Don’t mind the auto parts

Mural artists Chuck Curtis and Robert Lindsey have turned Tailpipes Smog Test Center into one of the hottest stops on Roseville’s Third Saturday route

Muralists Robert Lindsey and Chuck Curtis give us the brushoff.

Muralists Robert Lindsey and Chuck Curtis give us the brushoff.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Oh no! It’s time to mail in that car registration and a nice fat check to the Department of Motor Vehicles—due tomorrow. But, to your dismay, big black letters at the top of your registration form read, “Smog test required.” The only place that can take your wheels in today, right now, is in Roseville. So, you zoom up Interstate 80 to the suburb, find the place and pull your car in.

When you get out of your car, you notice something different about the smog place. There are paintings on the wall—big ones. These are not the pastoral scenes hanging in the waiting room of your doctor’s office or hovering above your mother’s couch. You get the feeling that this definitely is not your typical smog shop. You’re right.

On weekends and by appointment, Tailpipes Smog Test Center, located at 625 Vernon Street in Old Roseville, morphs into CR Gallery. The art space is run by Chuck Curtis and Robert Lindsey, both accomplished artists in their own right. A lot of the art on the walls is born under their own paintbrushes, but the gallery also features the work of other artists.

As you walk into the smog shop’s waiting room, there’s a counter with a menu on the wall that reads “Smog check $41.75,” along with other assorted vehicle services. But you can’t help but notice the large, moody, Rothko-esque abstract on the other side of the room.

Behind a door with a large glass window, art is crammed on the brick walls. This used to be storage space for the smog shop, but it’s now the studio for Curtis and Lindsey, and it serves as half of the gallery. During the day, in the other half of the building, cars go in and out, having their exhaust levels examined on those fancy smog-test machines.

On a recent spring day, the two sat relaxed and painting while they explained their interesting partnership. Lindsey, who looks related to James Dean, is all of a quarter-century old. Curtis, with almost twice those years, offers a long, lean dignity to the pair. Lindsey brushed paint on a medium-sized canvas, adding to an already recognizable image of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin partying down. Curtis perched in front of an easel, painting a mythological scene of Greek columns and godlike creatures. Although the jazz riffs from KSSJ offered great painting music, they could hear the wheels of the cherry-red Lamborghini next-door whirring on the smog-test rollers as its exhaust was analyzed.

Everybody knows that artists have to have day jobs, but this kind of painting is not it for these two. Curtis and Lindsey have found a most lucrative occupation: painting murals. They first hooked up about two-and-a-half years ago.

“One of my friends was opening a restaurant in Roseville called Cascades,” Lindsey recalled. “He wanted to show rotating art shows at the restaurant. He’d seen my drawings of comic-art superheroes.” He offered Lindsey a show at Cascades.

“I had never painted before. I just drew things from comic books and did graphic-design stuff. I didn’t know how I was going to do 10 paintings—big ones,” he gestured, his arms wide apart. “Six days before the show opened, I walked into Michaels and asked, ‘Where’s the paint department?’”

“He would come in almost every day,” Curtis, who worked as a manager in the Roseville arts-and-crafts store, remembered with a laugh. “I finally asked him what he was doing. When I went to his studio, he was doing these paintings like it was an assembly line.”

“I think of those as my first paintings,” Lindsey remarked. “I sold one of them, a painting of Martin Luther King [Jr.] for $2,000.”

Lindsey had studied Flash designing and computer animation at Stanford University and applied art at Sierra College. DreamWorks Animation took notice of his work, offering him a job if he would study two years of animation in Los Angeles first. “But it was a big move, and I didn’t want to go to L.A.,” Lindsey noted.

When an art gallery shares a building with a smog shop, wall space is limited.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Curtis studied architecture at Sierra College and at California State University, Sacramento. “I was working in architecture, and I was painting once in a while, but there wasn’t much art in my design work or conceptualist renderings. I was burnt out and walked away from it,” Curtis shrugged. “It was just that easy, so I did some traveling around. I was so fried. It was a rude awakening. I’m done with designing, although I’ve designed pools and landscape for friends.

“I had put in a bid to paint this really big mural at Stanford Ranch, the Eureka and Vine wine bar, and they wanted it quick, by Thanksgiving 2003. So, I called Robert, and we did it in 10 days, all 2,640 square feet,” Curtis recalled. “We were up for about three days, sleeping five hours a night. We made it look like a 100-year-old winery. We even aged the door, using Disney methods [with at least 50 colors], and painted every square inch. We’ve gotten better.”

So much better that they quickly launched a business together. Both men are low-key, very sure of themselves and their talent, sans the puffery of inflated artistic egos. Maybe that’s the key to their mural-business success. Or maybe it’s that each has found a partner who can fill in where the other chooses not to go.

“We worked real good together, talked about a partnership and got a business license. Robert’s a quick study,” Curtis remarked. “When I asked him to help me, he really impressed me. I have a fear of heights. He has no fear. That’s a plus for me.

“We want to give people an alternative culture—walls of art. We try to keep it like an adventure but ultimately harmonize, and the murals always come out looking better than we anticipated. I’m not good at people and faces,” Curtis admitted. “He’s great at them,” he said, gesturing with his paintbrush at his partner. “I do good skies and cloud formations.

“We’re quick with different skills, and we mesh them together. Our painting styles are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Robert likes texture,” Curtis revealed.

“And Chuck does great photo realism,” Lindsey interjected. “We do whatever’s best for the mural.”

Make that murals. A slide show on their laptop boasts 140 slides of their work. “Most of our jobs come from word of mouth and referrals, or people see our slide show on the computer,” Curtis said confidently. “Knock on wood; we’ve never had an unhappy client.”

Lindsey and Curtis are already hooked up to paint all the mural work in the Street of Dreams homes in Twelve Bridges outside of Lincoln this June. That’s nine houses with at least one mural per house. Upcoming commissions are slated in the Bay Area, Utah, Belgium and a house next to Clint Eastwood’s Hawaiian haven.

So, where does the gallery fit in this picture? “The gallery’s our toy,” Lindsey said, laughing. “We had started doing the mural work already, and we needed a studio where we could store our things,” he recalled. “And I had a lot of art. My brother-in-law Ron runs the smog shop. This part,” he said, gesturing around the smaller room off the main smog-testing area, “was the storage, and I would paint in here. Then we were offered a lease on this place, and we thought, ‘This is a nice building. Let’s turn it into a gallery and get involved in Third Saturday every month.’” They took the first letters of their first names to create the inviting, pardon-the-pun name.

“People come in Mercedes and Jags. Everybody has to get their vehicles smogged,” Curtis said, shrugging. “When they step out of their cars, they see great art.”

“We wanted to move outside the norm, get more edgy than the other galleries here. We have live music at our openings and usually stay open until 1 or 2 during [Roseville’s Third Saturday] art tour and don’t want to close the door,” Lindsey said.

Curtis and Lindsey are in the process of leasing the whole building. The smog equipment was slated to go this month, but that move has been pushed to this summer. “Then our hours will expand. We’ll hire people to be here all the time,” Lindsey said. “We also want to get high-school [Regional Occupational Program] students to come in to take classes and learn how to run a gallery.”

Those are some grand plans for a toy.