Arts & Culture

Double Life: Bartender by night, painter by day

Luke Buchanan works in his Raleigh studio at Bonded Llama.  Buchanan paints during the day and bartends at Poole’s Downtown Diner at night.
Luke Buchanan works in his Raleigh studio at Bonded Llama. Buchanan paints during the day and bartends at Poole’s Downtown Diner at night.

The events of Sept. 7, 1996, left their mark on Luke Buchanan as an artist and a man.

During the aftermath of Hurricane Fran, Buchanan, then 17, and his best friend, Jackson Edward Griffin, went for a swim in the swollen waters of Crabtree Creek at Lassiter Mill park in Raleigh. Griffin, 17, went under the murky water and didn’t resurface. Buchanan was saved by a neighbor.

“It was the worst thing that ever happened to me but also the best thing that ever happened to me,” Buchanan said. “It made me wake up and realize that life is fleeting.”

Buchanan, now 35, would go on to graduate from Enloe High School and study architecture at N.C. State University. While an undergraduate, he met professor Lope Max Diaz.

At the time, the architecture program was switching from drafting by hand to drafting by computer, and Buchanan wanted a way to connect with his hands. He signed up for one of Diaz’s mixed media painting classes. Diaz was impressed.

“He’s very receptive to criticism,” Diaz said. “He was like a sponge; always open to exploration and experimentation with materials.”

Student and teacher would develop such a respect for each other that Buchanan became Diaz’s only teaching assistant in his 41 years of teaching.

What pays the bills

Throughout college, Buchanan maintained a full course load and worked part-time at a woodworking shop and local bars. After graduation, he spent three years at the N.C. Museum of Art, designing exhibits while tending bar on the side. In 2006, he quit the museum and began painting more at Raleigh’s Bonded Llama artists’ studio.

Chef Ashley Christensen visited a friend at the studio and noticed one of Buchanan’s paintings in progress. The two knew each other from Raleigh’s bar scene. She wanted to buy the painting. Without a full-time job and in need of money, Buchanan asked for a deposit. Christensen told him to go to Enoteca Vin, the restaurant where she worked at the time, to pick up a check.

When Buchanan arrived, Christensen sat him down at the bar, served him a full meal and gave him a check for the full cost of the painting. Then she asked if he would work for her at her new restaurant, Poole’s Downtown Diner. His response: “Absolutely.”

Buchanan was Christensen’s first employee and would later become manager at Poole’s. (Christensen said she hired him because he had never given her a free drink.)

Since 2007, Buchanan has worked as a bartender, manager and fix-it guy as Christensen’s restaurant empire has grown from one restaurant to five. Tending bar speaks to him like painting does; he gets to make things with his hands. Plus, he appreciates the regular paycheck that enables him to paint exactly what he wants.

“I’ve never gone a week in my life without working a bar shift,” he said.

What feeds the soul

Beyond his life behind the bar, Buchanan keeps busy. He paints enough to do shows each year. He teaches drawing twice a week at William Peace University in Raleigh.

He recently started doing murals. Buchanan painted the mural re-creating a 1940s landmark – a big Royal Crown Cola sign – on the side of the renovated Nehi Bottling Co. building on Hillsborough Street for developer James A. Goodnight. He was also hired to paint a mural of fire escapes on the side of the building at Hargett and Salisbury streets, another property Goodnight owns. Work on that mural is supposed to start within days.

Buchanan’s first love is painting. He describes his work as explorations of empty spaces with evidence of man-made intrusion, such as alleyways, parking lots, railroad tracks and abandoned buildings. He likes the idea that a space can been touched by thousands of lives.

“Everybody who has been in this space has their own story,” Buchanan says.

Buchanan was 10 years into his painting career before he realized that his creative drive connects back to his friend’s drowning.

His mentor, Diaz, observed, “That’s the dynamic source within him that compels him to work.”

One other lesson that Buchanan learned from his friend’s death is the value of friendship. Every summer since high school, a group of his friends spends a week together at the same beach house on Emerald Isle.

He bears a reminder to that commitment on the inside of his left forearm: a tattoo bearing the name of the cottage: Our Anchor.