by Sayaka Matsuoka
Cameras flashed. People crowded. The bass dropped.
The Center for Visual Artists seemed more like a raving arena than an art venue on Jan. 16 as the second installment of Greensboro’s Ultimate Painting competition took flight. The atmosphere was electric as artists carefully set up their easels. Some kicked their shoes off, exposing their feet to the plastic that covered the gallery floor. A rainbow of paints completed their palettes and their brushes sat waiting, ready for action. And if the gallery was the arena, Dan Dos Santos was the heavyweight contender.
Calling him that is actually kind of ridiculous because Dos Santos is anything but heavyweight. About 5-foot-6, with an unassuming smile and a humble presence, he showed up in a black sweatshirt and khaki pants, more muted than many of the other colorful participants, some with brightly painted faces. A raggedy backpack contained his weapons of choice: paintbrushes. Behind him tagged along his two boys and most enthusiastic cheerleaders, ages six and eight.
The competition which brings 12 local artists together, takes place over three rounds of fierce painting in just 20 minutes. During each of the first two rounds, the group is split up into two groups of 6 artists who paint their best work, hoping to make it to the third round where they head off with the other round’s winner.
In the first round, spectators voted Molly Chopin the winner after she wiped out the competition with her serene, moonlit seascape. Before the second round of painting began. Dos Santos readied his brushes and lined up his blank canvas on the easel. The DJ counted down the seconds, spectators joined in and six new artists got in their fighting stances.
“Five, four, three, two, one!”
The artists grabbed their brushes and smeared paint here then there. They only had 20 minutes to finish their creations and prove they were worthy of advancing to the final round. Dos Santos marked his canvas with brown, swift streaks filling up the white space. Quickly, the gestures began to come together, creating the rough outline of a human face.
“Ten more minutes, artists!”
Her features took form as he gave her hair, a nose and eyes. He spent the last couple moments finishing up the essentials from her eyelashes which gently kissed the edges of her closed eyes, to her dangling feather earrings detailed with pops of white and red. He enhanced her with tones of blue in the background that surrounded her deep olive skin. She was so beautiful, Beyonce’ had nothing on her. She was stunning.
The clock ran out of time and Dos Santos came out of his fighting stance, throwing his sweatshirt off. His sons circled around him, enthusiastic and completely unaware that their dad had just elevated the standards of the competition. Spectators crowded around his work gasping in awe and making exclamations.
“I couldn’t do anything that good in 20 minutes.”
“I couldn’t do anything that good in an entire day.”
Dos Santos and his family just moved from Connecticut and have only been in Greensboro for six weeks. He found out about the competition at a local art store and candidly impulsively decided to enter. Little did he know he would become the talk of the evening.
Dos Santos makes a living illustrating the covers for the Mercy Thompson, fantasy book series whose main character inspired his quick painting. Dos Santos guiltily explained that he tried not to plan beforehand but he knew he could paint “pretty girl faces.”
The voting finished up and the DJ announced Dos Santos as the landslide winner for the second round. He would face Chopin in the third and final round for the chance to advance to regionals.
Dos Santos set to work again, bobbing to the beat of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” in the background. He sketched out another human head. As the Voldemort-like figure started to appear out of the void of the canvas, it took the form of a satyr and sprouted horns and elf-like ears. He layered broad strokes of black paint around the satyr’s head, and then hastily took the painting off the easel and began waving it to dry and moved it to the floor. He added tiny black dots that turned into beady black pupils, haloed by yellow irises. His fingers smeared blood-red paint on the creature’s forehead and cheeks like war paint, and some dripped out of its lips. Its spine jutted out as it turned to look out at the viewer, annoyed, like it had been interrupted. Gray stringy hair grew from its face that exhibited a distinct snarl.
And then, the 20 minutes was up.
It was so striking that the security guards left their posts to watch him work. In a mere 20 minutes, Dos Santos had created another world where this thing, this bloodthirsty creature existed.
And it was scary.
“That’s sinister. I want that on my wall in my bathroom,” someone exclaimed, “like when I come home drunk, that sh** will wake me up.”
The final round of voting happened quickly, and Molly Chopin walked away victorious. She had knocked out Dos Santos with her vibrant painting of a fiery flower, advancing her to the regional competition. It seemed that his threatening satyr wasn’t enough to thwart Chopin, but Dos Santos wasn’t dejected. He smiled and sat on the floor, talking to his sons. Later that night, both of his paintings sold in a silent auction for more than $200 each.
He might not have won the competition over all, but Dos Santos certainly left an impact on the audience including the curator of CVA who approached him afterwards, urging him to leave his résumé and contact information.
Dos Santos may not know his way around Greensboro yet but he proved that he knows his way around with a paintbrush and Greensboro should be excited.