This is ‘Us’
Jordan Peele movie ‘Us’ has Lexington art pioneer behind the scenes
by Rhonda Reeves
Though Lexington’s cityscape is now dotted with murals in every conceivable permutation, that wasn’t always the case. Kentucky native and artist Sammy Beam was an early pioneer back in the 80s — painting everything from the infamous Atomic Cafe mural, to a UK basketball player “on the front wall of Court Sports’ on Limestone, and elaborate trompe l’oeil environments for too many horse farms and iconic restaurants to count.
At 20, he took the first opportunity he was offered. He says, “I’d studied fashion, in Louisville, and taken a part time job doing windows at Embry’s Oxmoor location. I’d hoped to be a fashion designer or a studio artist, and make a life in Louisville. Instead, Embry’s hired me as their full time Window Designer and Fashion Illustrator a couple of weeks before I graduated, and I moved to Lexington for the job. I still consider my five years there the most valuable educational experience of my life. It’s where I learned to practice timeliness and business ethics, which are not skills that all artists have mastered.”
Embry’s led to his next opportunity. He says, “My first customer, after leaving Embry’s, was Genie Akin, by way of my friends and colleagues at Designers East. Carol Pippen, of Designers East (and still a delightful Kentucky designer), hooked me up with the Nine Point Mesa, and Mesa Grill and Cantina gigs for which I was a traveling painter for a few years. Gigs usually started with painted finishes, but, as customers got to know me and started listening to my ideas, I became free to focus much more on artwork. By the end of the first year of freelancing, it was about all that I was doing.”
Of his decision to leave Kentucky behind, he says, “I’d had friends who’d left Lexington for larger cities, and they were finding greater success there than back home. So I was encouraged to go west. Bigger pond. At the time, I had pretty much saturated the Lexington market. There were a couple of years when every bar or restaurant that opened had me do something for them. I was always grateful for the work, but it almost became embarrassing. There were times when I would suggest other artists, just to mix things up a little.”
“Still,” he adds, “it was always feast or famine in Lexington. It can be feast or famine in Los Angeles, too, but the feasts are usually lucrative enough to see me through the times of famine.”
Catching up with Beam these days means a few days of facebook messaging and emails between here and his current home in L.A., where he’s busy celebrating the release of the new Jordan Peele movie, US. Beam was the lead scenic painter on the film, and he’s responsible for the Santa Cruz boardwalk ‘fun house’ that’s central to the movie’s plot.
Now that he’s seen the movie, he can give an honest critique of the finished product, and says, “I was impressed with every frame of it. I thought that it was beautifully crafted, smart, and funny in all of the right places. I tend to pick things apart. I couldn’t.”
“Embry’s hired me as their full time Window Designer and Fashion Illustrator a couple of weeks before I graduated, and I moved to Lexington for the job. I still consider my five years there the most valuable educational experience of my life.”
Did the set live up to what he hoped it would on the big screen? Yes. He says, “It translated perfectly and beautifully to film, and there’s not a bit of conceit in that statement. The schedule was tight, and they kept adding to the workload. With assistance, I cranked the whole thing out in twenty days. When you move that fast, there’s not a lot of time to overthink or nit pick. So, after hours, I started to compare it to past experiences, where I’d had lavish time and soft deadlines, and I started to doubt.”
Back then, it took a lot less to make a statement than it does today. For instance, I made the papers when I painted a UK basketball player on the front wall of Court Sports, on Limestone. That wouldn’t get a hiccough, in press, today.
The doubt turned out to be unnecessary, as he explains, “I was heading to my truck, at the end of day seventeen, when I passed one of the director’s assistants and she said, ‘congratulations!’ I thanked her and asked why I deserved congratulations. ‘Haven’t you seen it? They’re filming on your set right now, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. Come with me.’ I got to watch a scene being filmed in the monitor room with the Production Designer and Art Director. They were elated and I was relieved. It looked like the forest from The Wizard of Oz.”
He told friends in advance of the movie’s release, “Forgive me if I’m too excited about this. It would not be as big a deal if I were a seasoned union painter who had worked in ‘the film industry’ for years, (as I was told, repeatedly, by my union assistants on this gig.) So I’ll say, here, as I said to them… This was a big deal to me, and I was honored and elated to be hunted down by the Art Director and the Production Designer because they were familiar with my work and wanted my ‘hand’ in their movie. I’ve known all along that it probably won’t happen again, so I enjoyed every minute of the work and I will enjoy any molecule of happiness that I get from it opening in theaters.”
As to how the writer/director/producer came to be acquainted with the artist’s work in the first place, Beam says of the serendipity, “In 2014, I was commissioned to create murals for Clifton’s Cafeteria, a world renowned, long-beloved dining institution in Downtown Los Angeles. When people who are unfamiliar with Clifton’s hear ‘cafeteria,’ they tend to think that I painted something like a giant cactus over the steam table at Duff’s. Believe me, it wasn’t anything like that. Clifton’s is gargantuan, at five stories high, and it houses five nightlife venues, on top of being the oldest and largest cafeteria in the world. My work, there, is everywhere you turn. I busted my hump for a solid year. In 2017, Jordan Peele’s production company, Monkey Paw, held their Christmas party at Clifton’s. When they saw my spooky two story murals of redwood forests, they knew they’d found their look, and their man.”
Lexington has changed considerably in the decades since Beam relocated to the west coast. He says, “I am blown away by all of the beautiful mural work and public art, that’s there, when I visit Lexington, these days. There were murals, here and there, when I was just starting out, but, nothing like what’s happening today. Looking back, (and I may be wrong, and forgive me if I am), it seems like Stephen Sawyer was the only one who was painting public spaces, (beautifully, I might add), until Pat Gerhard, Phil Willett, and I showed up on the scene. If I were to compare what I did, then, to what’s happening in Lexington, today, I could get really depressed, but I choose to relate instead of compare.”
He continues, “The scene was still relatively new and unexplored in my early days. We young artists were working with nominal budgets and trying to keep the lights on at home while we attempted to make worthy statements. Some of the gigs were paycheck gigs. Back then, it took a lot less to make a statement than it does today. For instance, I made the papers when I painted a UK basketball player on the front wall of Court Sports, on Limestone. That wouldn’t get a hiccough, in press, today.”
Asked to recall his most memorable Lexington projects, he recalls, “I once painted a nude woman on a ceiling, over Belle Brezing’s famous bed. I tried to approach it as an artistic piece, very 19th century French and tasteful. On the second day, I arrived to find that the customer had left a copy of Hustler magazine open, for me to see, with a note that said ‘make nipples pinkish tan!’ I realized, then, that what I was creating was porn.”
When the Atomic Cafe closed, it took with it one of Beam’s most infamous pieces of the Lexington restaurant landscape. Beam remains sanguine, however, saying “A lot of my work has been painted over, through the years. It never bothered me, because I knew that business is business and I never thought that my work was untouchable. The only one that got me was losing the murals at Atomic Cafe. But I decided to be okay with that, and I now I am.”
He admits to still getting homesick for Lexington from time to time, adding, “To this day, the majority of my dearest and closest friends are in Lexington. I miss the community. I miss the seasons. I miss the physical beauty of the city and countryside, surrounding it, and I miss the spaces where I lived.”
This article also appears on page 6 and 7 of the April 2019 print edition of Ace Weekly.
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