Cool hand Luke


by Liza Roberts

photograph by Nick Pironio

When Raleigh artist Luke Buchanan met developer James A. Goodnight, Buchanan was pouring drinks behind the bar at Poole’s Downtown Diner, where he works many evenings.

The two developed a rapport, and Goodnight became a fan of Buchanan’s abstract cityscapes. Then the developer bought a historic building at the corner of Hargett and Salisbury Streets, and asked Buchanan to paint its south-facing exterior wall – a big, blank, windowless expanse.

Until that point, the largest surface Buchanan had ever painted was the back wall of Poole’s. So he conferred with his painting teacher, Lope Max Diaz. And he considered all kinds of options for the building, which will soon be home to chef Ashley Christensen’s latest restaurant, Death & Taxes.

He thought about super-sizing one of his cityscape canvases, or making the wall look like a mirror that reflected the city. Maybe, he thought, he could even make it “transparent.” But because Buchanan says he has “a design sensibility, not just an artist’s sensibility,” every time he pondered one of these concepts, he asked himself: “Okay, but how?”

Meantime, the task of replicating a historic ad for Royal Crown Cola on the wall of another Goodnight-owned property, the Nehi Bottling Plant building on Hillsborough Street, went off without a hitch. “After that, I had a bit more confidence.”

Buchanan needed it to tackle a wall four times the size. But he still didn’t know what his subject would be. Then, on a trip to San Francisco, Buchanan became intrigued – even “obsessed” – by the many fire escapes he saw.

So he took his fire escape fascination, combined it with a long-standing interest in mazes, and created a massive, Chutes-and-Ladders-style maze.

To paint the fire escapes, he made a stencil of corrugated plastic and laid each one  out “plumb, and evenly spaced.” Once he had that framework, Buchanan used chalk with a free hand to sketch the ladders before painting them in.

A little face peeking out the window at the top represents someone who has to navigate the stairs, he says, and might inspire pedestrians to try to complete the maze themselves with their eyes.

The final crunch to complete the work came over a weekend, when Buchanan put in 18 hours at Poole’s and 30 on the wall.  In the end, the painting “wasn’t too far away from what I’ve been focusing on the last few years” with his cityscapes, he says. “But it’s a new canvas.”