Portraits from the Rex Cafe

            Kalamazoo Stout Labels


      Kalamazoo Brewing Company


                   Bell’s Brewery


      So I set about correcting that weakness in my education in the modern-day art academy - which is an Ok place to be, if adversarial critiques are your taste and ganging up on the weakest cockerel on the dungheap and pecking it to death are your idea of social intercourse.  Mostly they just argue about who put the first nail into the coffin of proto- post-modernism and such fine points of political correctness about things that nobody else cares about or should care about the minute they walk out the door with an overpriced diploma in hand.   I started to gravitate towards places where people congregate and for some years drew the public face of at least that aspect of Kalamazoo.  I did so for several years -  in bars mostly, which are warm and easy places to be anonymous.  As a young starving artist, I tended to lowlife establishments with some character, cheap breakfasts and where I’d be left alone nursing a beer for a long time as slow-moving alcoholics inadvertently posed for me all day long and waitresses grumbled about them having welfare checks to drink with, while they had to work. 

   The Rex Café in downtown Kalamazoo was such a place filled with several tiers of social structure.  There were Kalamazoo Gazette employees and people in for a business lunch; students and those for whom price was a deciding factor; and the various prostitutes and drug dealers killing time between business deals.  Art profs seemed to enjoy slumming it there, but mostly it was a place to stay warm for those whose life stories were stopped in a feedback loop at some point in life when they’d dropped out and they were there treading water as they slowly went from well-dressed modern day ‘consumers’ to timeless characters on their way to becoming ragpickers from a Rembrandt etching or drinkers from bawdy scenes  in 17th century Flanders by Adrienne Brower and Jan Steen.  



    Many moons ago, just before my involvement with Kalamazoo Brewing Co.  I was a newly minted graduate with an MFA, the terminal degree in Fine Art.  Cast out upon the cold mean streets of our competitive economy and suddenly very painfully aware of my vulnerabilities and inadequacies, I also realized just how few of my fellow graduates from even the best art academies were destined to be making their living as artists.  My own skills went only so far and my drawings of people were pretty weak.  They weren’t necessarily bad, but not bad is also not good enough – not in art.   I could draw an OK figure with really luscious breasts but also claws for hands and feet that seemed more like multiply cloven hooves than anything fully human.  I could get an adequate likeness, but even those identifiable portraits tended to lose their charm through multiple erasures - more like ham-fisted skidmarks from hard landings …It all really needed some attention and hard work.

While I like being associated with nice products and seeing my art in the marketplace,  I tend to resent designers who often appropriate meaningful works of art and treat them as raw material to cut and paste; invert and posterize; or crop, deform and mutilate on their way to making of timeless art something that is campy, hip or glib.   Because it is essentially about passing fashion,  design work is already dated and out of fashion the minute it is made physically manifest.  Troubling stuff for those of us attached more to the timeless.

       Who are those interesting characters on the Stout labels & what have I missed by not knowing about the Rex Cafe?  Well, it has its ups and downs - But here’s the story:

      The  models for these portraits were various alcoholics and street people from about 1981 - 1984,  most of whom I haven’t seen in a long time and presume to be dead.  Several are actually friends cast in the roles of that sort of person -‘there but for the grace of God’.....and curiously enough,  several more seem to have had universal attributes one might see in a Rembrandt etching and I have watched people from among my acquaintances slowly evolve into somebody a lot like them.  

Dean of Michigan trout - John Voelker The etching is available for 150.00


Rex I

Rex II


Rex XV




Rex X    (or perhaps Regina X)

Rex VI                                               Rex XVII                                            Rex XIX

Rex V


      I stayed on far longer than the profs and students, drawing my endless little sketches of barflies and slowly became a fixture.  The various social strata came to accept me for a regular.  Drug dealing and prostitution came out into the open, the barkeeper’s baseball bat ‘enforcer’ was no longer hidden from my view.  When somebody was flush, they’d buy me a beer or come see  what I was up to - crowd into the booth and get chummy   “CC!  Get yer ass over here!  He’s drawing you. “ “ I aint that ugly”.  “Yes you are.  You even uglier.” “How much you sell that for?  Can I buy it for a beer?  Hold on , I’ll turn a trick and you can draw me.”  “Hey - Ho –   I’m a Ho!”.   And they’d all start chanting;  “I’m a Ho” - until something new got their attention. 

    The best of those drawings were then refined in the studio to etchings with some drypoint and eventually they became Stout Labels – heavies from the wrong side of the tracks on something not to be confused with a light beer.   Bleary-eyed aggressive louts and failed advertising execs insolently stare back at you from the label with a look of ; “what the f… are you looking at?”  And the strategy worked. The beer looked very different than anything else on the shelf.  People bought it and discovered that it wasn’t just another computer lager in strange packaging. I must have supplied Larry with about 20 of these etchings and some were used pretty much as is, without a lot of graphic design ruining the art and I like those best.  Then they became designerly instead of timeless and beautiful art.  That made me a bit sad ,

but it still serves its intended

purpose of selling beer. 


Rex XI

UP Drinker


Rex XI



Rex IV


Rex IX


Stout IV



Rex  XVI

Stout I

Stout VIII

Stout XV

Stout III

Stout X

Stout V

Stout XI

Stout XVI

And if you like this sort of thing - portraits that have a feel of the timeless about them, - that bring to mind Plague times and scenes from a sseventeenth century Dutch peasant wedding - hit the UP Drinker and be transported to my John Voelker Page.  There you’ll get the story about a Supreme court justice turned fishing writer and how his story became a controversy swirling about the Two-Hearted Ale label. 

The Rex Cafe is long gone, but it was in Kalamazoo where the Food Co-op used to be;  on Burdick Street down from the State Theater,  across and south a bit from the Kalamazoo Gazette (also long gone – absorbed by a larger chain and now printed in Grand Rapids) and located where the Frame-maker is now.  The former owners, the Stamos family did well and built a much nicer restaurant across Cedar Street,  but within sight of the Rex, called the Blue Dolphin.  There they proudly cook better food in a cleaner place with their ethnic Greek decor, but still serve a mixed community of  pensioners, students, quite often for those in need of a hand-out – and they meet the needs of a particularly robust after-church crowd on Sunday mornings. But why I drew the denizens of the Rex and why they became Beer Bottle decor is a longer story that is coming right up:



Any of the original etchings of the Stout Drinkers from the Rex Cafe available for 125.00 each


Stout II

Stout X

And what has become of all the hundreds of drawings and etchings  spanning years of cheap beers in cheap bars across several continents?  They roost in the rafters of my studio in various boxes.  They did enjoy a moment in the limelight when they were prominently displayed as a one-man show at the Kalamazoo institute of Art - in 1987.   Curated by Helen Sheridan and her able and cute young assistant,  Gail DeMeyer (now director of the Charlevoix Art Center),  the show broke some ice.  Several hundred of these portraits were plastered all over the walls salon-style, as an alternative to the usually sparse and tasteful hanging one expects in a museum.  

    For the opening reception we had a bluegrass band and a barrel of Bell’s Beer  –  and we all wore ‘team T shirts’, which I had printed with an etching of a Large-mouthed Bass – very hip.   It was a wildly successful well-attended show and of course I made no money.  There was a single portrait that ‘sold’ - well, sorta.  The family of a deceased alcoholic tracked me down as having drawn their pappy and they asked me to draw extras one for each of the five kids in the family.  I leaped at that –  quoted them a  price of 55.00 each and started drawing and counting my earnings - which of course never materialized. They took delivery  without much acknowledgement of my efforts and whenever I called to bring up the matter of my getting paid, they spoke instead of the costs of high school rastling uniforms for the boys.   A lesson in the economics of being an artist and how others see us and what things really matter in life...  Oh yea, that Wrastling team and the Australian strangle hold and triple Nielson neck stretch.

...the etchings did have a second life as T-shirts.   At some point it seems I started running wet T-shirts through my etching press  with impressions of alcoholics  nestled strategically there between one’s breasts and staring back at you with an attitude  -  called them bum-wraps. These T- shirts started out as inexpensive Christmas presents.   However they became very popular in High school with the children of friends who rated high enough to receive such a rare and with-it kind of a Christmas present and they ended up gaining a certain currency there as their desirability rose and they were stolen from gym lockers and started causing problems for the principle.   Beer bottles though - yes I think that seems to be where all this truly does belong....