Art on the Street: Jonathan Dale Crenshaw

Many of Miami's creatives are transient, showing up on our shores and disappearing as quickly as the tides. The Art on the Street series will document this overlooked and ever-changing element of South Beach culture.

"Don't get all up on my picture," warns Jonathan Dale Crenshaw, a slight man in a plaid shirt and blue high-water pants, as I begin photographing the drawing he is composing with his feet. "I don't mind the cameras, but they wanted to take photographs of my artwork and put it on the Web site, and I'm afraid they're gonna copy it," he says.

When asked who "they" are, he points to the gallery he is leaning against, the Art Center/South Florida. "They" are also responsible for furnishing Crenshaw with art supplies. "Without that, I wouldn't be looking too good," Crenshaw says.

Crenshaw says he was born in Alabama but that throughout his childhood, he and his mother moved to El Paso, San Diego, and other cities in quick succession. "I didn't care too much for that," he says. "Plus, she kept feeding me rat poison. For the insurance policy, I guess."

Though he doesn't talk much about the condition that has earned him the nickname "Birdman" — the short, wing-like limbs that protrude from his shoulders in place of arms — he speaks freely about other maladies, imagined or not. "I was born with sharp teeth. When I was five years old, the government drilled them in half," he says. Later he relates how he was forced to move into a hotel after he was "stabbed to death twice" in his former apartment some years back. "But a big bolt of lightning woke me up," he explains. "I think the knife might still be in my back." His eyes light up curiously at the prospect. He proceeds to stand and lift up the back of his shirt all the way to the nape of his neck so that I might inspect him for knives or stab wounds. His skin is unmarred.

He sits back on his beach towel and resumes working on his latest piece — an abstract face surrounded by geometric shapes, all drawn in pink metallic gel pen. He lifts an eyebrow before imparting, "I think I'm the one Nostradamus predicted nobody could kill." He says the idea was revealed to him through something he saw in one of his drawings.

Crenshaw talks a lot about sex and the many women he's impregnated, including Gloria Estefan, who he says birthed about 200 of his children. He asserts that at 39, he is a grandfather, having fathered his first child at the age of eight. As he talks, his expressions become slightly flirtatious. He then lets me photograph his work close up.

Then he's quiet for a few seconds. "Sometimes I wish I were dead," he begins. "I'm not trying to kill myself or anything. But then I wouldn't have to suffer." When asked where his suffering stems from, he says, "The city code is half my problem!" Police often ask Crenshaw to dismantle his open-air studio because he doesn't have a vendor's permit. "Why should I buy a permit when I could go and sue Sony for a million dollars?" he asks indignantly.

Crenshaw's drawings always depict a number of human eyes; he says he is fascinated by them. "I love doing it," he says of his work and explains that he has been creating since he was a kid. "My mom would say, 'Why don't you make another picture,' and then I would suddenly see my designs in Versace clothes." When I ask if he is insinuating that his mother had sold his designs to Versace on the sly, he says, "Yes, I think so."

He says his drawings usually sell for around $60, but he adds, "I might sell one for less if I've been carrying it around for a few days and I'm sick of it." When he comes and goes, he uses a dog leash to drag a wheeled suitcase full of his pens, his canvasses, and a small radio he uses to play the rap and Latin music he likes to listen to while he works.

He's on Lincoln Road most days, but every now and then, he takes a day off. When he's not working, he likes to "eat good food, drink a beer, and watch television" in his hotel room. The afternoon wears on, and pedestrians continue to pause and inspect his work in irregular waves, sometimes depositing a few dollars in his cup. As I thank him and we say our goodbyes, he nonchalantly gives me the name and room number of his hotel.
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Camille Lamb Guzman is a journalist who writes on wellness, travel, and culture. She is also finishing a book of creative nonfiction.

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