Renaissance clown

photo by Mariah Grant
Rare treat: Brian Vasilik at Dairy Queen

It had been five years or more since my last trip to the Asheville Mall, but it was my granddaughter Rachel’s 12th birthday, and she wanted to go shopping. When we completed our purchases, Rachel hinted that ice cream might be a worthy end to the excursion.

And my poor, shaken psyche — having been pummeled for hours by the blare and flash of insistent greed — couldn’t help but agree. It begged for hot fudge the way an alcoholic begs for Jack Daniels! We set out for the Dairy Queen.

When we arrived, I noticed a family getting into their car. They were animatedly passing a large piece of paper back and forth across the seats. When we went inside, their strange behavior became clear: They were sharing a drawing of one of the children. We approached the seating area, where we were greeted with the surreal spectacle of a clown, in full regalia, drawing a caricature of a little boy. The child, about 5 or 6, was squirming and chatting. The clown kept drawing, and very soon finished the portrait and sent the father and son on their way.

Rachel knew she had pressed her luck at the mall, so she didn’t dare ask. But, after all, it was her birthday. The drawing took under 10 minutes. Controlling my long-time fearful distrust of clowns, I initiated a brief conversation about various drawing implements before viewing the completed picture.

It was signed Brian Vasilik.

As it turns out, Vasilik holds a degree in industrial design from the Philadelphia University of the Arts. The son of a career naval officer, he moved frequently during childhood, living in Hawaii, California and Virginia. But from kindergarten on, he says, he was known as the kid who could draw. After getting his degree, Vasilik worked for a design firm and then in 1989 moved to Asheville, where he went freelance.

Vasilik’s resume includes designing the 1999 Bele Chere poster and T-shirt (he borrowed the limelight that year from his mother, frequent Bele Chere artist-in-residence Ann Vasilik) and creating a striking black-and-white logo for the Asheville Center of Performing Arts. Vasilik was also one of the first artists to place work in the Art-o-Mat, an altered cigarette machine that dispenses cigarette pack-sized works. (His pieces were sectional blocks, which when turned would create various abstract faces.)

Nineteen-ninety-four was the year things took a funny turn for Vasilik. He attended a clown workshop at the Health Adventure, heard that the Dairy Queen was looking for a Sunday-afternoon clown — and then, newly turned out in size-12 shoes, he picked up a drawing pen. Vasilik also rents a small space in the lobby of the Grove Park Inn, where he draws tourists on Fridays and Saturdays — but these works are done as Brian Vasilik, not as his rubber-nosed counterpart.

The artist exhibited caution when asked about behavioral differences in his clientele.

“At Grove Park, people are usually celebrating something; they have the caricature done for fun, and they tend to be more relaxed.”

Not a word about the marked contrasts in conduct between those licking cones and those quaffing gin.

“Children,” Vasilik admits, “can be problematic — sometimes they cry, or won’t sit still. I find that if I ask them if they have a pet, and let them tell me about their cat or dog, they relax, and want to be my best friend by the end of our time together.” Couples, though, are his favorites. “You can bring out the differences in the personalities.”

In all cases, Vasilik must quickly read customers’ demeanors to determine how much to exaggerate their features. “Usually, if someone doesn’t like the caricature, they are silent.”

However, he says, “this only happens once or twice out of 100 times.”

The caricatures are fun — and income-producing — for Vasilik. But on two Tuesday evenings each month, he can be found, sans whiteface, quietly making classical drawings of the model in Ben Long’s studio.

[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter and writer. Her work will be exhibited next at the Meadows Museum in Shreveport, La.]


Brian Vasilik, a.k.a. Pickles the Clown, can be found at the Dairy Queen on Tunnel Road on most Sunday afternoons from 1-3 p.m., and at the Grove Park Inn on Fridays and Saturdays. See www.vasilik.com/brian

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