Looking Sharp

A brush with Hollywood has Sharpie artist reaching for the stars

DeKALB – Dawn McAllister knew she had an artist on her hands when her son Justin was 2 years old.

“I have a photograph of him in his high chair with his pen and paper – he was maybe 2,” she said. “At 2 he drew a picture of Lampwick (his favorite character from “Pinocchio”), and I have saved the picture all this time. It has eyes, a nose, a mouth and ears. I knew that was unusual because usually kids that age can’t put things like that together.”

McAllister’s passion for art has stayed with him his entire life, and he has worked in almost every medium. However, his passion for Sharpie markers is what led to his brush with Hollywood, and his distinctive Sharpie art is paving the way for him to pursue art as a full-time profession.

Zac Efron coming to DeKalb to film the movie “Heartland” earlier this summer was the catalyst McAllister needed to boost his career.

“I drew a picture of him, and I asked one of my friends who was a set assistant if he could get it to Zac, even if I could get a picture of him holding it,” McAllister recalled. Throughout the weeks of production in DeKalb County, McAllister’s friend held onto the 18-by-24-inch color drawing of Efron, but he could never find quite the right opportunity to present the drawing to the actor.

McAllister’s break came during the last days of production, when the son of one of the crew members was diagnosed with a serious illness and the movie’s producers decided to hold a fundraiser for the family. That was just the opportunity McAllister’s friend needed to present the Sharpie drawing to Efron.

“Zac signed the drawing I had done of him and they invited me to meet him, and then they donated the drawing to the fundraiser,” McAllister said. “They thanked me for that, and they said that maybe they would eventually want something else for Zac. That’s really how it started – I sat around biting my nails for two months waiting for them to call me.”

McAllister kept in touch with his contact from the production. Every time he completed a new Sharpie drawing, he would email a photograph of it to his contact in Hollywood. Finally, his contact wrote back asking if he could create a piece of art for Efron’s home. The drawing would be a gift to Efron from his assistants.

When the topic of a subject came up, McAllister once again hit the jackpot.

”This is where I really lucked out – they said that Zac Efron’s hero is Bruce Lee,” said McAllister, also a lifelong fan of the kung fu actor.

“This is going to be in his house, and anyone who sees it is a potential customer. On top of that, he’s going to be getting my best work because I’m drawing my own hero,” McAllister said.

Efron’s assistants negotiated a price for the 2-foot-by-4-foot artwork, but gave McAllister free rein to create the concept. McAllister decided on a horizontal image depicting the legendary martial arts fighter in two opposing fighting stances against a night cityscape.

McAllister’s love of mixed martial arts also led to an exhibition of his work in DeKalb three years ago at a “Border’s Night Out” event at the now-closed bookstore.

“I met Justin McAllister in January 2009,” said Dan Sherrill, who organized exhibitions at the store for local artists. “When I was working at Borders he was doing these monthly illustration features in MMA Worldwide magazine. He called the store and asked us to save copies of the magazine.

“It’s very unique and he puts a ton of time into his art. I like his stuff because nobody else could possibly duplicate it. He can pretty much draw anything or anybody.”

McAllister uses dozens of Sharpies in different colors and sizes in his work. His art has caught the eye of executives at Newell Rubbermaid Office Products, which manufactures the markers. Although he has not signed a formal endorsement deal, he does get boxes of free markers from the manufacturer. McAllister estimates that he used $50 worth of Sharpies on the Bruce Lee drawing, which he finished last week.

McAllister, a 1997 graduate of DeKalb High School, started working with Sharpies when he was in high school. Until about three years ago, the color-blind artist worked exclusively with black Sharpies, but recently he decided to try working with color.

“When you see my art and you see how bright it is, I see that too. I just can’t tell the difference between more muted tones,” he said. “I think the lucky part about that is that my color scheme is very recognizable. I think the combination of color blindness and the Sharpies has given me a color scheme that is undeniably mine. I think that’s what is catching on right now.”

McAllister has had his share of tough times. He lost a home to foreclosure, and a brush with the law landed him in jail for six months on a drug charge. He bounced between several minimum-wage jobs before deciding to focus on drawing, promoting and selling his art.

“Because of art, I have hit the wall so many times,” McAllister said. “But I think that being broke made my artwork that much better. As things got worse, my art got better. I did 12 drawings in jail that I sold as a collection for $1,200. I just ended my year by speaking to Zac Efron. Last year I ended my year with getting out of jail two days before Christmas.”

With the boost in exposure from doing the drawing for Efron and with some savvy self-promotion on his Facebook page, McAllister now finds himself in a position where he always has work to do. When he is not working on commission, he draws subjects of his choosing - usually celebrities - and displays them on his Facebook page.

“I think Justin is on the right path now,” Dawn McAllister said. “It’s really hard to make a living at art, but I think he is going in the right direction.”

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