Classical Portraitist Emile Klein Rides His Bicycle Across the US, Painting Working-Class People


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Classical Portraitist Emile Klein Rides His Bicycle Across the US, Painting Working-Class People

So far, he has traveled 14,000 miles and painted 40 Americans from ten different states.
January 22, 2015, 1:00pm

Photo by Kaitlin Donovan

Semi trucks roared past the two of us as we biked up the hill. Route 1 out of Philadelphia barely has a shoulder, so we hugged the embankment, trying to avoid traffic. We pedaled so close to the edge of the road bushes nipped at our legs as the July sun bore down on us.

The artist Emile Klein and I were on our way to Baltimore, where in two days Klein would begin painting his next subjects. "A psychedelic therapist and a hypnotist who're married," was how Klein described them. But first we had to bike there. For Klein, this would not be a problem. He bikes everywhere and has for years. He rode before me wearing shorts, his bare calf muscles bulging like knots on tree trunks.


Meanwhile, the sweat dribbled down my forehead and into my eyes. Trying to sop my face dry with my shirt, I lost balance and my bike wobbled, twisting my front wheel toward the road and into traffic. I righted myself, and the coming car missed me by a couple feet. This happened repeatedly. It was 94 degrees, humid, and we'd been biking all morning.

Klein never swerved nor showed any indication that the heat or the long trip was causing him pain. His only challenge was to ride slowly enough for me to keep pace. Eventually, he shrugged off that encumbrance, and sped up until he was out of sight.

I met Klein at the arts high school we both attended a decade ago in San Francisco. But I hadn't seen much of him since he started the You're US project in 2011. The trip to Baltimore was an opportunity to witness firsthand the monastic life he'd built for himself riding on America's highways and sleeping on its couches.

The goal of You're US is for Klein to paint portraits of three people from every state. So far, he's painted 40 Americans from ten different states. In exchange for his Renaissance-style portraits, Klein's subjects give him room, board, and the opportunity to record stories from their lives. The resulting audio has been featured on NPR's Snap Judgment and played alongside video of his paintings at UnionDocs, a nonprofit center for documentary art in Brooklyn.

As an added difficulty, Klein travels from subject to subject by bike. He's traveled 14,000 miles in the past three years—almost all of those miles in the summer heat with 80 pounds of art and life supplies in saddlebags hanging off his wheels. Sometimes he rides a hundred miles in a day.


But the first day of our trip from Philly to Baltimore was only 40 miles. Klein was going easy on me.

At the end of the day, we pulled into Juniper Hill Farms outside of Landenberg, a town on the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. The front door of a farmhouse opened and out came Lindsey Flexner and Odin, a burly old hippie and his slobbery mastiff.

"How you doing, Otie?" Klein said in a baby-voice, squatting to pet the dog. Flexner hugged Klein like an old friend; his wife, Dianne Belnavis, had been one of Klein's subjects a while back. Since then, Belnavis and Flexner had grown close to the artist and let him use their home as a way station on his travels through the mid-Atlantic.

"Dianne ain't around this week," Flexner said. "You seen the Guys yet?" We hadn't. "The Guys" are the residents of Juniper Hill Farm, a group of young men with autism who pay rent and tend livestock and a garden. Belnavis founded Juniper Hill to offer the autistic dignified housing. Rather than being warehoused in some grim facility, residents enjoy an edenic life funded by their disability checks and menial jobs Belnavis helps them acquire.

Flexner told us he was up until 2:30 AM the night before playing music. "You can sleep in," Klein said. "I'll feed the animals in the morning."

"Are you sure?" Flexner asked. "Don't forget anything with the rabbits, 'cause if anything happens, I get blamed."

"Listen," Klein responded. "It's the chard plus the—" Flexner cut him off laughing, nodding his head. Klein knew the drill.


Klein's subjects open their lives to him because of moments like these. As Klein would later tell me, "I'm a ninja about small ways of helping out: Taking out their trash when they're not there and putting a new bag in. Not eating too much of their food but complimenting it, unless there's someone who likes you to eat a lot of their food. And then eating a lot of their food."

Klein even withholds his bodily functions to save his hosts from odor. "I just did a portrait recently where the guy's bedroom was next to his bathroom and it was very close quarters," he told me. Klein didn't poop in the house for a week. "I felt bloated the whole time."

Bloating isn't the only risk Klein faces when he inserts himself into his subjects' lives. During one stay at Juniper Hill, Robin, one of the autistic residents, wouldn't stop saying "nigger." Klein lost his temper and demanded that Robin stop. In response, Robin punched him in the mouth, busting his lip.

After eating dinner in the farmhouse inhabited by the Guys, Klein took me to Belnavis's unoccupied bedroom in the center of the house. The portrait he'd painted of Belnavis sat hidden in an alcove. Cosmetic mirrors and brushes surrounded the unframed painting as it leaned against a wall. Like all of Klein's work, the painting is beautiful. In it, Belnavis glows against a shimmering blue background, like an angel in a T-shirt.

When I asked Klein about it later, he didn't seem to care that the painting of Belnavis was stuffed in the messy back corner of a bedroom. "I know some of my subjects value them more than others. I mean, one lady stored hers in her oven." Klein laughed. "I was like 'OK, it's yours to do what you want with, but the oven?'"

Diane Belnavis holding her portrait from the 'You're US' series

This attitude reflects Klein's disdain for the exclusivity of classical portraiture. Klein intensely dislikes the aristocratic aura associated with his style of art. He's especially offended by artists who profit by painting and photographing the poor, then selling their work to wealthy private collectors or esteemed galleries.

"There are a lot of projects that document people who can't afford to be documented," Klein later told me. "Like going into a favela and taking pictures and putting it in an exhibition. Or writing a song like Sufjan Stevens about an 'other.'"


You're US is intended as "reparations for a longstanding offense" of the wealthy and well-connected profiting from depicting the type of poor and working class people Klein often paints. To subvert this tradition, Klein gives complete ownership of the finished works to the subjects themselves, only requiring them to occasionally loan the paintings to Klein for You're US exhibitions.

"The system is set up for artists to go and document somebody and then reap the rewards of documenting someone else's life," Klein told me. You're US "is confronting that. By saying, 'You own this now. You can burn it, scratch it up, throw it away. The responsibility for this part of American history is yours, not a museum's.'"

That night I slept in a trailer while Klein crashed in the house with the Guys. To Klein, such accommodations amount to luxury. On the road traveling from subject to subject, he sleeps on benches, behind dumpsters, amid trees and bushes. He has a tent, but often Klein lies in the open air on his jacket.

Klein had a gun pulled on him after spending the night in his tent behind a church in North Carolina. He's broken into an abandoned motel to spend the night. And he once snuck into an empty church to sleep on a soft pew.

Klein is as much a strange drifter as he is a classically trained artist. Not that his current lifestyle affords him much of a choice. He makes less than $10,000 a year. Klein's paintings could sell for $4,000 on the open market, a low estimate in comparison to his contemporaries. By trading them in exchange for a week's worth of room and board, he essentially gives them away. This may be another reason Klein's subjects adore him.

Grant holding his portrait from the 'You're US' series

Klein was trained as a portraiture artist at Angel Art Academy in Florence, where he became the school's janitor to get unfettered access to its studios. He'd spend 18 hours a day at the academy, drawing, painting, mopping, and sweeping. But by Klein's fifth and final year of study, he had grown disillusioned with the rigidity of classical portraiture. The life of a classical portraiture artist loomed heavily before Klein—though the occupation pays well, affording its practitioners entrance to the parlors and drawing rooms of the wealthy, Klein was repulsed by the looming specter of a career spent painting rich Europeans and their cats.

Fortuitously, at the end of his time in Florence, Klein's godfather emailed him a story in the New Yorker that would change his life. Written by Julian Barnes, "The Limner" is a short piece of historical fiction about limners, itinerant American portraiture artists from the Revolutionary era who traveled New England by horseback and painted commoners for a pittance. While limners lacked formal art training and had formerly been house or sign painters, the paintings they left behind offer a rare glance into the lives of the lower classes of the 18th century.


"The typical American could not afford the work of the European trained artist, nor would they want such work," Stacy Hollander, a senior curator at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, told me. "They had just had a revolution against England, so they were rejecting the values of Britain and the art that went along with it."

Klein was fascinated by how the limners democratized what had formerly been an art form exclusively for the wealthy. He wondered, after his long absence from the US, if he could replicate the limner lifestyle in contemporary America, painting poor and working-class people for practically nothing, riding on a bike instead of a horse.

"I kind of didn't know America anymore," Klein told me. "I wanted to do a project that showed all kinds of Americans who aren't normally represented in this kind of portraiture."

Following a light breakfast, Klein watered and fed Juniper Hill's animals. He fended off a sheep with a stick to keep it from eating the goats' food. Afterward, he fiddled with the back tire of his bike, which suffered from holes and had gone flat the day before.

After we said our goodbyes, we mounted our bikes. It was 10:30 AM and the humidity weighed us down like a thick blanket. The road from Landenberg into Maryland rolled with hills steeper and more plentiful than we'd encountered the day before. An hour and a half into riding and my back already hurt. Another 50 miles lay before us.


Meanwhile, Klein seemed to ride faster, even with the added weight of art supplies and an easel he'd picked up at Juniper Hill. Eventually he quit stopping to let me catch up and I lost him. I didn't see him again for over an hour. By the time I got to Perryville, my legs were dead and the heat was in the mid 90s. The sun was everywhere. I'd been biking as hard as I could, trying to catch up, but I couldn't keep going. I pulled over to a strip mall and there was Klein, leaning in the shade against the wall of a supermarket, finishing his lunch.

As we rested, the clouds rolled in dark and heavy. Klein's iPhone predicted a storm. "Normally, I'd just ride through it," Klein told me. "It's dangerous, but it can be fun. But since you're here…" In his eyes I saw the memory of my swerves into traffic the day before.

We rode to Perryville's train station and locked up our bikes. Klein had to be in Baltimore that evening, so we'd have to go by train. Klein wasn't happy. He told me, "I'm justifying this to myself because we're going to have to come back to Perryville in a couple days to get our bikes. Then we'll have to ride into Baltimore. No cheating." He wanted to make sure I got the whole experience, backache and all.

Sadie Brannon holding her portrait from the 'You're US' series

The storm slammed against the train's windows as we rode the MARC toward Baltimore. "I don't understand why anyone says 'yes' to me," Klein said. "Why would anyone say, 'Sure, come along while I mourn at my mother's grave'? Or, 'Watch me take my insulin'? Or, 'Come to the hospital with me while I check on my dying husband'?"

Klein extracts stories from his subjects after bonding with them. They grant him access to record the most private parts of their lives for his online audio interviews. In the story of Yolanda Williams, a California woman Klein profiled in 2011, she recounts her crack abuse, prostitution, and inability to raise a daughter who eventually grew addicted to crack herself. In another story, Sadie Brannon from Virginia opens up to Klein about the brother who raped her as a child. She goes on to talk about the racist, verbal abuse hurled at her by her husband, whom Klein lived with while he painted and recorded Brannon.


But it wasn't always so easy for the portraitist. His first long trip through Florida in 2011 was a disaster. He arrived in Miami without any subjects lined up to paint, but he wasn't worried. Klein assumed it would be easy to find people willing to share their life stories and house him in exchange for a portrait worth thousands. And though he'd never been to Florida, he figured the map on his smartphone would adequately guide him. He was wrong on both counts.

Klein spent over a week riding across Florida in the June heat, desperately looking for someone who would let him paint his or her portrait. And he kept getting lost, riding for miles only to discover that his iPhone had betrayed him again, that a road on the map didn't exist anymore, maybe never existed, was just a walking trail that became brambles. One of these mistakes forced him to ride for hours on a deserted road through the Everglades. "It was an alligator and vulture wildlife reserve," Klein told me. "The alligators swam in the water bordering both sides of the road. The vultures would continually land right in front of my bike and I'd yell at them." This went on for 40 miles.

Klein continued north, from Belle Glade to Sarasota, emailing and calling community centers and religious groups across the state, trying to convince them to host him. Eventually he arrived in Gibsonton, a town renowned as a winter home for carnies. Klein hoped to find a bearded lady or strongman to paint. Instead, staying at what he refers to as a "crack motel," he met an ex-convict who wept while recounting the tragic story of his youth into Klein's recorder. The following morning the ex-con shook down Klein for $30, demanded a "loan" of hundreds more, and ran him out of town with threats of rape and murder when he refused.


"Throughout my life I've made things work out," Klein told me. In Florida "that was not at all the case."

Carly Ptak holding her portrait from the 'You're US' series

The day after our train ride, Klein stood behind a camera in a West Baltimore basement. He pointed the camera at his two latest subjects, Twig Harper, the psychedelic therapist, and Carly Ptak, the hypnotist, as they posed for their portraits. Harper and Ptak first gained notoriety as Nautical Almanac, an influential noise music act from the same Michigan scene that produced Andrew WK and Wolf Eyes. More recently, their fame has hinged on Harper's use of guided psychedelic drug trips for therapeutic purposes.

Scattered lights lit the cavernous house, a space filled with a patchwork of found and handcrafted objects. In a dim room sat a deprivation chamber. In another, comfortable seats where Twig guides visitors on trips after they've ingested hallucinogens. Outside, words of New Age positivity decorated the purple bricks of the house's facade. "Friends," "Peace," "Love."

Books on chakras, metaphysics, and drugs lined the walls of the basement, stuffed onto shelves and stacked on chairs. Harper and Ptak posed in front of one of these bookshelves. Harper stood awkwardly, his long lanky body leaned against the shelf, while Ptak sat in a chair beside Harper, her hair done up in a circular braid like that of a space princess. As Harper set and reset into different poses, trying to get comfortable, Ptak begged Klein to capture the beauty of her husband's face, saying, "I hope you get his pretty nose."


Klein ignored her. He works like he rides; quickly and without humor. If he smiled and laughed during his initial setting of Harper and Ptak, it was only to put them at ease. He fidgeted behind a camera, photographing different poses from which he would later model his painting.

"Could you bend in, like you're bending into the conversation?" Klein told Harper, who still struggled to feel or look comfortable. "No, that looks horrible. Don't do that." This continued for another hour, leaving the artist and his subjects visibly exhausted.

Twig Harper holding his portrait from the 'You're US' series

Klein agonizes over his paintings. He special-orders his pigments and concocts his own mix of paint that he proudly claims will last 500 years. And he won't show his work in progress to anyone lest a stray critical remark send him into a spiral of self-doubt that will hurt the final product.

But despite the meticulousness Klein exhibits while creating his paintings, he speaks flippantly when discussing his process.

"I have friends who make very fancy, very developed paintings, but I don't have the option of doing that," Klein said. "To just sit around and work on one painting forever. Because I'm traveling."

Klein's irreverence regarding his work reflects his view of classical portraiture as being possibly worthless. Earlier on the trip, while discussing old-master style painting, Klein exclaimed, "We have millions of these things. Do we really need another? I don't know. We could toss a bunch of them."


Klein's derision might be explained by naturalistic painting's place in contemporary art conversation—that is, it has no place, at least not when it's done in earnest. Contemporary artists like Kehinde Wiley (famous for painting an imitation of Napoleon Crossing the Alps with a black man in Timberland boots sitting in for the French dictator) still make work that hearkens to classical realism, but usually as a means of commenting on the societies and cultures that historically produced such work.

"Painting portraiture hasn't been a major art form for a really long time," Hollander, the curator from the American Folk Art Museum, told me when I talked to her about Klein's work. "So [ You're US] is a retro project."

Klein is acutely aware of this dynamic. He told me that if he could reverse time, he would have studied conceptual art, which is more or less the opposite of classical realism. Speaking of his studies in Italy, he said to me, "In Florence I learned a trade," spitting out the word trade like an over-chewed piece of gum.

Tod holding his portrait from the 'You're US' series

At 5:30 AM the next morning Klein and his friend with a van picked me up from the apartment on the outskirts of the Station North neighborhood where I crashed. We drove to Baltimore's Pennsylvania station to catch an early train to Perryville, where we would collect our bikes and ride back into the city. But as soon as his friend drove off, Klein realized he'd left the keys to unlock his bike at Harper and Ptak's house in West Baltimore. Furious, he kicked a cement planter box over and over, like he was trying to break the box or his foot. It would be impossible for him to catch the early train, which left in a few minutes. The following train left in an hour and it was the last train to Perryville until much later in the day.

"This is why I don't ride with other people," he told me, shivering with rage. "Just go. Start the ride back by yourself. I'll catch up."

I would later learn that, loath to ask another favor from his friend with the van or pay for a taxi, Klein had sprinted to West Baltimore and back. He'd run eight miles in under an hour, wearing hard, stiff bike shoes that were as bad for sprinting as snow boots. He barely caught the next train.

Klein never caught up with me. I rode the 40 miles from Perryville to Baltimore in just a few hours. My body had acclimated to long rides and the trip into the city was easy. I rode straight on the shoulder, never wobbling into traffic. Without the pressure to keep pace or a justified fear of accidental death, long-distance riding became pleasant. I could see why a loner like Klein would choose this solitary life on the road.

After we returned to Baltimore, Klein spent the rest of the week cloistered in Ptak and Harper's house, weaving himself into the fabric of their daily routines. He smoked weed and salvia with Harper, underwent hypnotherapy with Ptak, and floated in the sensory deprivation chamber. He posed them again, this time individually because he'd decided they both deserved their own paintings. And over two days he recorded 15 hours of audio of them talking about their lives.

By the end of his time with them, Klein felt adopted. "Ptak made me this amazing little patch that I'm wearing on my neck," Klein told me. She'd also given Klein a key to their house, just in case he was ever in the area and wanted a place to crash.

When I first heard of You're US, I thought Klein had set out to recreate the life of the old American limners by copying its most shallow elements with a modern analog. A bike instead of a horse. Room and board instead of discounted prices. All of America instead of just the 13 colonies.

But I was wrong. He's recreated the best part of what the limners did for America. You're US brings a contemporary art project within the grasp of those who could never afford and rarely have access to such art. Just as the limners did hundreds of years ago.

And this doesn't seem lost on Klein. He once said to me, "[Limners] represent the part of American history that I totally love. The gumption to do something totally crazy… The fact that the limners were just like 'I'm gonna try this.' That's why I admire them."

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