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Andy Brown creates one-of-a-kind blackboard art for local bars

Every week, artist Andy Brown packs his art supplies and goes to work in Ottawa's bars and restaurants.

Every Friday morning, Andy Brown packs up his chalks and ruler and drives into the Royal Oak pub on Bank, where, for the next two hours, he'll create a one-panel cartoon funny enough to keep the clientele chuckling happily for a whole week.

Then, he'll do it all over again next week at the Oak, and a dozen other pubs, restaurants and stores throughout Ottawa's entertainment district. It's become something of a badge of honour, hanging in half the Royal Oak pubs, Irene's Pub, Greenfield's Pub, Elgin Street Diner, Cafe Morala, Compact Music, Bluesfest and Cityfolk. He's also done boards for diplomatic parties and government events.

Brown's boards have become the brand of many of Ottawa's best watering holes. A skilled draftsman with an editorial imagination and a ruthless sense of humour, his work is provocative, disarming and entertaining and, occasionally, close to the edge.

Like the artist himself. At 66, Brown is the irrepressible satirist, the skilled artist and editorial cartoonist who can't help but make fun of Canada's rich and powerful establishment.

“If I had one word to describe myself it would be twisted,” Brown says with embarrassed delight. “It scares me when people call me an artist. I do this for a living, but I also like to do it. So I'm doing a job that's fun.”

Before every assignment, he listens to the news on his drive in from Burritt Rapids where he lives for news that catches his imagination. Living near the capital, of course, there's a wealth of material; OC Transpo, city hall, Lansdowne, COVID, for example. Almost anything goes. The Trump administration was an especially rich source of material. Occasionally, Brown's sense of humour goes too far and the content is too provocative for the customer crowd.

“As a general rule, the store owners let me do whatever I want, ” he says cautiously.

It takes Brown a couple hours to finish a board, for which he'll be paid something “close to minimum wage.” Salary is less of a consideration than the pleasure he gets from the work and the people he meets.

Something of a self-made man, it took Brown a while to find his calling. Like his artist grandfather, he started drawing as a kid, finding his voice and sense of humour as a teen.

Ambitious for a career in art, he flunked the commercial art course at Algonquin because he couldn't type. He taught himself calligraphy, tried working for advertising agencies, Claude Neon, but he didn't fit neatly into a corporate career.

Eventually, he quit beating his head against the wall, temporarily gave up the notion of making art for a living and began working at Barrymore's doing sound and drafting posters for concerts.

Then, one morning while having a coffee at the Oak, Brown watched a hapless waitress struggle to write the daily specials on a blackboard, and offered to do the pub's menu blackboards in exchange for a free beer.

“I knew my hand lettering was better than hers,” Brown recalls.

That one job lead to another and another so that now, 40 years later, he does three or four boards a week. He guesses he's done more than 1,900 boards for the Royal Oak on Bank street alone.

Now a senior, Brown didn't work at all during COVID, which he was okay with because it gave him more time to play with his trains, teach art at his grandson's school and hang with his wife. Since COVID, he works only when he wants to.

“After two years of COVID, paying somebody to do a chalkboard isn't always the first thing clients think of,” he explains. “They were ready to go again when things went back to normal. It was a good time to reevaluate what's important in life. I don't get paid a lot, but it's enough to make me, and them happy.”

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