VERO BEACH – The painter Francis Mesaros, whose works have hung for the past year at Vero’s Gallery 14, was stunned to learn two weeks ago that two works had sold at an international Miami art fair to a famous billionaire.
In early December, Mesaros, invited to show his works at Art Asia, a recent adjunct to the widely recognized Art Basel-Miami, sold two large seascapes to Guy Laliberte, the founder of Cirque du Soleil, for a total of $24,000.
For Mesaros, who until recently earned his living with an arcade game business, the sale marked a pivotal moment, certainly the most sensational in a series of events that have him hoping for a turnaround in an emotionally difficult life.
As his fortunes have turned, so has his signature use of the palette knife, the defining gesture in his works.
That stroke used to press downward to apply a mixture of epoxy and oil paint, thousands of times in a single seascape.
The resulting row upon row of tiny plaques serve to reflect light from an almost sculpted surface.
Two years ago, with a flick of the wrist, he turned that stroke upward, changing the leading edge from bottom to top, truer to the shape of ripples in water, his primary subject.
He believes that single shift made all the difference in 40 years of painting. And in fact, his canvases have been selling at increasingly higher prices, and to increasing recognition.
Mesaros, who turns 55 next week, first displayed this technique at the Gallery 14 show last February.
From the moment the downtown gallery’s owners began to hang his exhibition, two paintings sold before they could find a place on the wall.
At $5,000, they were more expensive than any other two-dimensional artwork in the gallery, said Lila Blakeslee, an owner and artist.
Asked to bring something to replace them with, Mesaros brought a canvas in that he considered too meaningful to sell, and put what he thought was a ridiculous price on it, $9,000.
“All the Gallery 14 partners were like, ‘Wow,’ because we had lowered our prices a bit because of the economic downturn,” said Blakeslee. “I was working the gallery the day after it was hung, A man walked in, looked at the price and left. I was busy with customers, but he gave me a ‘high sign.’ The next day, he bought it.”
The same thing happened two weekends ago with a smaller painting, which sold to a man the day after he saw it.
“I can’t wait to tell him about Laliberte,” says Blakeslee.
After instant success at Gallery 14, Mesaros was invited by a New York dealer to show his work at Miami’s Art Asia, the second year of a show of predominantly Asian art held in conjunction with the more established Art Basel.
It was there that the wall where his work hung alongside the boldfaced letters of his name, caught the eye of Laliberte, one of a crush of celebrities and international collectors who regularly attend December’s annual Art Basel.
In September, the same dealer had invited Mesaros to do a show in New Jersey, where he grew up, and until recently, owned a home.
At that show, he sold an astonishing 16 paintings and earned two commissions as well, he says.
Even more fortuitous was the presence of Marilyn Laverty, a New York publicist whose Shore Fire Media claims top celebrities for clients, including Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello.
Laverty says she and Mesaros have agreed to work together through 2011.
Meanwhile, he has been awarded a provisional patent for a device that automatically dispenses paint onto a palette knife and mechanically rotates the point 90 degrees, replicating his technique. He wants to distribute it along with an instructional DVD.
“Somebody asked me, ‘What are you going to do if people start making paintings like your paintings? Are you going to sue?’ No, I’m not going to sue,” says Mesaros. “It’s just going to make my paintings more valuable, because I’m the originator. And you know what? I’d like to be 84 years old and have some kid in art class say, ‘Aren’t you the bugger who invented this technique?’ I think that’d be cool.”
Until the prototype is made, Mesaros tolerates the pain from carpal tunnel syndrome and continues his work manually.
It was on his return from the successful show in New Jersey that he was invited to hang his works at a prominent Worth Avenue gallery.
But less than a week later, complaining of unreturned phone calls among other things, he decided the fit wasn’t right, picked up his paintings, and brought them home.
“They’re not the type of people I do business with,” he says. “And I’m the kind of guy that can tell them that. It’s just not a money thing with me.”
While his paintings may be a buffer against a bad economy, the downturn dealt a fatal blow to a business in New Jersey that had sustained Mesaros for more than 15 years: supplying arcade games to venues like bowling alleys and roller rinks.
Previously, he had worked in court reporting, bartending, roofing, and modeling, and years ago, owned his own agency, he says.
The arcade game failure caused him to sell his New Jersey home earlier this year. He declared bankruptcy, prompting the courts to confiscate seven of his paintings.
Mesaros views even that with a sense of humor.
“I have been officially declared a recognized artist,” he says. “I have it in writing from the United States Justice Department.”
As Mesaros tells it, Laliberte’s acquisition of his work was considerably more pleasant.
The French- Canadian former fire-eater, now a legendary party-thrower, according to a new biography, had quietly walked by Mesaros’ wall at Art Asia, pointed at two canvasses and strolled on.
“I didn’t think anything of it because I couldn’t hear him,” says Mesaro. “But then as he walked on, his assistant stayed behind and sat down with the gallery people to arrange the sale.”
“People were kind of bowled over there,” says Helen Haberman, who confirmed the sale as promoter for the exhibiting gallery, The Gallery of New York. “Nobody had ever seen anybody sculpt with paint before. I think he’s very, very unique.”
Haberman says she will be working intensively with Mesaros in the weeks ago, promoting him in the Northeast.
Both purchases were seascapes, a 3-by-5 foot painting called Eternal Ocean at $15,000, and another 2-by- 4 foot canvas he calls “Look What We’ve Done,” that sold for $9,000.