The Good Son: A.B. Grizzwald sits on a stool in his friend’s Golden Hill garage studio. Though he claims this is where he paints occasionally, everything in the studio — paint, canvases, radio, couch, rug, and paint-splotched rags — belongs to the friend, a beefy, tattooed guy named Neko. Grizzwald sips from a paper cup of coffee while Neko paints in the background. The scent of Nag Champa incense wafts through the room. We’re discussing Grizzwald’s work in the art show at Bedouin Vintage Collective and Art Gallery in North Park two days ago. Though the curator said all five artists represented “the grimier side of painting,” and one visitor called it “lowbrow art,” Grizzwald refuses to label his work.
“I guess whatever people want to call it works for me,” he says.
He’s also reluctant to describe his work.
“It feels really corny trying to describe [my] painting. It sounds like I’m taking myself too seriously.”
The name A.B. Grizzwald is one he came up with on his own, two weeks before the group art show, and now he calls it “stupid.” Nonetheless, he’s sticking with it. The 26-year-old’s giant dark-rimmed eyeglasses, black skinny jeans, and sparse moustache make for a complete surface package. If I saw him working the cash register in his green Whole Foods apron, I’d probably guess he’s an artist. But he won’t call himself one.
“I don’t like calling myself an artist because it seems like an injustice to people I know [whose] art is their life. It’s everything they do.”
We both eye Neko on the other side of the room, who stands back from a large painting laid across a tabletop. Neko squints, steps forward again, and dips his brush in the can of white paint held in his left hand. He stoops over and resumes painting in short strokes.
Grizzwald turns back to me. He admits that although there is a part of him that “always feels the need to be creating,” he rarely paints unless he has a deadline looming. Last week, he painted the four pieces for the Bedouin Vintage show in two days. He finished at 4:00 a.m. the day of the show. But then last night, as most nights, he watched television instead of painting before he went to sleep. He calls himself “lazy” and says he spreads himself too thin, what with school full time (at City College, for psychology and sociology) and full-time work as a Whole Foods cashier (for $13-something an hour).
“I thought about going to art school, but the art world seems kind of really bourgeoisie, a disgusting business-related place.”
What about Neko, I ask. Isn’t Neko the art world?
“Yeah, Neko’s the art world,” Grizzwald says with a sheepish, I’m-full-of-hot-air tone to his voice.
Neko, still stooped over the painting, laughs.
“But we’re different people,” Grizzwald says. “I don’t know if I’m tough enough to deal with that kind of atmosphere, the business-related side, rubbing elbows and stuff. There are so many awesome people that sometimes I just feel like giving up.”
Although he says it sounds “corny,” he admits that his fear was once instigated while watching the audition episodes of American Idol. “Watching these people that were terrible and had no idea that they were terrible, I thought, ‘What if I’m one of those people and I have no idea?’”
I ask Neko what he thinks. He stands up straight and says, “I think [Grizzwald] talks himself down. He’s a lot bigger than he thinks he is.”
“People appreciate his work,” Neko says. “He’s extremely modest.”
It turns out that Grizzwald’s negative self-talk is a little more than modesty. Years ago, he started out as a graffiti artist. In 2004, he was arrested; a week or so later, the police raided his house.
“They blocked off our street and had my mom and aunt at gunpoint. There weren’t any drugs in the house. They might have found a butter knife,” he says bitterly. “They treat graffiti like it’s a violent crime and me as if I was dangerous. I weigh, like, 145 pounds.”
He holds his cup close to his chest with both hands. His lanky body curves inward, as if to absorb the warmth of the coffee. He follows with his eyes as Neko carries the painting outside. A moment later, we hear the sound of Neko shaking a can of spray paint. Then the whishy sound of the spray.
Soon after the raid, Grizzwald quit doing graffiti (“I just didn’t mentally have what it took anymore”) and took up painting.
“It’s about taking pride in something I’ve created with my hands. It’s a little hard finding things you can take pride in. I mean, I don’t take pride in my cashiering skills at an organic grocery store.”
He doesn’t have the option to choose art as a lifestyle.
“There’s a lot of risks involved in [living the life of an artist]. It’s not the safest bet. I have a mom who’s financially dependent on me, and my brother. Not that money is everything, but if I had to choose following a dream or making sure that my mom has food and shelter, I’m going to choose food and shelter.”
When I ask about his choice to study social work over art, he gives a long list of reasons, including a love for social work and a group of artist friends who didn’t need art school. But when I ask if he’d have made a different choice if it weren’t for his financial responsibilities, he says, “I totally would have. If I didn’t have any responsibility to anybody else, I totally would’ve done it.”
Grizzwald watches as Neko returns with the painting, sets it on the table, and stands back from it once again. Neko walks a few steps to the right, yanks at the rag that dangles from his back pocket, and dabs at the painting. Then he walks a few more steps to the right and does it again.