Most folks may recognize the hands of Bryan Jacobs from behind the pine at Lula’s Pub, where he pours whiskey on the rocks or pops open a PBR. In the middle of the current pandemic, with Lula’s shuttered until our corner of the world gets back up and running, his hands are drawing and shading movie figures, iconic musicians and even toys. A lifelong artist, Jacobs has been making ends meet since losing Lula’s income by leaning back in on his favorite pastime: art. He is taking personalized pen-and-ink commissions starting at $55.
“I made a good part of my living off of my artwork in my 20s and 30s,” Jacobs says. “I pretty regularly had commissions, plus my own originals sold well. I did work for StarNews and encore, designed some company logos (like for Wilmington bars, Wave Hog and Surly’s). [I] even did the art for a silly little book that Kenyata Sullivan had published, called ‘How to Really Party: The Sure Cure for Boredom.’”
Jacobs’ love of drawing began as a kid; his grandparents always stocked the house with art supplies. Jacobs attempted to recreate the style of work he saw in Mad magazine and comic books. “It led me to understanding things like shading and space,” he says.
He took drafting classes in high school, where he learned about perspective, and continued with a few courses in the local community college in Baytown, Texas. After he moved to Wilmington, artists like Donna Moore and Jane Baldridge taught him practical application.
Through the ‘90s and early aughts, Jacobs put together quite a few art shows while working at downtown bar Bessie’s, located where Orton’s Pool Hall is now. The underground watering hole, owned by John Butler and Lori Freshwater, was popular for having founded the theatre company BUMP (Bessie’s Underground Mole People), which hosted live shows weekly. Afterward, local thespians would head to Butler and Freshwater’s sister bar, Lula’s, a few blocks over.
“I was a regular since about the second or third day Lula’s opened in 1992,” Jacobs says. Though he never showed his art on the 180-year ballast stone walls, he had a preference for showing work in other bars around town. “I even [had a show] once at my apartment, with lots of booze and live music,” he tells. “I always tried to make it more of an informal, fun setting—not the stiff setting many people associate with an art show.”
Jacobs wasn’t only doing pen-and-ink works, either. He worked in oils, acrylics and watercolors, and even painted furniture. “I once had a roommate who threatened he would kill me if he ever came home and found his stuff painted,” Jacobs says, “as if it was some willy-nilly impulse I couldn’t control.”
Jacobs held down the bar at both Lula’s and Bessie’s, the latter of which closed in 2004. Six years later, the bar owners offered Jacobs the opportunity to take over Lula’s. Running the bar has mandated a great deal of Jacobs’ energy over the last decade. Thus his art dwindled.
“Part of it is all of the time and work required in running a small business, and part of it is a little more ephemeral than that,” he admits. “A lot of creating, at least from my perspective, has to do with confidence, and once you lose that, it’s really hard to create.”
Once COVID-19 shut down our business community, one of Lula’s regulars, Cole Marquis, paid a bar tab in advance as a kind gesture. In return, Jacobs pulled out his pen and inks and did a drawing from one of Marquis’ favorite movies, “The Warriors.”
“It felt really good working on it, and I figured if other people were interested in similar stuff, maybe I could make a little income while on hiatus from tending bar,” Jacobs says. “I also like themes, so I thought it would be cool to offer a deal for friends where they tell me a favorite movie and I’ll do my own take on it.”
Full disclosure: Once Jacobs put out the call, I responded, but strayed from the movie theme. Instead, I asked for a drawing of Lou Reed from the 1972 “Transformer” album. “It seems to be the most popular piece yet,” Jacobs says, based on Facebook likes he receives for every drawing he posts. Social media has been the main way the artist has promoted his work recently. A quick scroll through his posts will show a following of people cheering on all of his finished pieces and making requests.
“I just did a Gimli from ‘Lord of the Rings’ I’m really happy with,” Jacobs admits. “The ‘Donnie Darko’ daunted me at first, but ended up being a favorite. Also, I ended up with two ‘Goonies’ commissions. I did a Sloth Lego for the first one, and was dreading trying to do something as good for the next one, but was really happy once I got rolling.”
Jacobs has churned out 16 smaller works in the last two weeks and also has scored larger commissions, including a faux comic-book cover depicting 1940’s Wonder Woman, in a scene from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” “I’ve even started my own series called ‘Toys,’” he says.
As a small business owner mired in the COVID-19 downturn, Jacobs has found solace and inspiration in his reignited passion for art. While he misses seeing his regulars and friends at Lula’s, he also has a new goal: “If anything, I’m hoping to continue doing this full-time and wean myself entirely off of bartending,” he says. “After 32 years, I’m a little burned out.”
In the meantime, he suspects Lula’s reopening is at least a month away. What that reopening looks like and how it will happen with implemented safety measures is still under review. “But what’s going on in the world is so much bigger than us,” Jacobs adds. “If just one person got sick and died because I jumped the gun and opened too early, I would be responsible and carry that weight for the rest of my life. We will be taking all precautions, and greatly look forward to seeing our friends and providing a safe haven as soon as possible. . . . There will be a deep clean before we open, and we’ve got plenty of sanitizer and soap on hand. Obviously, crowd control will be an issue starting out, so chances are we’ll have extra staff to help with that scenario.”
For now, he is starting each day by having coffee, choosing a podcast and drawing until he can barely see. Getting back into a much-needed creative flow has Jacobs dreaming up a new future.
“I knew art was a big part of my life that was missing for a long time,” he says, “and a lot of people have been pushing me to get back to work. Once I began again, things really started to flow. Now, every day, I wake up looking forward to my day, and I go to bed thinking about what pieces I’m going to work on tomorrow. Pretty much, this is the way I want to live the rest of my life.”