With eyes on his subject, Lance Vernon, a senior instructor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine, picks up the black Sharpie and starts drawing lines of the human face.
When the bold outline in the contour drawing is done, he hands the work over to Anna Arnold, a 2010 alumna from the university’s Master in Art Education program and now director of Ursuline College’s Florence O’Donnell Wasmer Art Gallery.
Over the next two hours, about the time it takes to complete their collaborative painting, the blank paper fills with colors in oil pastel crayons as the paper passes back and forth between the artists’ hands.
“The initial contour drawing comes out very primitive and Picasso-looking,” said Vernon, who compared the overall collaborative process to creating a story or jazz music.
Arnold, a Cleveland artist known for her bold colorful works, and Vernon, who has an undergraduate degree in creative writing from St. Lawrence University and was just a credit shy of earning a second degree in fine art, have created more than 200 works together.
Their works have appeared in shows around the city, including the Pop Shop, Cleveland Clinic and Café Limbo. Their artwork was published three continuous years in Academy Graphics Communication’s calendar, “52 Weeks 52 Works,” which features the talent of Cleveland-area artists.
The artists will have work exhibited on opening night of Stephen Hood’s and Susan Hughes’ play, “Men Don’t Cry,” on Friday, Oct. 10, at 7:30 p.m. at the Garden Valley Neighborhood House. The play will also be presented that following Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.
Arnold and Vernon became friends in the early 2000s, although Vernon was aware of her art before they met. He noticed her hallmark portrait of Spike Lee hung in the office of the late Distinguished University Professor Richard Hanson—and asked the late medicine professor about the artist who created it.
A few months later, Vernon met Arnold at a gallery exhibit. He asked if she had done the Lee portrait, already knowing the answer. She replied, “Yes, do you want one?”
That launched a friendship. They would meet at Café Limbo, a coffee house, where Vernon doodled in one of Arnold’s sketchpads while they talked about their writing and art interests. Soon, Arnold arrived with oil pastel crayons and paper, and the artist collaboration was born.
He encouraged Arnold, a struggling artist at the time, to enroll in the art education program on campus to build on her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Cleveland Institute of Art.
“You can’t do this collaborative artwork with just anyone,” Arnold explained. “You have to trust the person.”
By trust, they explained, each has faith that the other’s changes will be acceptable and lead, in a non-linear way, to a finished work of art.
“You can’t really make mistakes,” she said. “They become part of the work.”
They even drew staff and regulars at such places as Café Limbo—where patrons could watch as they would use their favorite color called “Student Blue,” a 1-inch-thick crayon for a bold outlines or special emphasis.
When enough is enough and they agree the work is finished, they put it aside and start on another as the coffee goes cold or the ice melts in the lemonade.
“Not all pieces work out, but when we have it, we’re in the groove,” Vernon said. Of those 200 images they’ve done together, about 30 are “worth showing,” he said.
With Vernon’s family responsibilities and several National Institutes of Health-funded research projects underway, and with Arnold busy running a gallery, the collaboration continues but at a slower pace than in 2007, the height of their collaboration. But when they find time to get together, it’s still the passing of the paper and the choice of which oil pastel crayon to use next.