You will soon meet a nice, handsome cowboy with a long rope. Maybe I don't give a rat's ass. Women are from Paris, men are from New Jersey. It's all about me. These are just a few of the sardonic slogans -- text-only artworks hand-drawn in colorful letters -- by the Burlington artist dug Nap. And yes, the spelling is intentional, an abbreviation of Douglas Knapp. Like his name, his signs look as if they'd been written by a child, but the messages are quite grown-up, and the combination is appealingly edgy. In the form of 8 1/2-by-11-inch prints, they're popular purchases at the summertime Art Market, Saturdays behind the Firehouse Gallery. Now neat stacks of them cover a long table in Nap's subterranean studio on lower Church Street.
The prints' progenitors, original paintings on board with heavy, scrap-wood frames, lean against walls in twos and threes. Other oil paintings, featuring people or animals with amusing and/or disturbing text, hang on the walls. Older works focus on Nap's own psychodramas or those of imagined dysfunctional relationships. A newly commissioned portrait of someone's dog awaits completion on the easel at his self-designed "art bed." Racks and surfaces around the studio are piled with Nap's greeting cards -- lots of new, mass-printed ones, fewer of the hand-colored ones that he first began selling in local stores nearly 15 years ago.
Less-evident accomplishments are catalogued in a portfolio: bear drawings for a Merrell boot ad campaign a few years back; a large painting hung in an upscale living room on the cover of the Winter 2000 edition of Home & Design magazine; commissioned drawings for a children's book. He's written three kids' books of his own, and is working on a graphic novel. "I don't want to just be 'the card guy,' or the 'this or that,'" Nap announces. "I want to do a variety of things."
Indeed. The organized clutter of his basement warren makes clear that the fiftysomething, Montpelier-born artist has applied his idiosyncratic style to a lot of projects. He has paintings in five Vermont galleries -- the three Frog Hollow outlets, the GRACE Gallery in Hardwick and The Lazy Pear in Montpelier -- and two out of state. At different times Nap has had a weekly cartoon strip in this paper, and in The Burlington Free Press. His cards are available at a number of outlets. And at the Four Corners of the Earth Deli in Burlington, Nap's handwritten signs set a lively, quirky tone.
But if his works have won loyal fans, Nap can't yet claim art-world fame and fortune in the way that, for example, Brandon-based folk artist Warren Kimble has. He hasn't had a car in 20 years. His apartment is a cramped two rooms above his studio, which he shares with his beloved cat Lucas. And he claims that the expenses of making and marketing art eat up his income -- though that list of galleries sounds impressive, sales, he says, have been modest. "I really need someone to be a manager or agent," Nap concedes, echoing the refrain of many a Vermont artist who dislikes handling "the business part."
It's true that success can be elusive in the niche-driven art market. Though he reveres Grandma Moses, Nap himself doesn't qualify as "folk." Nor does he quite fit the trendy "outsider" mold. Yes, he began making art during a stint in a mental hospital years ago, and yes, his drawing is somewhat crude and naïve-looking. But his wit and subtle sophistication betray a college education -- at Johnson State -- and years of therapy. Not to mention astute observations of human folly. "I'm somewhere between folk art and outsider art," Nap equivocates. "But I fit those more than academic art."
"I agree his work doesn't fit either category," says Pat Parsons, an art collector, dealer and dug Nap cheerleader. "Though I've never represented him, I've always 'good-mouthed' him," she says, "because I firmly believe dug is a superior talent. He has this wonderful way of putting images and words together -- very brutally honest and dark."
Parsons has handled artworks from her Burlington condo since her downtown gallery, Webb & Parsons, closed in the early '90s. But earlier this month she donated her entire outsider collection to a gallery at her alma mater, Vassar College. "I think I'm ending up with a whole category of artists who are truly eccentric. I would put dug in that," she continues. "Eccentric, to me, is a good word, not pejorative. He's his own man -- whatever that is."
None of which explains the hats: Along with the accoutrements of art-making, Nap's studio houses a riotous assortment of headgear -- among them a dunce cap, a construction hard hat, an orange hunting cap and a faux-leopard-print sombrero -- as well as dozens of wigs. "I've only been collecting them since the end of the summer," Nap reveals. "I guess I tend to obsess."
All are potential guises in his new one-man show -- that is, a theatrical performance. Nap is doing his first work on stage since the 1980s, when he fronted the Burlington band Pinhead. His serio-comic piece combines monologue, readings, music and generally acting out. Tall, gaunt, and serious in demeanor, Nap doesn't seem the funny-hat type. But like many a performer before him, he finds the props help mine the characters within. His show, called simply "dug Nap Live," is on January 28 at the Firehouse.
"I decided I spend too much time alone, so I needed to get out more," he explains. "I'm just trying to fasten this dug Nap life into some kind of performance art. It's all a work in progress."