If you have ever called a library’s after-hours number with a question, the person on the other end of the line could have been Carrboro artist and musician Phil Blank.
Blank runs a company called ChatStaff, which provides after-hours service to libraries all over North Carolina and beyond. But he’s also a painter, illustrator and accordion player for a local klezmer band, Gmish.
In fact, you might have seen his paintings on the walls at Orange County Social Club or his illustrations on the new bags of Larry’s Beans’ single origin coffee now on shelves at Earth Fare, Whole Foods or Weaver Street Market stores. And you might have heard his music while wandering in downtown Carrboro and stumbling upon a klezmer band busking on a street corner.
Blank is happy with his life: a job outside academia as a librarian, which he dearly loves, and avocations that support his artistic side.
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“I like being part of those two worlds,” Blank said.
Blank, 42, grew up in Abington, Pa., north of Philadelphia, and was interested in art from a young age. While taking art classes, his tastes veered away from the decadent post-modern art of the 1980s and toward comic book artists, graphic illustrators and folk art.
Eventually, Blank studied at Washington University in St. Louis, where he got a fine arts degree. Throughout college, he worked in the library. “The people that I met there were always kind of interesting,” he said.
So much so that he decided to get a master’s degree in library science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
What pays the bills
After getting his master’s degree in 1997, Blank worked at the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Public Library for two years and then returned the state to work at Duke University for several years. After that, he became a private contractor working for North Carolina’s statewide virtual reference project, an initiative to provide round-the-clock access to library resources from a computer.
That’s when Blank and former UNC librarian Pam Sessoms saw an opportunity to start their own business two years ago. As libraries make the leap to provide access to their collections online round the clock, it made sense to have librarians available to answer questions at all hours. That’s what ChatStaff does with a staff of librarians who work from their homes, answering questions via phone or instant messaging about how to access the libary’s collection.
Blank manages the business and answers questions from library patrons, which he enjoys. “I like working in libraries,” he said. “I believe in libraries.”
What feeds the soul
When Blank gets to be artistic, a sketch book is often close at hand. The books are where Blank works on his ideas in ink and gouache paint, which is similar to watercolor.
There are sketches of the farmers who grow the beans that make Raleigh coffee roaster Larry’s Beans’ single origin coffee, trimmed with text about how the coffee tastes. There are drawings of daikon and other fruits and vegetables for a recipe pamphlet that wife April McGreger, who runs Farmer’s Daughters Brand pickles and preserves, gives out to customers. (The couple is working on a cookbook that will be blend her recipes and his illustrations.)
Asked to describe his artwork, Blank uses the term “nonfiction surrealism.” His paintings and illustrations often depict detailed caricatures and surreal scenes. One painting shows an angelic Johnny Cash holding a guitar accompanied by two trumpet-playing Mexican Day of the Dead skeletons. Another, called “The Chillbumps on the Edge of Everything Else,” shows two older women wearing identical blue dresses with one holding an autoharp, a string instrument played on the lap. Below the image is text explaining what is happening in the brain when you experience chillbumps, aka goose bumps.
Sami Grover, who works for a Durham branding company, The Change Creation, hired Blank to illustrate the new Larry’s coffee bags.
“I think he has a really fascinating style,” Grover said. “I call it ‘hip folk art.’ ”
Since Larry’s was trying to share the story of the farmers they work with to create their single origin coffees, Grover said, Blank was a natural choice. “It’s rare that you find someone where storytelling is a central part of visual artwork.”
And then there is Blank’s music, which he insists is purely for fun. He plays the harmonica, guitar and the accordion. He started out playing old-time folk music and transitioned to klezmer, a Jewish music tradition. The band is informal and occasionally plays at Carrboro’s Milltown on Sunday nights.
But what Blank loves is busking. These days, the four band members – a fiddle player, a drummer, a clarinetist and Blank on the accordion – can be found occasionally around dusk in nice weather on a bench in front of Neal’s Deli in downtown Carrboro .
“I think it’s really fun to play outside after the sun goes down,” Blank said.