Photo by Ron Jasin

April 15, 2009

Luck be a lady

Artist Pat Gallagher offers up the 10 most inspirational women of Louisville in new exhibit

It wasn’t the fact that the stranger asked for his doodle that surprised him; it was the way he held it. Pinching the opposite corners of the scrap of paper, holding it out at arm’s length, the stranger marveled at Patrick Gallagher’s sketch.

Gallagher was at the bar of a ritzy New York City hotel coming down from his shift at Sirius satellite radio. In town for a short stint to help out on Howard Stern’s morning show, he sat alone sipping a Woodford on the rocks, moving his Sharpie across the paper. The stranger’s sudden proximity startled him and the marker stopped.

“Can I buy you a drink?” the man asked.

“I was like, Let me tell you about my wife and kids first — I thought he was hitting on me,” Gallagher recalls. “He started laughing and said, ‘No, I’m an art collector, and what your drawing reminds me of is Matisse.’ I said, ‘Who’s that?’ But what I meant to say is ‘Why?’ I’m ignorant to art, but I knew Matisse’s name. He proceeded to tell me I was really talented and I’ve got a gift, and this and that.”

Gallagher talked to the man for another 20 minutes, while the stranger delicately examined the paper of abstract shapes and shadows. Baffled by this man’s interest in a mere doodle, Gallagher told him to keep it and got up to leave. “When he asked me to sign it, I must have had the strangest look on my face. I couldn’t believe this guy wanted something I was probably going to throw away in the trash.”

This was February of 2006, and not the first time Gallagher thought about his ability to draw. For Christmas in 1995, his wife Trisha bought him his first sketch book and made him promise to never throw away another drawing.

Today Gallagher is the first-ever artist-in-residence at the Muhammad Ali Center, and he is preparing to open his exhibit “The 10 Most Inspirational Women” next Thursday.

Gallagher donned the business suit for most of his adult life — born and raised in a small town outside of Philadelphia to blue-collar parents, he worked his way through college as a psychology major and eventually found himself in the middle of the white-collar fantasyland. A former disc jockey and now a recruiting specialist, he and his wife relocated to the eastern suburbs of Louisville — he the recruiting manager for Humana, she the Autism Specialist for Jefferson County Public Schools. With sons Cole and Liam, the Gallaghers were settling well into suburbia, save Gallagher’s penchant for drawing, creating, expressing and connecting with art.

Soon after his encounter with the stranger in New York, Gallagher put more thought into his passion. Now owner of his own recruiting company, he was finding less inspiration at the office and more fulfillment making art at night. “I was a pretty miserable guy. I was angry a lot. I had everything in my life that you’re supposed to want — beautiful wife, kids who were just phenomenal, a nice home, a nice car — you know, all these things, and I was miserable. I would do a couple pieces a night, and I would put them at the bottom of the steps so that my wife and kids could see them when they came downstairs in the mornings, and they gave me feedback. Having that to look forward to brought me out of this misery.”

Gallagher built up enough of a portfolio to host a few small shows around town, and even landed one in his hometown at a Philly bar. The first piece he ever sold, entitled “The Report Card,” he recalls, went for $900. “I am shocked every time I sell a piece — even moved. I always assume that this piece I sell will be the last piece I sell; the first show I did would be the last show I did. I assume nobody will like it, nobody will see it. I go between ‘I don’t care’ to ‘I know I’m nuts.’ That’s where the joke comes in — now I gotta go find someone who thinks this is art. I focus more on me — there’s a feeling, I can’t really explain it. It’s more about living in the moment. When I’m in the moment and I’m painting, something good always happens.”

Gallagher likes to think of himself as the enigmatic character Forrest Gump. Right place, right time. Dumb luck.

Something can certainly be said of this man’s luck — one opportunity always leads to another. Which is how he found himself brushing shoulders with Muhammad Ali one afternoon, offering himself up for the Center’s first artist-in-residence. Again, this was something Gallagher never planned.

He had been sketching at Sully’s, a nondescript chain bar nestled in Louisville’s Fourth Street Live entertainment district where he often works, the night before. A homeless-looking man, Gallagher describes, saw him drawing and immediately approached him. He told him to get over to the Ali Center the next day, that Muhammad would be there and they’re looking for artists. Gallagher pretty much blew him off and resumed his work. “The next day the guy’s eyes popped into my head, and I came down here [Ali Center], and Lonnie came right up to me a few minutes later. I told her my story, she whisked me up to meet Muhammad. I was interviewed by a film crew, and she said they were interested in having a resident artist.”

The way Gallagher tells the story, you can’t help but wonder if luck is never far away. Right place, right time.

“He was simply in the café area of the lobby doodling, having heard the night before that Muhammad would be in the building,” recalls Anthony Henderson, the Ali Center’s special assistant to the president. “It was a special day because we were receiving a new exhibit featuring internationally acclaimed artist Simon Bull. Pat’s story spread like wildfire, and he was soon behind the camera sharing his story, with Muhammad and Simon watching nearby. After he met Muhammad and finished his interviews, he was on cloud nine. That day led to a couple of brainstorming meetings about what such a program could look like. We agreed to follow up with a meeting.”

Over the next several weeks, Gallagher met with Ali Center staff as they concocted the artist-in-residence Dreammakers program. The goal of the program, says Henderson, is to support the personal and artistic transformation of an artist in his or her artistry, while at the same time to keep the Ali Center connected to the arts.

“It’s an exciting and necessary part of this Center — to have things creative and being produced,” adds John Faulkner, community relations manager for the Ali Center. But Faulkner doesn’t buy Gallagher’s dumb-luck theory. “I wouldn’t have come up with Gump — Gump doesn’t know what he’s doing, but that’s pretty good in a sense that some people have the knack to be at the right place at the right time, and he’s got that. Luck is preparation — when the opportunity hits, you gotta do it. And he’s done it. I give him a lot of credit for that.”

So far, so good for Gallagher and the Ali Center. While he is not compensated for his residency, Gallagher has the Muhammad Ali name behind everything he does. And this has led him to many more open doors, amazing opportunities this son of Irish immigrants never imagined — meeting President Obama and presenting First Lady Michelle Obama with a painting he did of her; being tapped to sketch at Obama’s Inaugural Ball; snagging free tickets to Derby and Oaks; and getting the chance to meet and connect with people every day as they roam through the Ali Center’s hallways, almost always stopping to observe him working in his gallery.

His first major exhibit at the Center comprises drawings of the 10 women in Louisville who are the most inspirational to him and, in his view, the city. The folks at the Ali Center were immediately on board.

“Pat gets completely lost in his work. When he’s creating it’s like nothing else matters. He can spend just a few minutes with someone and capture the essence of the very best of them and translate it to canvas,” Henderson says. “The way he feels about his work is how I think we all desire to feel — connected, passionate and purposeful. He also expresses the Center’s core values in his life and work: confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality. It has been a pleasure to watch Pat’s confidence grow as an artist and person.”

Gallagher credits his wife as the main inspiration for the exhibit.

“She does tremendous things, changes families’ lives, but she never gives herself credit,” he explains. “And what I realize is women tend to inspire those around them, but not only do they not get credit, they don’t give themselves credit. I find that really fascinating. This whole journey that I’ve been on has been because of the women in my life. It’s a way for me to tip my hat and say, ‘Look, you need to be recognized. You should at least recognize the greatness within yourself — that you’re out there doing these wonderful things.’ And you’re changing the world and making it a better place. These women inspire others around them — either knowingly or not knowingly.”

Some of the 10 women Gallagher selected he knew, others were brought to his attention. Lisa Resnik is a friend of his wife who works at the Speed Art Museum. He recalls asking her if she believed he could make art his sole career, whether he should take the leap.

“‘Do you really think I can do this?’ I asked her, and she said, ‘I really believe that you can, Pat. I believe in you.’ That statement had a great impact on me. About year later when I brought that conversation to her attention, she’s like, ‘I said that? I believe it, I just don’t remember the conversation.’ I found it interesting that that statement had a major impact on me and my confidence, and to her it was nothing. She was just being herself.”

Cathy Bailey, former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Latvia, was one of the women brought to his attention, but after sitting down with her for an hour or so, he knew she’d have a place in his exhibit. “The term sparkplug comes to mind when I think of her — I was charged when I left her presence,” he says.

“His approach is just fascinating,” says Bailey about the experience. “He came over to my home, we sat down, we chatted about various things I’ve been involved in through the years, things that he’s been involved in. How he got to this point. He didn’t write any sketches down. I was very impressed that he could take a conversation and be able to, in a capsule almost, be able to represent this image of you. He does amazing work. You can tell he has such a passion for it.”

Gallagher was most intrigued by the charity Bailey started, which finds foster homes for children whose mothers are in prison (see sidebar). As he was painting her portrait, Gallagher observed a series of dark bars in the swirling background. “It’s a figure between two bars, and that just appeared there, so did the bars,” he says. “When those things appear on the canvas, I gotta just leave them. I have fun just throwing colors down and seeing what comes out of it. When you find something on canvas, it’s much more exciting than when you put something on canvas.”

This tends to happen a lot, Gallagher admits, although he isn’t quite sure where it comes from. When painting these women, Pat would just think about how he felt while in their presence. What came out was usually a spot-on interpretation of that woman’s personality or some uncanny detail he wasn’t privy to. “I believe that, yes, there is something happening with my painting. I do believe it’s my calling. I’m not saying there’s something special about me. It’s just that this is my path that I landed on, and I found it — or it found me. I don’t try to question it too much, but I’ve had strange things happen.”

Gallagher is unsure what the future holds after his residence ends in September. He may have to suit up to help pay the bills, but he’s going to continue on this path for as long as he keeps landing on both feet.

“As I evolve with this, I don’t know where it will go. Where this is taking me has been great in so many ways, but I’ve had many challenges with it, too. I’m very happy that I’ve done this, but it’s definitely a struggle. I have my wife’s 40th birthday coming up and my kid needs braces, and I’m just goin’, ‘Oh, shit.’ Ya know? But, hey, it’ll all work out. It does. If people really do follow their hearts — I think in times like this, they need to. I do know that for the amount of people who are connecting with me and the things that people tell me and how they open up to me … Hopefully this show will inspire people in some way, or my story will. If this jackass can find his calling this way, then they can go out and do it themselves. That’s my hope.”