Meet & Eat: Jill DeGroff, Artist and Author of Lush Life

Meet and Eat: NY

Conversations with chefs and food personalities in New York City.

This week, we're chatting with Jill DeGroff, artist and author of Lush Life, Portraits from Behind the Bar—a collection of sketches of the bartenders, musicians, chefs, and others that populate the bars of America.

20091105lushlife.jpgName: Jill DeGroff
Location: New York
Occupation:Graphic designer, artist, and author

How did you get started as an artist? I've been drawing as long as I can remember. I moved to Manhattan when I was 17 and while riding the Seventh Avenue IRT to work each day, was mesmerized by the assortment of different faces—I began to carry a small sketch pad with me.
Did you spend time drawing bartenders before you met your husband, Dale? I have always sketched all kinds of people and still do to this day—anyone from any occupation, from every walk of life, but nightlife especially.
How did you select your subjects and elicit their stories for your recently released book, "Lush Life, Portraits from Behind the Bar"? I don't, they select me. I meet an interesting character, I must draw them. I have many, many sketchbooks full of characters and stories for the next editions—which will be more of a Bar-boheme kind of thing, more artists and musicians, and dig more into the underbelly of society. This edition was dedicated to mixologists, whom you need to catch in the wee hours towards the end of a shift, in a contemplative mood, to elicit a good story.

Some people have a ton of stories to tell, others can't conjure up even one. The ones who've devoted a good deal of time carousing—they have the good stories, especially if they've been running wild for most of their life and avoided the tethers of domestic life or corporate structure. Take my husband for example, who had the additional advantage of being immune to guilt! (I'm only kidding.)

20091105lubrow-LR.jpgWhat are the qualities that make someone a good sketch subject? Character, character, character! I love people who translate well to graphics, with faces composed of planes, or angular. I was inspired by the neighborhood I lived in for many years, the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1970's, in the Columbia University area. I spent lots of time at the West End Bar where dozens of foreign exchange students gathered, and they were always so animated, hotly debating politics. It was a feast of faces of different ethnicities, and I found it absolutely fascinating to try to capture them on paper. That's the physicality of it, then there's the inner light: a face that reflects heart and soul will always make a beautiful study.
Are you holding any events to promote the book? Lots. Any bar foolish enough to have me! Here's my schedule.

What are some of your favorite bars around the world, or at least ones that have been the most fruitful from an artistic standpoint? There's a hot little jazz joint in New Orleans called Fritzell's, just as jumping as can be. I love to draw there. New Orleans is full of characters, and I love to draw in Jackson Square, and at the Napoleon House. I do my best work there and the people in Nola are born story-tellers, and the bars open to the street so I can slip in unnoticed and most folks like it when I draw them, plenty of pirates and gypsies to draw too. In New York, many places, I've come home from Pegu Club and Employees Only many a night with great character studies. In Sydney: Café Pacifico or the Victoria Room; in Mexico, an ancient little bar called La Capilla, run by the 98 year old proprietor, Don Javier; in Lima, Malabar; in San Francisco, the Buena Vista is my favorite.

Is there a particular cocktail that inspires you? Yes, in the winter it's a Jameson's Irish Coffee to warm me up and transport me into a literary frame of mind. In the spring it's a Mint Julep, fires up my passion for Kentucky and the racetrack. In the summer I like to sip a Pimms Cup at the Napoleon House, just as refreshing as can be on a sweltering hot day in the French quarter. And in the autumn, Dale makes this Jerez cocktail, that is so autumnally fragrant with a burnt orange color.

But my all-time favorites are rum drinks: Daiquiris made with fresh squeezed fruit, Mojitos with spearmint form my garden. I can pretend I'm in the tropics, sleeping in a hammock in a Rousseau-esque jungle. I am especially nuts for a Havana Club, with a touch of tonic and fresh lime juice. At the Victoria Room in Sydney they have a contraption at the bar that extracts the sugar from a piece of sugar cane and they add this to the drink—it was marvelous.

What are your favorite local hangouts? Used to be Carnegie Club Bar & Books, when they had the live Tuesday night jazz sessions with the Stan Rubin Orchestra. There was such a wonderful assortment of crusty old wasted characters gathered there smoking their cigars. Probably my favorite bar is McSorleys, and it's my old neighborhood where I lived many years ago.


[Photo: Adam Kuban]

20091108PJclarks-doug-LR.jpgBest late-night eats? PJ Clarke's for hamburgers and to see Doug Quinn, he serves drinks with such speed, he looks like he has three sets of arms!
Last drink that knocked your socks off? We were at Joe and Nicole Desmond's Rhum Rhum Room—they host these fabulous Tiki parties. Dale had just come back from Peru where he had created a drink using asparagus, because it was asparagus season there, so he made his "Asparagusto" a green little aperitif with Barsol Pisco Quebranta that is incredibly delicious, especially with spicy food. Everyone went nuts over it, including their giant parrot.
What's in your fridge that you'd be embarrassed to tell us about? A gallon container of a cocktail left over from a barbecue we had last July. Naren Young and Jacob Briars flew in from New Zealand "for the day" and were muddling all these exotic fruits with 42 Below Vodka—they made this fabulous cocktail—enough for about a hundred people although there were only about twenty of us! so we had a gallon left over and I haven't had the heart to toss it. It's still drinkable!


Photo: Jimbo's

Everyone has a go-to person they call for restaurant/bar recommendations. Who's yours? When it comes to finding great characters to draw, I am always on the lookout for great little dives off the beaten path, especially ones with live music. I like to break away and go off exploring on my own, I'll find a place, slip in and order a beer and start drawing and usually make several friends before I leave.

When in a strange city, I'll ask the most offbeat or mischievous looking person I can find. That's how I met Rob Burr in Miami, one look at Rob and I knew he'd know a funky joint that had no business still existing, sure enough—he told me about Jimbo's. We ventured there the following afternoon and it was perfect—where cars go to die," as he put it. An outdoor bar or trailor camp of sorts. I drew all afternoon while nibbling on pickled fish and drinking beer.

But when looking for the perfect place to celebrate a particular occasion in New York, my husband Dale is a wizard when it comes to knowing where exactly to go. Where to find the best cocktails or the best bartender or the best jazz, Dale knows. He's devoted a lifetime to this discipline.

What's the best recommendation he/she has given you? He's given me hundreds over the years, where to begin? How about his very first—he recommended that I come home with him!

Lush Life is available online, and can be signed to order.