Where Art Imitates Household Appliances

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Omaha, Nebr.-- He has red dragon scales tattooed on his right arm from elbow to wrist.

On the knuckles of the hand below those scales, where normal people tattoo LOVE and HATE, he has permanently inked a doughnut and a cup of coffee.

And he paints huge pictures of washer/dryer combos on violet fields of drywall.

In America's heartland, they don't quite know what to make of Billy Ray Gombus.

Maybe its because he's from Baltimore.

"They know I'm different out here, but its not like Baltimore where you're always looking over your shoulder," said Billy Ray. "In the Midwest, people are too polite to say anything."

Born Chris Connell 28 years ago this Thanksgiving, the Maryland Institute College of Art graduate is keen on adopting personas when he paints: Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Depp, and Jhoon Rhee among them.

His most enduring identity in Baltimore was Billy Ray Gombus, a man who swathed corrugated cardboard in house paint in a studio above a "Live Girl" X-rated theater on Guilford Avenue near Baltimore Street.

There, Billy Ray rendered images of vacuum cleaners named Betty, electric mixers titled Helen and cheese graters christened Judith.

"When you live alone you develop relationships with these things," he said. "You end up naming them. When you need to grate some cheese and you can't find your grater you say: "Judith, where are you?"

Judith is in my kitchen.

I bought her along with Betty and Helen and a refrigerator named Olivia -- paintings animate with simple joy and whimsy -- in August 1990 at an "everything must go" sale in Billy Ray's old alley rowhouse on South Regester Street in Fells Point.

Back then, his life was in ruins.

He had no job.

His girlfriend had run off with one of his alleged friends.

Eviction was imminent at his studio and his home.

And he was five days from Omaha.

"I had Baltimore going to [expletive] and the question mark of God-forsaken Omaha before me," he remembered not long ago. "Baltimore was a place where I wanted to stay. I really tried to find a job and fly right because I just couldn't imagine life in Omaha."

As the ancient Jews observed: Man plans, God laughs.

It was time for Billy Ray Gombus to leave the circulation radius of the East Baltimore Guide.

But Omaha?

A city so clean you have to import John Waters' films from Kansas City?

How does a dragon-scaled Super Monster Killer from Regester Street -- a guy who paints portraits of toasters that might be tacos or maybe tombstones -- wend his way to the birthplace of Malcolm X?

"I believe I got here because I had no other choice," he said. "And for me, having no other choice was a very good thing."

The Bemis Foundation, an Omaha arts group that attracts imaginations from around the world, had discovered Billy Ray Gombus.

The Christmas before he left Baltimore, Billy Ray gave a painting to an artist friend as a gift: a long, thin work in silver and gray; a fish, perhaps, or an empty goldfish bowl, he doesn't remember which.

The friend took the painting to Omaha where the foundation's director saw it. About a week later, an application arrived on Regester Street.

"When I lived in New York I painted like a madman. When I lived in Baltimore I painted like a madman," said Billy Ray. "But I thought I might go completely insane in Omaha. I also thought they'd be happy to have me."

Life in Omaha, where he has yet to be mugged as he was three times in Baltimore, has been good to Billy Ray Gombus.

"What I do still isn't widely accepted," he said. "I have to dig for customers, but the people out here at least make an attempt, or maybe take for granted that what I'm doing is worthwhile."

In a little more than two years in the old fur trading post on the Missouri, Gombus has finished nearly 400 works -- pure Billy Ray stuff, like a 7-foot-by-7-foot stapler labeled "The Terminator," and a painting of a rocket-cupped bra he titled "Perfect World."

He recently sold the unnamed washer-and-dryer combo for $852; started his own framing business and raised more than $1,800 for the Nebraska AIDS project. Gombus also teaches drawing at the University of Nebraska and takes free art classes to children in poor neighborhoods.

And while bicycling more than 300 miles from one end of Nebraska to the other, Billy Ray embraced the state's wide expanse and the horizon stretching beyond it, unbreached.

"There's incredible space here, so much of it around you, and not a whole lot to do," said Gombus, who gets free house paint for his work from gallons of mistakes mixed at the local Sears store. "Out here the horizon is much more pronounced -- I like using it in my work. It grounds everything. With a horizon behind it, a cup of coffee isn't floating anymore, it's definite."

Such work is measured by the heights of his favorite basketball players.

The stapler is "James Worthy high by Manute Bol long."

Even bigger is a rendering of a backyard swimming pool, the above-ground kind.

Bigger still are the things in Baltimore he misses so much: The Sip & Bite diner on Boston Street; people hanging on the street at 3 a.m.; Hammerjacks; the Bromo Seltzer tower; and the freedom to play pin-ball in the middle of the night.

The week that Billy Ray said goodbye to these things, I wrote him a check for an armful of paintings and made him sign each one, which he did in ballpoint pen.

Because he was moving to the land of corn, insurance companies, railroads, livestock and farm girls at the Tastee Freeze, I thought he should assume a new, appropriately wholesome pseudonym.

"You know," I said. "Something like Norman Rockwell."

For a week the moniker served him well in Omaha.

Then he attended the opening of an art show in drag: Six feet, seven inches, and 230 pounds of Billy Ray Gombus in women's clothes.

"I was introduced to this nice lady as Norm Rockwell and she asked: 'Are you related to the man who paints the Boy Scouts?' "

That, he said, was the end of his masquerade.

Today, in a warehouse loft apartment larger than than scores of his biggest paintings set end-to-end, the man who was Billy Ray is working with a scribbled line on a field of yellow above the word Satan.

He explains: "If you've been in Omaha too long, you start to feel like a bug in a jar. And if you're a bug in a jar for too long, you tend to go a little crazy.

H

"I think," he said. "That I'll be out here for a while."

Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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