With delicate strokes of the knife, Peter Pranschke spreads a thin layer of butter onto his pancakes. It's 8:30 a.m. at the Goody Goody Diner on Natural Bridge Avenue in north city, breakfast hour for most of the working-class patrons, but for Pranschke it's dinnertime; he just knocked off the graveyard shift with Enterprise Rent-A-Car's emergency call-center and has a few hours to kill before biking home to University City for some shuteye.
The Enterprise job is inconvenient for Pranschke because it cuts into the time he can devote to his real work: art. Over the past five years, his cartoonish compositions — drawn on paper with ink and colored pencils and featuring real people who've made an impact on his life — have earned him gallery shows and plaudits (some of the latter in the pages of Riverfront Times). He has hung solo exhibitions at Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts, PSTL Gallery at Pace Framing, Maps Contemporary Art Space and the Sheldon Art Galleries.
But despite the exposure and the praise, Pranschke's profile on the local art scene is decidedly low. At age 31, he lives with his parents. He has never had a driver's license. Thanks to a kidney disorder, his constant companion since childhood, he wears a hearing aid. He admits he's not particularly happy with life right now — that he feels lost, yearning for something better but not sure what. Everything feels "unresolved," which is a word he uses frequently.
"Life in general can be a struggle," says Pranschke with a warm smile and folksy tone that belie his dead-seriousness. The demands of the night shift often prevent him from finishing projects, leading to shows that appear fragmented. When that occurs, "I have this feeling of defeat," he says. "There's so much I want to express, but I'm physically drained."
And yet it's that very dichotomy that brings Pranschke's art to life. Misgivings or no, he clocks in for the rental-car gig every night with hardhat-and-lunch pail grit. And that humble, workaday persistence bleeds into his subject matter. His current exhibit at the Sheldon, for example, depicts stoic young workers who aren't so much experiencing life as trudging through it, to the point of exhaustion. But all through the grind, they never abandon their core determination to grin and bear it.
Pranschke is rail thin, wispy-haired and a little gawky. He's also affable and quietly proud. And here at this working-class diner at 8:30 a.m. on a weekday, he fits in. Holding a forkful of pancakes and gazing out into nowhere, as he tends to do, Pranschke considers a theory: Maybe the overnight shift at the rent-a-car company doesn't restrict his art. Maybe it enhances it.
Inside the first-floor gallery of the Sheldon, the first image that catches the eye is a photograph of Peter Pranschke himself, shot on the day he arrived to install his current exhibit, titled The Lonely Rainbow. With his bicycle and custom-built "art cart" parked nearby, the youthful-looking artist poses eagerly for the camera, chin up, a large, puckish grin stretching between even-larger ears. He carries a beat-up backpack like a high schooler. "Life is good," reads his T-shirt.
Pranschke has reason to feel proud. Apart from his solo shows, he was featured in a two-person exhibition at Mad Art Gallery, and his work has been displayed at the Contemporary Art Museum.
"The thing I love about his work is that it's incredibly earnest, and that's hard to find elsewhere," says Bevin Early, who curated a Pranschke show at Snowflake, the Cherokee Street gallery she co-directs. "He's also one of the nicest people you've ever met," Early adds. "He's a gentle soul."
Pranschke attended University City High School and, after undergoing a kidney transplant at twenty, enrolled at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. After graduating in 2003 with a degree in painting, he got a job bagging groceries at a local Schnucks while he went about establishing himself as an artist. (At 26 he underwent a second transplant.) He still does all his sketching inside his childhood home, which he calls "a humble environment."
In a typcial Pranschke exhibit, the art is autobiographical and arranged in a narrative format that tells a personal story — from the dialysis clinic to the rental-car office — with a style informed by pop culture and children's drawings. At the Sheldon, for example, some characters have giant, Mr. Potato Head eyeballs and oversize heads attached to tiny torsos.
Though his main talent is drawing, Pranschke has experimented with other media. Hewing to no-frills, low-budget simplicity, he has created three-dimensional exhibitions using household items such as Ping-Pong balls, ChapStick and dental floss (materials often purchased from thrift stores or discovered at random).
But no matter the medium, the themes stay the same: humility, tragicomedy, survival. Beneath those big eyeballs and small, cartoonish bodies, there's a sense of human fragility, even melancholy, in Pranschke's characters. You notice the bags under the eyes, the worried expressions on the faces, the knots in the shoulders. Life can be thankless and uncertain.
"His characters come from the small daily rigors that confront us," says Jessica Baran, assistant director of White Flag Projects and a freelance visual-arts writer for RFT. "He celebrates what goes uncelebrated, chronicling it in a way that's very empathetic."
He's not always empathetic with himself, however. Pranschke's 2006 exhibit at Fort Gondo featured 1,000 sketches that he'd chucked into a bin he called his "disaster box" over the years. In January 2010 he presented a show at PSTL that chronicled the worst two years of his life, a period that included a failed attempt to complete a commissioned piece of art.
"He feels that art is this Sisyphean task that gets him nowhere, but he still feels compelled to keep doing it," Baran explains. "I'm so impressed with the sincerity of that spirit in his work. There's a desire to lay himself bare, even as he doubts his own sincerity and struggles harder to depict the human experience."
Pranschke doesn't disagree. "Nothing ever goes as planned," he admits. "If something can go wrong, it will."
Inside the Sheldon, Pranschke's illustrations are mounted on green surfaces that complement the gallery's green carpet. A beat-up, pea-green sleeping bag hangs from the center wall, featuring two cartoonish puffs of smoke that Pranschke stitched into the material. He'd intended to stitch several human figures into the sleeping bag, but he ran out of time.
"It's unresolved," he mutters. "Everything is unresolved."
The show's title — The Lonely Rainbow — is meant to evoke bittersweet sentiment. The exhibit, says Pranschke, "was supposed to be this rainbow of green that has no friends; it's just green." But even here the artist comes up short, having resorted to incorporating a few non-green hues into the exhibit. "Unresolved," he says. "Another failure."
But it's not. The incompleteness of the exhibit begets a certain truth, which becomes, ironically, a resolution. That honesty is best conveyed through Pranschke's self-portraits, whose trademark wispy hair and hearing aid betray their identity. In one scene cartoon-Peter pedals his bike past a trio of judgmental artists smoking outside a gallery. In another he falls asleep at the drawing table — clearly burnt out, as evidenced by a puff of smoke surrounding the hand that's clutching a pen.
Cartoon-Peter always soldiers on, though: It's a harsh world, but with a sense of humor and a large dose of humility, it's endurable.
After touring the exhibit and returning to the front door of the Sheldon, an observer can't help but notice once again that photograph of Pranschke beside his bicycle, grinning ear to ear for the camera. "Life is good."
That's not entirely true, of course. Life is a grind. But Pranschke knows it, and that is good.
Peter Pranschke's exhibit, The Lonely Rainbow, is on view through September 10 at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900 or www.sheldonconcerthall.org. Gallery hours: noon-8 p.m. Tue., noon-5 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.Click here to return to our list of MasterMind Award winners.