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The family that creates together, shows together

Art lair 

The family that creates together, shows together

Up the stairs and to the left of Cliff's Meat Market, the door is open and the fan is on. The fan makes for awkward and unsure entrances, hanging there in the door with an obtrusiveness that suggests it has been there for years and isn't going any place any time soon.

Laird Dixon's apartment may very well be the coolest place in Carrboro, but that's only figurative.

No, tonight, it's sweltering. A late-afternoon thunderstorm has left things hot and sticky. But they don't seem to mind. In fact, they--Laird, brother Kevin, mother Beverly and best bud Eric Knisley--seem to thrive in this heat while either working on or talking about creating for a living. Kevin has wedding invitations sprawled across the kitchen/studio counter, trying to satisfy the design whims of his fiancée, Brenda Wichman. Painter mom Beverly and sculptor son Laird converse in a corner as Eric floats between each station, carrying an ink drawing he'll spend the next hour finishing.

He will finish it on the floor of Laird's bedroom, separated from the kitchen--or, more accurately, the room with a counter lined with paint cups and a pantry stocked with paints, plasters and molds--by a triple-lined cloth and plastic curtain. The curtain traps the cool air wheezed from a window unit that doesn't cut off all night. Perhaps the air conditioning makes this a place of relaxation, Laird's place to get away from the toil of constantly working on his art.

Hardly. Tools and molds of Laird's and Kevin's sculptures line every tabletop. They're in several drawers and under most pieces of furniture. As a matter of fact, even the furniture is art, from the painted lampposts and the geometric shapes dotting a cabinet to the work-in-progress bust of UNC's Ramses standing on PVC pipe in the middle of the floor.

The only signs of modern life in this blessedly persistent space where even the sunlight is shut out with paintings are an entertainment center (with a sculpture by Brian Walker on top) tucked into a corner and an old, smoke-stained Macintosh (sitting on a cleverly designed desk).

On one wall, a signature pig of Laird's takes flight with a sash floating freely, while, on another, King Kong dressed in King Tutankhamun's ostentatious head garb guards the entrance with a perfect menace. There's a David Rose painting at the foot of the bed (even with Kevin and Brenda laying on it, the bed seems more like an afterthought than a necessity in this gallery of a bedroom). Two of Laird's own paintings hang along the sides of the mattress.

"I haven't painted in 10 years. I just think it's too stressful for me, and you can spend a month on one painting and then when it's gone, it's gone," says Laird, best known for his surreal chess sets and outlandish variants on familiar characters--and his guitar playing in Shark Quest. "It's a different kind of mindset, and with painting there can just be zero distractions."

Brenda, legs crossed at Kevin's feet, is shocked: "In 10 years? Laird, that's so strange. But your paintings are so good."

For Brenda, tonight is full of surprises about the family that she will formally enter in late August. She laughs at Beverly's art stories and tales of the boys that the sometimes reticent Dixon brothers haven't told. She questions Kevin when he describes his youth in a "hippy commune," disagrees with him when he describes the recently reunited Zen Frisbee as a "great failure" in looking for the cause of their cult status, and laments the brothers' lack of marketing oomph.

But Monday nights aren't about the marketing, even though Eric keeps reminding them that he's leaving for a networker's dream--the San Diego Comic Convention--in two weeks. For the past five years, Mondays at Laird's apartment have been Art Nights. Art Night is an inclusive, focused, challenging night where Laird and Kevin work on separate or mutual projects side by side. They extend an open invitation to their artistic friends to collaborate, as long as they have materials and aren't stumbling in shortly after Orange County Social Club has closed. Because it stems from nights spent on the living room floor drawing comics as kids and because it is so productive, Art Night is ultra-sacrosanct.

"There are certain projects that I'll wanna work on when you guys are here because the atmosphere works," explains Laird, burning another cigarette with a lighter tied to the computer cabinet.

"We keep each other awake and in check, and there's a little more competitiveness between us then," adds Kevin. "We're able to bounce stuff off of each other, and Laird and I aren't shy about telling each other that what the other is doing sucks."

Mom worries about the awake part, fretting when Laird tells her that his sleep habits--three hours one night, maybe four hours the next--aren't getting better. Laird insists that he's fine, but he later admits that he hopes the art business somehow works, as he's avoided getting a substantial day job for so long. Brenda adds that every artist needs a good publicist for a girlfriend. Perhaps she's right: After all, by now, the Dixon brothers should be world famous--maybe for Shark Quest, perhaps for Zen Frisbee, but definitely for Laird's uncanny creatures that crowd the walls and Kevin's incisive comics and paintings.

Once again, Kevin realizes that he and Laird have been too busy making art to market art. Laird confesses that he loses all creative interest in a sculpture after the first successful casting, and Kevin says he'll get on that networking thing any day now. For now, though, they need to get to work. They have an installation due up in two weeks, and they've rather infamously missed deadlines before.

"That's our biggest failing," exclaims Kevin of the marketing foible.

Eric pops up, frowns and then he disagrees: "But I don't know if it's a failing at all."

The Dixons' art show--featuring work by Laird, Kevin and Beverly--opens July 17 at Fuse, 403 W. Rosemary St., Chapel Hill.

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