Robert Lange plans opus painting of Sean Brock’s vegetable sleeve tattoo

Art imitates art imitates life

Nearly a decade in the making, it will likely take painter Robert Lange 250 hours to finish. But he says it’s all worth it to finally craft the image he’s wanted to paint for years — Sean Brock’s signature sleeve tattoo beside a still life that matches its myriad vegetables.

“When Sean first got his tattoo finished — which was like 90 hours of work — I told him I had to paint it at some point. I always envisioned his arm dropping one vegetable in this beautiful still life,” says Lange of the tattoo done by artist John Horne. “We’ve been friends for so many years and three weeks ago I finally called him and said, “Sean, it’s time.”

The busy chef, who splits his time between four Husks, two Minero’s, McCrady’s and McCrady’s Tavern, obliged.

Realizing that sourcing Brock and all the vegetables at once would be next to impossible, Lange opted for the next best thing: Brock holding one beautiful radish amidst the cascading light of McCrady’s window.

“He’s at the door in McCrady’s with that beautiful white light. I took it with a geometric straight on point of view with a 45 degree angle so I can paint it like the Dutch do,” says Lange.

To paint the image, Lange has photoshopped Brock’s arm into a still life of all the sleeve’s vegetables, however, sourcing them was easier said than done. Not surprisingly, all those heirloom carrots and radishes and Cherokee Indian beans and onions on Brock’s arm, well they’re not exactly available at Harris Teeter.

“Sean was like ‘This pumpkin variety died out in 1858, and you can’t just get these Norwegian radishes at Whole Foods,'” says Lange. Fortunately, the artist was afforded some creative license with the chef’s blessing. The exhibit Brock’s sleeve painting is for is called Recipes and as it turns out, Brock’s tattoo is basically a recipe for his “Any-Vegatable Salad,” which is included in Brock’s Heritage cookbook. “The idea of this dish is to use the freshest vegetables on hand — to capture the flavors of the day in the garden,” Brock explains in the book. With that in mind, Lange was able to take a few veg liberties.
“So I was this crazy person in Whole Foods standing there holding up beets,” says Lange of his adventures in grocery shopping. “I gave up on the idea for of finding the specific an heirloom eggplant from his grandmother. I kind of shifted instead of matching his arm specifically and went with the swiss chard and red onion. The idea is there will be a certain amount of balance.” And if you look at what he’s got on the canvas so far, it’s pretty damn close. The goal is to make it so surreal, you might think Brock is actually standing in front of you.

“I was obsessive about the canvas being exactly life size, 30 by 40 inches,” says Lange. “His arm fits to a T the exact size. It looks like you could reach out and grab one of the radishes.” Lange is waiting to paint the tattoo last. But don’t expect it to be an exact duplicate of Brock’s arm.

“I told him I could paint it like it looks today. Or I could bring it back to day one and make it a crazy electric arm where it looks like all the ink is wet. I get to bring the whole thing back like a shiny new car,” says Lange. 

As for Brock, he says he’s been a fan of Lange’s work for 12 years.

“We we’re pretty much neighbors for a long time, and every day I’d walk by. I can’t even imagine how you do that,” Brock says of Lange’s particular brand of hyper-realism. “To this very day, I simply can’t wrap my head around it. He’s just been so amazing to watch his career evolve and his style evolve and his maturity. When I have guests coming to town, that’s one of things they have to do is go over there. I love taking people over there. I’ve never seen anything like it. And to have them paint my arm?”

Where the painting will end up is yet to be determined and where Brock would like to see it go is an equally hard for the chef to wrap his head around.

“Wow, that’s a great question. What a crazy question,” he says. For him, it’s less about who has a giant painting of his arm in their living room than who does he want to have it that will continue to tell the story. “Hopefully the person who gets it is as passionate about Southern food as I am,” Brock says.

Now Lange just has to finish the painting in time to meet his own deadline. The Recipe exhibit is slated for April, which means he has a little over a month to complete it.

“I want it to be perfect. I think I can do it. I wish there was no deadline.”

Recipe will open at The Vendue on April 19 at 6 p.m.


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