Mariecar Mendoza

High above a graveyard, I am getting Step One of the Jeff Claassen Courtship Plan.

“You’re not the first girl I’ve brought up here,”says Claassen mischievously. “It’s a very good spot.”

It’s 10:30 p.m. on a Thursday and we’re sitting on a billboard along South Higuera – an inexplicable love destination, considering it overlooks the cemetery and unsexily advertises for Lemos Feed and Pet Supply. We’re also eating 80-cent doughnuts from Sunshine Donuts, which officially makes me the cheapest date in town.

However, he’s right – there is an allure to being alone on the quiet hillside, a little closer to the fog. Our perch seems to offer a welcomed new view of an old scene, not unlike Claassen’s own art. (And for the record, Claassen is happily taken; and a perfect gentleman.)

The San Luis Obispo native is a colorful standout in a downtown art scene of pretty fields and prettier livestock. His art is a youthful mix of graffiti-style figures and unpredictable backgrounds (varnished wood, Pollock-style splatters and Florentine curves, for a few), all which hang in his own gallery at 968 Higuera St., No. 208. His latest show, “Lost Souls of Forgotten Love,” adds spooky angels to the equation, but follows the formula he crafted early on.

“When I was younger, I always drew, but I never carried a pencil – I had a ballpoint pen,” he said, citing artists such as Phil Frost as inspiration. “I couldn’t erase, which was how my style developed. I invent as I go along in a freestyle manner.”

He’s expanded his mediums now to “everything but oil” and relies frequently on his favored Rapidograph, a sort of black-ink drafting pen favored by Cal Poly architecture students. It’s an appropriate college connection – tall and gangly, with a cheeky smile that suggests less than his 27 years, Claassen easily passes for a college kid. He even talks with their passionate definitives – “I hate TV! TV is the devil!” – and complains fervently about rent prices. But school’s out for him.

“I didn’t like the school setting, so I never went to college. I didn’t think the teachers took time to really teach you,” he said. “I love to learn, though – when I was in Seattle, I read almost the whole time. I didn’t even see the sights.”

Claassen visited Seattle for work anyway – his latest collection was featured at a venue called Bad Ju Ju. His work has sent him to Massachusetts, Los Angeles (where he lived for four years) and the San Jose Museum of Art, where he painted live in the famous halls. He’s also done unique commission work for fans in France and an ill-fated exchange student from Denmark; she paid him to paint her favorite jacket. (Unfortunately, it was stolen, so Claassen’s Web site now features a picture of the garment and encouragement to beat up whoever snatched it.) In December, he’ll be part of “Wish You Were Here,” a prestigious underground group show in Hamtramck, Mich.

This rapidly growing base suits him, as he ultimately wants to leave San Luis Obispo largely because of the weather – during our billboard excursion, he made numerous complaints about hot afternoons. Otherwise he is overwhelmingly, almost politically, upbeat and witty. He has to think hard when I ask what he dislikes; his ultimate response is “broken promises” (the first, unprintable answer involved monkeys). This cheer even extends to the conservative San Luis Obispo art environment, in which he is the most visible wild card.

“I think there’s a lot more young artists here, but they have no place to show their stuff,” he said. “The other galleries are busy showing landscapes – and they can charge up to 50 percent commission, which is why the prices are so high. And that deters buyers. But it can change.”

The solution: Claassen’s going collective. His gallery’s first group art show, “Creepster,” runs on Halloween and features unusual pieces from some lesser-known alternative artists in the area. The event comes on the heels of the successful “Lost Souls of Forgotten Love” (closing Saturday) and is one new step in many. He’s also moving toward more functional art, including apparel, furniture and pillows.

But like any real student, he knows his education is far from over.

“I never, never feel accomplished for my age,” he said. “I do feel now that I finish things I want to get done. But there’s never enough time, not if there were nine days in a week. I want something to show for my time.”

Stacey Anderson is a journalism and music senior and KCPR DJ. Catch her Sundays from 7 to 8 p.m. and Tuesdays from 2 to 4 p.m. or e-mail her at standers@calpoly.edu. This article was reprinted by permission from New Times.

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