When I tell people I’m the Beer Artist, they immediately think I make beer labels. I have to explain that I am an oil painter and I make paintings of beers. I have only made three official beer labels during my career so far, and two have been for special one-off beers for Midnight Sun Brewing Co. Former MSBC Chef, Chris Hilliard, and I brewed a Dopplebock called Feast with the brewing team. It was barrel aged in whiskey barrels. I made a special painting for the label with Alaskan animals drinking and feasting. When I heard MSBC’s General Manager Gary Busse, a.k.a. “The Adult,” was retiring, I asked if he had plans for a special retirement beer. He said, “Yes, a dunkelweizen.” I was excited about it, and said, “I have to do a special label for that!”
What most people don’t know is that Gary has been instrumental to my beer artist career. In 2006 I made a series of paintings called the Color of Beer, which was the first time I ever painted beer. The show was a huge success, not because I sold any work at the actual art show at Noble’s Diner, but because when I drove the paintings around town after the art show, I sold them at local breweries and at the home-brew shop. During a stop at the original MSBC location on Arctic Blvd I sold 3 of the 10 paintings! Two to Gary and another one to a customer who just happened to be getting a growler filled. It was because of this type of success that I made my second beer art series, 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall. It took me years to complete the small paintings and then I had no idea where to show the large body of work. I had grandiose plans to house the show in the Lower 48 (what Alaskan’s call the Continental US), and I had a long back and forth email conversation with Greg Koch of Stone Brewing Co. When that failed, I imagined Deschutes Brewing being the location for the show. Bend is where beer is more plentiful than water. When I visited the brewery, I couldn’t figure out where I would hang the pieces. Two years passed while I was searching for a location and I was chatting with Gary at the new MSBC Loft and asked what they had in mind for art. Gary explained that Barb Miller was going to do a rotating show every month and have a First Friday event called First Firkin Friday.
A firkin is a 10 gallon keg that is cask conditioned, i.e. fermented just enough in the keg to cause carbonation naturally. MSBC uses a pin for First Firkin Friday , which is a 5 gallon version of the firkin. Gary told me he would put a good word in for me with Barb, but that it was a long shot, because she had a specific vision. Barb and I hit it off, and she made me wait until January to have the show, because it was the first ever AK Beer Week! The show was a huge success, and I owe it to Gary and Barb! The following year Gary purchased a large beer painting I made for the next show at MSBC called Another Round, which consisted entirely of MSBC beer paintings. I continue to make beer paintings today, and completed my most famous series called the Year of Beer three years after the 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall. I showed this series at MSBC as well.
Gary is the General Manager at MSBC. His nickname at the brewery is “The Adult.” He is the one who has kept MSBC profitable and in business. After art shows at MSBC Gary is the guy who writes and signs my checks. He has worked there for nearly 20 years! When I asked him what to do for his retirement beer label, he said it had to be a portrait of him with a bunch of kids running loose in the tasting room. He said the beer would be called “The Adult,” and that it was going to be a dunkelweizen, his favorite style. I am not a portrait artist and I have had some mixed reactions to my portraits over the years, and I mentioned this at our art meeting. I gave it my best shot and Gary was slightly disappointed with my first attempt at his portrait. He said the likeness maked him look like Butt-head, from Beavis and Butt-head. I gave it another try, working from a new picture that Gary send me of himself, and I finally got it right on the third try. The other characters on the label represent employees at Midnight Sun Brewing Co. It’s pretty easy to identify Davey with his mohawk and Barb struggling over toys with Mark. I imagined the girl in pink to represent some of the servers, and the others as brewers and workers over the ages. I know I missed many important MSBC people, but they are represented whether the likenesses are to be found or not. Leave it to “The Adult” to keep them in line.
The painting that I made for the label, which will be a retirement gift for him from me.
What will MSBC do without this parental figure to check everyone and keep the brewery in the black? Luckily, Gary passed most of his knowledge to Jamie Schmitt, who has big shoes to fill. I am sure there will be many memories yet to be made at this iconic brewery in Anchorage, Alaska. With so many great beers and such a high quality bistro, MSBC has found its recipe for success! I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next! I love going to MSBC and love adorning the walls with my paintings every June and January! Cheers to Gary!
Gary with his retirement beer.
Of course I had to get a few cans!