People draw for all sorts of reasons. Jeremy Kerman draws for love.
On birthdays or anniversaries he would surprise his wife, Amy Tornquist, with a drawing, a painting or a collage. She liked them so much it gave him the confidence to keep at it.
During the day, Kerman worked as kitchen manager for the couple's catering business, Sage & Swift in Durham. When a special occasion loomed, he would sneak away for a couple of hours and draw.
"The paintings just developed because Amy really liked it," he said.
When Tornquist opened her Durham restaurant, Watts Grocery, Kerman began to ramp up his production. Tornquist wanted several works to adorn the walls, and they couldn't stay up permanently. She'd need new pieces every so often.
Diners began to appreciate Kerman's work too, especially his colorful, multitextured portrayals of Durham's weathered old buildings: King's Sandwich Shop and Asbury Temple United Methodist Church.
Kerman, 43, recently opened his first show, "Find Myself a City to Live In," which runs through April 2 at Craven Allen Gallery in Durham. Five of his largest pieces were sold during the show's first week, in addition to several screen prints.
An art major who left college before graduating, Kerman said he always been a "slow starter," a painter in search of a subject. He's found that subject in his adopted hometown of Durham, whose scrappy architectural mix continues to inspire.
Kerman's images of the Pettigrew Street overpass, the Liberty Cafe and Davis bakery are depicted in wide-angle perspective, the buildings slanted, almost tottering. Kerman starts off sketching a scene, then layers paint, pastel or acrylic over pencil lines. He tops off his works with magazine cutouts and found objects.
Durham residents can easily identify the paintings, yet they aren't photo-realistic. They're exaggerated, bloated, larger than life.
In a way, they are more real.
"They have a truth that's more truthful," said John Craven Bloedorn, co-owner of the gallery. "He's able to capture the essence of the place."
Starting in the kitchen
Born into a working-class family in Cape May, N.J., Kerman got his first job working in restaurant kitchens as a prep cook at age 15. He slowly graduated to making simple dishes: salads, pasta Alfredo, desserts.
"I survived and got reasonably good at it," he said.
He continued working at restaurants each summer to help pay tuition at Montclair State University, where he majored in English literature and visual arts. Unsure of where he was headed, Kerman quit school, moved to Philadelphia and began working as a short-order cook.
He moved to the Triangle in 1994 at friends' urging, with the intention of resuming his studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. Meanwhile, he landed a job in the kitchen at Crook's Corner, where he met Tornquist. She had studied in Paris, and her cooking and technique were sophisticated.
"She taught me a lot of things," Kerman said.
As soon as he established North Carolina residency, he began classes in screenprinting and photography. But the courtship with Tornquist was turning serious, and soon they started catering full time. They married in 1997.
Good wishes in paint
Kerman's artwork for Tornquist started on a small scale - cards for Valentine's Day and Christmas. She liked them so much she displayed them in their Durham home.
After daughters, Lizzie, 10, and Katie, 6, began celebrating birthdays, Kerman found more occasions to paint. By the time Watts Grocery opened in 2007, he had started rotating works between the house and the restaurant. Many still had "Happy 40th birthday, or "Happy anniversary," scrawled on them.
Regulars such as Dr. Caroline Ozment and her husband, Matt Abadie, liked what they saw.
"It had a kind of retro, old-fashioned feel," said Ozment, a Duke pediatrician. "We liked the gritty quality of it and the subjects he chooses."
Kerman worries about whether his work is good enough. Tornquist said he doesn't give himself enough credit.
"He talks about how I helped him," she said. "But he really helped us. His work warms the restaurant. It's part of what's charming about it."
Now that Kerman has his first gallery show and has sold several works, Tornquist wants him to paint more regularly. Recently, the couple built a studio and guest bedroom in the backyard of their Durham home.
"One of the great benefits of having the show is that he got into the routine of working and making art all the time," she said. "He hasn't had that before."
And for Kerman, the self-described late bloomer, that's exactly the kind of discipline he needs.
"Sitting around waiting for the muse is ridiculous," he said. "I'm going to have to make more."
firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-829-4891