Banned in SoHo

Cranbury resident James Lucas has completed more than 60 celebrity portraits, a dozen of which are on view at Triumph Brewing Co.

By: Matt Smith

Above, top, "Lady Day"; bottom, "Jitney Man."

   Tony Bennett may not have left his heart in San Francisco after all, but one New York City gallery owner must have misplaced hers somewhere along the line. When James Lucas attempted to get a portrait he painted of the legendary crooner autographed, the owner of the SoHo establishment where Bennett was signing books was less than pleased.
   "I had done a portrait of him, and the owner saw it and said, ‘Put that away,’" Mr. Lucas says. "I gave an 8-by-10 copy of the portrait to him and then I said, ‘I have this other picture I was hoping you would sign.’ He said, ‘Sure. Give it to me.’ So I brought it out and he signed it. But the owner said, ‘Don’t ever come back here. You’re banned.’"
   The Cranbury artist got the idea to do celebrity portraits when Tim Allen and Martin Short were in New York a few years ago filming the comedy Jungle 2 Jungle.
   "It just blossomed from there," says Mr. Lucas, who was working in the city as a graphic designer. "I’ve always had a healthy interest in entertainment and catching up on all the gossip."
   Mr. Lucas has completed more than 60 celebrity portraits to date, a dozen of which are on view at Triumph Brewing Co. in Princeton through Sept. 8, along with another two-dozen paintings, including a series capturing jazz musicians.
   The San Jose, Calif., native says art was his first love as youngster but wasn’t his first career choice.
   "I was an artistic kid from an early age," Mr. Lucas says. "I was the one who drew the posters for my friends’ for their race for class president. I wanted to be an architect and finally decided to study civil engineering (at San Jose State) but I flunked physics. So I became a graphic designer."
   Since graduating from San Jose State in 1992, Mr. Lucas has done free-lance graphic design for companies such as Merrill Lynch and Dow Jones, and he’s currently on staff at The Wall Street Journal. An avid surfer in his California days, Mr. Lucas also has a fledgling design company and Web site,, which doubles as an online gallery for his paintings. He’s also an aspiring actor, taking on bit parts in the movies The Siege, On the Q.T. and Home Sweet Hoboken.

""   Above, "B.B. King"; at left, "Frank Sinatra."

   Between work and family commitments — Mr. Lucas has a wife and 3 ½-year-old daughter — it is sometimes difficult to find the time to paint.
   "I paint when I come home from work, when I’ve usually got an hour or two," he says. "Working that way, they (the paintings) can take anywhere from a week to a couple months."
   Mr. Lucas’ colorful, pop-art-inspired paintings, which often look reminiscent of Andy Warhol silk screens, are first created on a computer screen, then that digital image is transferred onto a canvas.
   "I use (the) Illustrator (program) to decide where the colors end and everything goes," he says, "then I project it up and paint it."
   Mr. Lucas has shown his work at Artsbridge in Lambertville and the Ellarslie Museum in Trenton, as well as in New York and California, but his most unusual show was in 1995 — in the Republic of Kazakhstan.
   "A friend of mine, who’s a big fan of my work, was going to Russia," Mr. Lucas says, "and the people she was visiting owned a gallery, so she brought a bunch of paintings over."
   Mr. Lucas says he usually gets a positive response to his portraits from his famous subjects, who range from Woody Allen to Oprah Winfrey and the cast of The Today Show.
   "Most people are just happy to see that I took the time to paint the portrait."
Jazz and celebrity portraits by James Lucas are on view at Triumph Brewing Co., 138 Nassau St., Princeton,
through Sept. 8. Hours: Mon.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m., Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m., Sun. noon-midnight. For
information, call (609) 924-7855. On the Web:
James Lucas on the Web: