Andy Braitman Contains Multitudes

He's perhaps Charlotte's best-known and most-loved art teacher. But those who can't do, teach, right? Turns out it's not that simple

Written by Miriam Durkin
Photographs by Chris Edwards

 


Published:

Braitman met his wife Carol, pictured, when his insurance agent (and her brother in law) invited him over for Thanksgiving dinner. He proposed after the first date. I really had to talk her into [marriage], he says. I'm not what she's used to. Top: Braitman says he wanted to be in the history books for his art, but he's known more now as a teacher. I had no idea the kind of satisfaction I would get vicariously from other people's success, he says.

Braitman met his wife Carol, pictured, when his insurance agent (and her brother in law) invited him over for Thanksgiving dinner. He proposed after the first date. "I really had to talk her into [marriage]," he says. "I'm not what she's used to." Top: Braitman says he wanted to be in the history books for his art, but he's known more now as a teacher. "I had no idea the kind of satisfaction I would get vicariously from other people's success," he says.

In the center of a cookie-cutter Charlotte office park sits a large warehouse space. In the center of that warehouse space is a stage. In the center of the stage sits a couch, and -- oh, roughly in the center of that couch --lounges a beautiful woman. Except for the silver piercing in the center of her navel, she is naked.

Yet of the eight men and women who stand at easels around this artist's model, none look at her. That's because, to her right, is a dervish of a man, five-feet-four, bespectacled, bearded, and balanced on one leg like a stork while he windmills his arms. He's their art teacher, Andy Braitman, and he is so animated that Mona Lisa herself could be posed behind him and the students would still be watching him.

"Feel the pressure in the torso," Braitman says, imitating the twist in the model's midsection. "Once you've got that core, then you've got these things to deal with." Arms wave. Get the basics, he preaches. Details come later.

As the artists resume drawing with charcoal sticks, he darts from easel to easel. He makes the point again and again, flinging an arsenal of metaphors:

"Don't drizzle the sauce until you have a well-cooked salmon!"

"Don't put on your jewelry until you're well dressed!"

"Paint the dog first. Then the fleas!"

Class member Kat Belk-Cook leans over to a friend: "You can tell he adores teaching."

Ask almost any artist in the Charlotte area to recommend a great teacher, and Braitman's name comes up. The private school, Braitman Studio, which he opened off Monroe Road thirteen years ago, has launched hundreds of teens and adults into painting, drawing, and sculpting. Even in a year when many businesses are hurting, Braitman's classes often have waiting lists.

"I've never turned anyone away," says Braitman. "You have to have a sense of fantasy to be an artist. You're creating a new reality on a flat surface. You have to be totally Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass head-over-heels about that illusion. If you have that sense, you can learn to paint."

Many have found surprising success and personal satisfaction in the warmth of Braitman's optimism. Clothier Paul Simon joined classes eight years ago, he says, after he got a wake-up call at the DMV. He was renewing his license and realized the next time he went there he would be sixty. No more waiting. Simon says Braitman's greatest gift was helping him develop his own style. "If you said you'd like to paint standing on your head, he'd try to help you," says Simon. The retailer had his second exhibition of landscapes this spring at Providence Gallery.

Margaret Salisbury, whose paintings are sold in Greensboro and Asheville galleries, was a young mother painting designs on wine glasses and furniture for boutiques when she realized she wanted more. She asked several gallery owners where to go, and all said Braitman. She recalls that one day she was painting in his class, "and he sat down on the steps behind me and said, ‘You know what, you could make a living at this.' He may say that to everybody, I don't know, but it doesn't matter. Can you imagine how good that felt?"

But Braitman's story has a few more layers. Braitman considers himself a painter first, and the mantle of "great teacher" is one students have thrust upon him much to his discomfort. He keeps a few afternoons a week free to paint his own works, and curious students can watch his progress on three easels in the back of the classroom.

Every year he creates about sixty paintings for RedSky Gallery in Charlotte, Allison Sprock Fine Art in Charleston, Carlton Gallery near Boone, and The Taos Gallery in New Mexico. They range from rural scenes of forests, streams, and barns to images of cottages and stone bridges in Europe, where he takes student groups to study. But don't picture the realism of an Andrew Wyeth or the translucent glazes of a Johannes Vermeer. An original Braitman is almost abstract except for the few brushstrokes that suggest a familiar image. Think pink skies, purple trees, and hallucinogenic colors. Think paint as thick as cake icing.

"For me it's just a question of how little does it take to let you find reality," Braitman says. "That's how I teach. This is what I'm excited about, so it's genuine."

And so it goes in the recent figure-drawing class: draw only those elements needed to convey the pose, he tells the students while the model finds a new position. "Each model has her own strengths. In Michelle, it's usually her neck. Let's make sure we see that wonderful head tilt and neck position."

This time Braitman is saying choose the essential detail. He breaks into metaphor: "Your sister's having a fight with your wife. Whose side are you going to choose? Your wife's!"

Then the boxing metaphor: "You've got a fist coming into your face. You have to look at the fist and decide: what can I do fast so my head's not going to snap back?"

And the drinking metaphor: "What's the most bang for your buck? If I want to get drunk, I don't want to get a nice merlot. I get the grain alcohol."

But wasn't he just saying to draw the core of the body first?

"He contradicts himself all the time," says Salisbury.

The student who cannot handle mile-a-minute, stream-of-consciousness instruction need not enroll.

For two decades before opening the school, Braitman enjoyed considerable success as a full-time artist. In those days, the Wyoming native painted highly textured abstracts that reflected his love of science and the Rocky Mountains. The colors were mixed with beeswax, which could be sculpted into geometric forms and infused with powdered minerals such as oxidized copper or carborundum. These works were shown in galleries and exhibitions in Santa Fe; Chicago; Atlanta; Millburn, N.J.; Washington, D.C.; Noorbeek, Holland; and Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba, Brazil. Locally he exhibited at Jerald Melberg, Hodges Taylor, and Shain Fine Art galleries. He was named as one of America's Leading Artists by Nancy Reagan in 1987 and was asked to contribute a decorated Easter egg to the White House. The egg is now in the Smithsonian Institution. With a résumé like that, why would he turn to teaching?

"That's a painful question to answer," he says. "I always believed that those who do, do, and those who can't, teach. … I wanted to be in the history books. From the time I left college, that's what I wanted."

But two decades of doing took a toll. When Braitman graduated from the University of Maryland in 1974, he packed a truck and drove to New York, where he shared a loft with a marble sculptor, another painter, and two dancers. "I thought I was really hot stuff," he says. The reality was he couldn't afford his own studio, worked as a carpenter's apprentice, and hung out in a SoHo bar many nights. After a year, he realized, "This isn't getting me anywhere," and he moved to the Baltimore area, where his artistic life improved.

Eventually he found studio space to share with a printer, an old building with Victorian pressed-tin walls, fourteen-foot ceilings, plenty of room for giant canvasses that sometimes stretched twelve feet tall. But the "minor success" he says he found with a few galleries still didn't pay the bills. He had to work as an electrician for six months to be able to paint for six months, a back-and-forth lifestyle that lasted five years. By 1984, the routine had exhausted him. He moved to North Carolina to work as a state visiting artist in community colleges, first in Tarboro and then in Statesville.

"I would be like after-dinner entertainment for the Rotary Club," he says. "They'd be in blue jeans, and I'd be talking about what abstract art is. It taught me how out of touch I was. I lived in an ivory tower.

"One guy said, ‘You know, son, I really like you, but it still looks like you lost your lunch on that canvas.' "

When the four-year visiting artist gig ended, Braitman had made enough professional relationships in the area for one more try at full-time painting. He found 5,000 square feet of dark, dank, concrete-floored warehouse space between the railroad trestles on North Tryon Street. There was no air conditioning and just two small, boarded-up windows. He put in a shower, built a platform for his futon, and installed a stereo, dartboard, and bookshelf. The other neighborhood enterprise was prostitution.

"My brother told my parents not to visit me," he says.

But now, in his thirties, he could paint night and day. He turned out thousands of paintings. All sold, and he poured the profits back into materials. Artistic passion possessed him. "I would wake up at three in the morning and paint," he says. He would go days without social contact. "I'd wake up, I'd work out, I'd eat, and I'd paint. I would measure my need to get out by my social skills. If I'd lost social skills, I'd know it was time to get out. … If I was eating dinner out of a pot and the pot wouldn't get cleaned, I'd just put the next dinner into it. … If I hadn't put on a shirt in six days," then he knew it was time to leave the house.

He'd surface and play poker with Jerald Melberg, Herb Jackson, and other artists. Or he'd go to dinner with his insurance agent, as in the case of Thanksgiving 1988. That day, he met a woman.

Carol Braitman, who was the divorced mother of three boys at the time, says Andy scared her at first. Her brother-in-law, the insurance agent, wanted to bring the artist to her house for the holiday dinner, but he warned Carol, "Andy's a recluse. I don't think he ever leaves the studio." To Carol, he sounded pitiful.

Andy recalls, "She had this nice big house with three boys, and I looked around and said, ‘Well, where's Ward?' She picked up on the allusion and we hit it off."

"I was a huge Leave It to Beaver fan," says Carol. To top it off, Andy did the dishes, and her boys loved him.

A few weeks later, he came for dinner again, their first date. He left at midnight, but telephoned her when he got home. He said, "I want to be with you for the rest of my life."

"OK," Carol answered. "But if that happens, it won't end well."

"That's the whole relationship," Carol now says. "He's an optimist. I'm a pessimist. I was so taken aback that somebody would wear his heart on his sleeve like that."

They dated for seven years. Sometimes he mortified her, as when he ate at a fancy outdoor restaurant with a napkin on his head to block the sun. Sometimes he charmed her, as when he showed up on Valentine's Day with a painting that included a calendar marked with all their special days. Sometimes he pushed back, as when she finally persuaded him to wear a watch, and he hiked up his pants leg to reveal it strapped onto his ankle.

"I really had to talk her into [marriage]," Braitman says. "I'm not what she's used to. She's so in control of her environment. To let me in is like letting the Tasmanian Devil into the glass shop."

Mostly, Carol wanted to know how this living-on-the-edge artist could contribute financially. Andy agreed to move out of the warehouse and into a small rented house. He tried teaching science in middle school, but he says he was abysmal. His classroom was out of control. Carol married him anyway, in a backyard Jewish ceremony, under a chuppa. It wasn't in the vows, but she insisted he open an art school.

In fall 1996, Braitman invested $80,000 (some from him, some from Carol, some from the bank) and filled two classes. The forty-six-year-old man who had been willing to paint night and day to be in the history books began to rethink his mission in life.

"What changed was that I wanted to be more normal," Andy says. "I didn't have the trappings of normalcy."

Ward would be proud. A typical day now includes making the morning coffee (Carol is not a morning person), a strenuous workout at the gym, teaching class, two hard-boiled eggs and a nutrition bar for lunch, teaching, painting, eating Carol's home-cooked dinner, doing the dishes, then watching sports on TV. A highlight is a visit from his two-year-old stepgrandson, Evan, who comes running with his arms up. "I'll do anything to make him laugh," says Braitman.

After telling this story, Braitman seems bemused by his domesticity. "I was never meant to live in a house," he says wryly. "Now I've got a cookie jar and big-screened TVs!" He grows wistful. "I'm fighting back now ... trying to come back to some sense of self after all these years. I know what being myself is, and I know I'm falling short of that as a person."
 
In his poem "Song of Myself," Walt Whitman writes, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes." Maybe that's how it is for Andy Braitman.

On the one hand, he thrives on making art, and the list of people and companies who own his work is long. It includes the Federal Reserve, Bank of America, and families named Belk, Shuford, and DeMayo. He still courts new galleries and accepts a steady stream of commissions.

But Braitman also thrives on nurturing emerging artists. The list of Braitman protégés keeps growing: Libby Smart, Fred Sprock, Veronica Clark, and Lita Gatlin, to name a few more who now sell work in galleries in the Southeast.

"I had no idea the kind of satisfaction I would get vicariously from other people's success," Braitman says.

That's no small contribution, says Christie Taylor, managing partner of Hodges Taylor Gallery and a longtime supporter of the city's artistic growth. "When we get older we start conforming," she says of adult students. "It's hard to take the stand that you want to explore your creative process. It's very bold. Andy has provided a safe environment. … That's the most important gift."

Then there are the dozens and dozens of would-be artists who simply want to explore their creative sides. Taking Braitman's classes is the "best thing that ever happened," says Kat Belk-Cook, who found herself with fewer travel demands and extra time after her husband, Tom, died. "It's rare to find a person who is a good artist and who can also teach."

Will Braitman ever be in the history books? We'll never know. By that time, we'll all be, in a sense, history. So this conflict we face, chasing dreams versus embracing security, must find its resolution in the present. It is certainly delicately balanced in Andy Braitman, who windmills his arms while standing on one leg in the center of that improbable warehouse.

"The question I keep asking myself," Braitman says, "is at what point did my passions change from a pursuit of art to pursuit of a lifestyle that included family? And that's taken a long time, and it's still not complete. I still want to be in the history books, but I don't tell people that."

Miriam Durkin was most recently the arts editor of The Charlotte Observer. She is a freelance writer and artist. This is her first article for this magazine.

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