It's past midnight at Wicker Park's Big Wig nightclub, and Dr. Pants Laroo is sitting at the bar, looking glum. She'd been painting on the dance floor for over an hour, but the management felt the bright spotlight shining on her canvas was dampening the party vibe. "They asked me to take a break so they could turn out the light for people to dance," she says. "I don't really like it, but I understand it needs to be done."
Pants, whose real name is Jennie Padron, loves working in this environment. Sometimes she paints tributes to her favorite DJs, but mostly she just lets the music drive her. "Music affects my color choices, it affects momentum," she says.
But it's questionable whether the environment loves her. Even Dave Hossler, the accounts manager of Illmeasures, a DJ collective that includes Pants in its regular nights at Big Wig, says, "I love her to death. But sometimes I don't get what she's doing." He's not sure many other people get it either. "To be honest, this night has been a tough sell. There's a crowd of technoheads who come out every Tuesday. But they know we don't do techno when she paints because she's not really into it, so they don't come." As I talk to Hossler, who's working the door tonight, several prospective patrons ask what's going on and, when he tells them about Pants's gig, decide to go elsewhere.
"People see the canvas and paint and they don't know what to make of it," says Pants. "Sometimes they come up to me and ask if it's OK to dance. I tell them of course it is. I wouldn't do this at a club if I didn't want people dancing around me. More than anything, it's about the light. People want a dark space to dance in, but I can't paint without light."
Disheartened by years of meager income, negative reviews, and public indifference, many budding artists wind up quitting. But Pants, who's dealing with all these problems, isn't giving up yet.
Born in Queens and raised in Columbus, Pants entered Ohio Wesleyan University in 1995, and it was there that she came up with her nickname. "I made up my name, Pants Laroo," she says, because she was always wearing baggy pants, "and then introduced myself jokingly to a group of strangers at a college party and it stuck. The Dr. was added on later somehow, I'm not sure when."
During the first semester of her senior year she did an internship in New York, working with Jane Dickson (a Chicago-born painter most famous for her "Life Under Neon" series depicting life around Times Square), who became her mentor and role model. Dickson and Pants clicked so well that after graduating in 1999, Pants returned to New York and worked in her studio for a couple years. During that time she had an experience that got her interested in mingling music and art. "I saw a friend with headphones listening to a tape of crickets slowed down to the speed of human voices--it sounds like a gospel choir. He was really into it, really bugging out." She grabbed a camera, took some photos of him, and over the next few months did about 50 or 60 paintings based on those images. "I wanted to show someone being affected by music, to reflect the power of music--dance, jazz, rock, whatever." She painted while listening to a wide variety of sounds and found that the colors and textures of her work were influenced by her choice of music.
Pants liked New York (and particularly its nightlife) but found the locals too cold. "I didn't have a social life out there," she says. As she was thinking about leaving, she heard from her best friend from college, Nicole Vernet, who had moved to Chicago and had an apartment to share, so she grabbed her things and her Doberman mix, Leroy Brown, and drove here to see how she liked it. "I was a nomad," she says. It didn't take long for her to decide to stay. "I love Chicago. It's like New York and Ohio meet and have a beautiful baby. People here are citified but they still have a midwestern attitude." She got a full-time job caring for two little girls, and that's still how she pays the bills.
Vernet was close to the group of guys who'd formed the Illmeasures DJ collective in 2000; they would hang around at the girls' apartment, and Pants would sometimes paint to their mixes. A regular at their club gigs, she eventually became an honorary member of the group. In the spring of 2001 they had a conversation about how to make their gigs about more than just hearing a DJ play records. "We discussed several ways of doing this, from art installations to fire jugglers," says Pants. "The idea of me painting was kicked around for a while until [DJ] Jeremy James finalized the idea." She sometimes paints at raves and loft parties and has done a couple of nights at Zentra, but her main gig is at Big Wig, where she paints on the first Tuesday of each month. She's billed as the "resident artist."
As Pants prepares for her Tuesday-night Big Wig appearance, James is spinning a jazzy set of instrumental house, but there's only one couple dancing. A little after 11, Pants walks up to the canvas standing near the DJ booth, grabs a brush, and starts to mix acrylic paint. She paints a light purple background, and some people put their conversations on pause to watch her. She starts to groove to the music, her back and shoulders bobbing up and down. She spends the next half hour or so layering more colors on the background; when James passes the baton to DJ Striz, who changes the groove to tech house, Pants works twice as fast. Within a few minutes she's painted a blue creature that looks like a cross between an amoeba and Casper the Friendly Ghost.
The painting keeps changing. Pants covers the creature's head in white, wiping out its eyes and mouth, then redraws those features in purple--and the mouth now has sharp teeth and is scowling rather than smiling. She paints a robot next to the first creature. By this point she's been going for almost an hour, and the few people who danced early on are back in their seats. She walks to the bar, comes back with an Amstel Light, and keeps adding details to the painting--sharp nails on the monster, rays of light radiating from the robot, stars shining between the two characters.
By 1 AM the dance floor is empty and the four people sitting at the tables are paying no attention to Pants, but she keeps painting. Finally she takes a few steps away from the canvas and takes a long look. She walks back up, draws one more star, signs "Pantslaroo" under the monster's foot, throws back the rest of her beer, and walks away smiling.
Later she analyzes the painting for me to explain her creative process. In her original draft, the robot represented her, and the monster, a stand-in for her boyfriend, Jisz Jenkins, stared at it with longing. But then the music changed from mellow to intense. "The music was driving me a lot--I kept painting faster, more aggressively." And as she did so, she projected something she was thinking earlier onto the painting. "Jisz is a very intense guy. I'm used to it, we're cool. But I saw how some people could perceive that negatively, and that's what the painting became about. The monster's expression became angry, and the robot was getting away from him with a kind of triumphant smile.
"Most of my paintings are about relationships, about people I know," says Pants. "It's always an outlet for me." People who recognize themselves in her work are sometimes offended. "They'll say, 'Is that how I am? Is that how you see me?' I don't want to upset anyone. But in my paintings, friends sometimes see a side of themselves they don't want to see--being envious or angry. I tell them that this is about a specific moment in time--'You're not always that way.'"
That people recognize themselves in her work at all is surprising, because she never renders human figures realistically. "I used to do that in college, because I was worried that if I did something abstract, people would think I just didn't know how to paint," she says. Eventually she lost that fear and began to paint shapeless characters that later evolved into monsters. Over the past six months or so she's been painting robots and dogs. "It's a simplified way to represent how people are," she says, adding that over time these characters have evolved into something of a personal symbology: dogs usually represent innocence, robots are maniacal and sometimes evil, and the monsters are "very emotional." There is a childlike quality to her work, and she owns up to it proudly. "As a child, everybody is an artist," she says. "But in art school you have that trained out of you. You're not supposed to have that rawness. So if somebody says, 'That looks like my kid did it,' that's a compliment, because it's not easy to convey that feeling.
"I think anyone who knows about art will look at my work and be able to tell that I've had formal training. I don't spend time worrying about people who don't get it. Some people don't understand Picasso to this day."
Pants recently moved into a new apartment in Ukrainian Village that she's eager to use as a studio. But she still prefers painting in clubs. Not only does she like the music--she's also entertained by the patrons. "I really love to talk to drunk people," she says. "One night some guy walks up to me and says, 'These are some really great pigs that you're drawing,' and I'm drawing a dog. Sometimes people look at a painting and say, 'I've been there. I know where that is.' And I'm like, 'It's just a background.'"
There are hazards to painting for drunks. Under the influence, lots of otherwise reasonable people suddenly consider themselves artists and try to take over Pants's paintings. "It's a confrontation that I don't want to get into. Usually I just say, 'You should go home and do your own paintings." Another problem with drunks is that sometimes they tell Pants they love her work and want to buy it, but then they don't remember anything about it the next day.
Pants has sold a few pieces after gigs, including one to Big Wig co-owner Jay Runnfeldt, and she once did a painting on commission for a DJ friend. But she's losing money on her Big Wig gigs because she pays for the materials out of her own pocket and doesn't demand a cut of the night's revenue. "I'm Illmeasures too, so I don't want to take anything away from them," she says. "Sometimes I ask them for a cut. It depends on the night, depends on my financial situation."
Pants wants to be able to make a living off her art but stumbles when asked how she intends to get there. "Not every artist is necessarily good...I'm not good at marketing myself." She would love to do an exhibition but doesn't quite know how to go about it. "I'm not sure my paintings would work in a gallery setting. Just putting it on a wall and having people look at it, I don't think that would be right. Maybe if I could do sort of an installation, with music." Above all, she clings to an adage her mentor taught her. "Jane Dickson had this saying: 'The only successful artists in the world are the ones who can't figure out something else to do,'" she says. "And I can't figure out anything else to do with myself."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.