Taking the story off the page

THE WORKS

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Andy Friedman performs his “Art Stories” at Miller’s on Tuesday, followed by The Suitcase Junket. Andy Friedman performs his “Art Stories” at Miller’s on Tuesday, followed by The Suitcase Junket.

When Andy Friedman enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design, he devoted himself to Venetian oil painting, a skill so intricate that each work takes an average of three years to finish.

“I knew that after college I would have to get a job, and I wanted to know the feeling of complete and utter pride in a work I painted by hand while I still had the time to devote 18 hours a day to doing it,” Friedman said.

As graduation approached, he applied the final coat of varnish to his single work of art—and ruined it. “That is when I discovered country blues [music] and my relationship with a more truthful vision of perfection materialized,” said Friedman.

The career that followed has included musical performance, illustration, cartooning, and writing. A journey that began in New York, crisscrossed the country, and will touch down at Miller’s on March 4, when Friedman reads true stories from his life on the road before Matt Lorenz performs with his throat-singing one-man band, The Suitcase Junket.

Lorenz, who initially invited Friedman to perform songs with him, conceded to let him read unpublished essays instead. “It’s a testament to how artistically adventurous [Lorenz] is,” Friedman said.

In his own life, Friedman shifts art forms for utility’s sake. “The mediums themselves are nothing but tools,” he said, “like you’d choose a paintbrush or pencil. Painting is a tool, photography is a tool, and the English language is a tool for me to use at my discretion. If I need to write a story, I’ll write a story.”

After graduating, Friedman worked at The New Yorker, and ended up in the office of cartoon editor Bob Mancoff. He began selling his own cartoons intermittently, and once his first illustration for the magazine was published, he took a leap of faith.

“The slideshow poet industry was hiring,” he told me over the phone from his home in Brooklyn. We both laughed. “With the prospects of maybe doing more illustration and selling a cartoon here and there, I thought I’d supplement that income by travelling around the country offering a slideshow performance I had developed.”

Slideshow poetry combined live music with visual art projections. “I didn’t know how to play guitar, never sang a note in my life,” he said, but he taught himself the basics, got busy writing tunes, and toured with a self-published book of drawings and Polaroid photos that he sold like an album.

He spent nights in hotel rooms drawing after performance venues closed. As his client list grew to include Rolling Stone, Playboy, and The New York Times, his body began to protest. “I got three hours of sleep, drank a lot of coffee, and I didn’t really know how to play the guitar,” Friedman said. “So every night my fingers would bleed, and I started to feel it in my hands. For a while I knew life without the possibly of drawing, and it scared me into health.”

He stopped touring two years ago, digging into home life in Brooklyn and his own reflections of life on the road. “If I’m not here, then everything that I learned, all the stories go with me. That’s what’s motivating me, the desire to get it down,” Friedman said.

But this work isn’t a novel, he reminded me. It’s a way, like singing or painting, to tell stories from his life. “Any artist can do anything they want to do at any given time,” he said. “The art world that I see is just a celebration of that idea.”

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