red Bull and other sports enterprises, and taking on art licensing projects as Adam Dennis Arts. After moving back to Minnesota in 2008, he continued picking up clients.
His Forest Lake house, which he calls his “museum of unfinished work,” doubles as his studio. It’s an ode to his impressive range. Classical paintings hang next to abstract creations. Doodles are framed alongside monthslong projects. There are watches and sunglasses and wakeboards he’s been commissioned to design, along with pieces he’s created from oil paints, watercolors, ink, acrylic and, of course, chalk.
“I don’t like to sit in a style,” Dennis said. “I like to try to evolve it. Why use a hammer for everything if you’ve got a bunch of tools?”
Perhaps that explains how he got into restaurant art.
Dennis had done some chalkboards for the former downtown Minneapolis bar Ugly Mug. A few years later, in 2012, the Pourhouse heard about his work and wanted something similar — sort of.
“They had no idea what they wanted,” Dennis said. “They just said something that represents the Prohibition-style golden era.”
So he climbed a ladder and, in free hand, spent four hours drawing a composition of a woman in a gown holding a pizza and a beer and advertising Pourhouse’s happy hour specials.
Spurred by that success, and in a still-unsteady economy that made freelancing difficult, Dennis began going door-to-restaurant-door, selling his chalkboard art to restaurants. One bit, then the next.
“From there, it got pretty busy,” Dennis said.
Creating an environment
Now, he typically toggles between several projects at once. Right now, he’s working on murals at Smack Shack and Coup d’Etat, a logo design for Lakes and Legends Brewing Co. and signs for Tito’s Vodka.
Most restaurants have a theme or an object they want to play up. (Smack Shack, for example, wanted to integrate a wheel that’s part of a table game called Minnesota Tri-Wheel. Dennis created a mural that incorporated the wheel as the eye of a sea monster.)
But they tend to leave the details to the artist.
Coup d’Etat wanted its chalkboard work — more than 1,000 square feet of it — to embody all things French Revolution. Dennis researched the era, then drew images of Marie Antoinette, King Louis XVI, Napoleon and hot air balloons, which were invented in the region. He also dug up quotes from the period.
“Furnished by nature and embroidered by imagination,” cascades down one column in swooping lettering.
“This job was pretty intimidating when I first started,” Dennis said. “I had to kind of reteach myself how to write in cursive.”
A couple of times, Dennis has come to Coup d’Etat just to see how bargoers interact with his art.
“Most people don’t pay any attention to it,” he said with a laugh. “But that’s not what it’s about.”
He makes $20 to $50 per square foot on his restaurant work, but typically comes back a couple times a year to repair scuffs, pockmarks and paint over the inevitable graffiti — the janitorial duties that keep his art alive.
But don’t tell him being a gallery artist would be easier.
“That freaks me out,” he said, with a grin. “I’d rather create an environment, something lived around, than something hanging on a wall.”