Friday, July 18, 2008

John Dillinger

In October of 1980, I was sketching the Sealtest ice cream sign on Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee when a man came up and asked me to draw his portrait.

He struck a pose but jerked around from time to time to look up and down the street. Then he eyed me narrowly. “You’re not a cop, are you?”

I assured him I wasn’t. He asked me where he could get a Thompson.

“What’s a Thompson?” I asked.

“You know, a submachine gun. A tommie gun.”

“Why would you want that?” I asked.

“I’m going to jack a bank.”

He said his name was John Earl Dillinger and that he just got out of the pen. He told me that he had spent time in solitary confinement in San Quentin and that he had been married three times. He asked that I draw a mustache on him so that he wouldn’t be recognized.

I didn’t know how much of his story to believe. The original bank robber named John Dillinger died in 1934, and looked nothing like this guy. Tommie guns were obsolete, even back in 1980. I had the feeling that parts of his story may not have been what he told me, but his face told a story of its own.

Every portrait is an attempt both to study the mask and to see beyond the mask, because every subject is trying to project a persona— at least if they’re aware of being drawn.

In any event, my meeting with “John Dillinger” in Nashville was a prototype for Arthur Denison’s first encounter with Lee Crabb in Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time.


Dorian said...


Doug said...

hey! I live in Nashville... or Music City as we call it. No telling what you will run into on Broadway... that could have been Johnny Cash... :0)

I can't think of a Sealtest sign anywhere... it's probably long gone now....

Dianne Mize said...

If it's worn long enough, sometimes persona mask can become the person and the person behind the mask ceases to exist. I wonder sometimes how much of a portrait is a self-portrait, how much is the reality of the person being painting, and how much is an apparition.

craigstephens said...

That's a great story!

Patrick Dizon said...

Art is an adventure!

ZD said...

Stories like this are always interesting. I wonder if the way you saw this person changed the way you drew him. It looks different than your other portraits.

I looked up John Dillinger on Wikipedia, and apparently there is some dispute about his death. The body that was found doesn't match police descriptions. If the guy you met really was John Dillinger, he would be 77 when you met him. Doesn't seem likely though.

I have a question. Do you ever give away your sketches? If someone asks you for one, do you do two sketches and give one of them away?

James Gurney said...

ZD: I've given away a few sketches, but usually if the person seems interested in the sketch I get their address and mail them a photocopy or send them a JPEG.

I like Doug's idea that it was Johnny Cash, or maybe Dillinger himself. Dianne, I think you're right that every portrait is on some level a self-portrait. And thanks, Dorian, I learned a new one: "o_0"

Rich Pellegrino said...

You captured something in this portrait that goes beyond mere likeness. I'm convinced that you captured the essence of that man on that day at that time. Probably my new favorite picture from you.

J M said...

How strange. This is almost a Paul Auster story. I agree with Rick-- the portrait is great... it captures something about this peculiar man.