City creatives: Patrick Kirwin

City creatives: Patrick Kirwin
Patrick Kirwin. (Photo/Luke Anderson)

By Luke Anderson |

It takes a skilled artist to create art that tricks the eye. It takes an especially skilled artist to do so without the beholder realizing it.

Take the ballroom doors in Gadsby’s Tavern, for instance. They appear to have a natural wood finish when, in fact, they are only painted to look that way. Don’t believe it? Ask the guy who painted them.

Kirwin hand-painted the wood grains on the ballroom doors at Gadsby’s Tavern. (Courtesy Photo)

Patrick Kirwin, a muralist and decorative painter who teaches at the Art League, was commissioned several years ago to refinish parts of the famous ballroom once frequented by George Washington. He sanded the doors and window sills, primed them and meticulously hand-painted each wood grain. About a year later, he did the same thing for the baseboards of the Lee-Fendall House.

Much of Kirwin’s art is not on a canvas or hanging in a gallery. It is out in the world — on walls, fences, sidewalks and windows. He’s the mastermind behind various recognizable works around the city, from small Christmas scenes on Del Ray shop windows to the mural on the fence surrounding the Potomac River Generating Station, which took two years to complete and covers several hundred feet.

Kirwin has taught painting and drawing classes at the Art League since 1994. He has also taught art at the Smithsonian, the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at George Washington University and the Fine Arts Workhouse in Lorton.

“I sort of always thought that to belong, in a sense, would be to teach,” Kirwin said. “I’ve always taught, and I enjoy that, maybe because my art is solitary and that’s … a little bit of an outlet.”

One of Kirwin’s trompe l’oeil works of art, painted over a filled-in doorway. (Courtesy Photo)

Kirwin was a student himself when he moved to the area to attend the master’s program at George Washington University. His thesis was trompe l’oeil, a style of art that makes objects look three-dimensional using optical illusions. Trompe l’oeil literally translates to “trick the eye.” “I’m really good at making illusions,” Kirwin said.

“You don’t want to use perspective because the perspective requires you to stand in a certain location for it to work. So if you eliminate perspective, you can do a better trompe l’oeil, a more realistic illusion.”

Kirwin was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1959. His parents put him into art school when he was five, hoping to tame his urge to draw on the walls in the house. He fell in love with art and the way it allowed him to communicate with imagery instead of words.

He took art classes throughout grade school and then received his B.A. from Columbus College of Art and Design. After getting his master’s from GWU, he studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, the Hambidge Center of Arts and Sciences in Georgia and the Griffis Art Center in Connecticut.

The prestigious Skowhegan School allowed Kirwin to study under several respected and well-known artists, he said. He was rejected three times before he was accepted. His teachers and the landscape in Maine inspired him to think outside the box, Kirwin said.

A tree Kirwin painted, partially using grass as a brush. (Courtesy Photo)

One day during his time there, Kirwin attempted to paint the cow pasture in which he was standing. Yellow finches fluttered among the tall grass in the field, and though he tried, he could not capture the scene using his normal brushes. He decided to try something different, plucking the grass around him and using it to apply the paint.

“The result was something like Impressionism in a hurricane,” Kirwin said. “Some of the grass stayed on the canvas to become part of the painting.”

Kirwin has turned his passion into a career, relying on commissioned art as his primary source of income. His skill is highly sought after by private residents wanting walls in their house painted, such as a trompe l’oeil vineyard done on a wine cellar wall or clouds painted on the ceiling of a foyer.

Kirwin mostly works with acrylic paint. He said his clients tend to prefer it because it dries quickly and, unlike oil paint, doesn’t require odorous thinners.

Kirwin lives in Arlington with his wife and children. When he is not doing commissioned work on location, he works out of his home studio. Before his family started to grow, he had a separate studio on Colvin Street in the Taylor Run neighborhood.

Kirwin painted a decorative ceiling for a client in Annandale. (Courtesy Photo)

“The great advantage of a studio outside of the home is you don’t get your stuff mixed up,” Kirwin said. “You go only to the studio to do work. When you’re at home, sometimes you get engaged in home stuff … but, you know, your studio is going to be wherever you make art.”

Kirwin said the theme of his work is life affirmation and happiness, both in his commissioned work and his personal art.

He said he hopes to have an exhibition later this year displaying some of his personal art that highlights the emotions and the experience of being married with kids. His time is divided between his work and family, so family often becomes the subject matter of his art.

“I’m focusing on [displaying] what my identity really is, which I think is a suburban artist,” Kirwin said.

(Read more: City creatives: Stephen Lally)