Beer, Art and Bipartisan Bonhomie

Posted April 15, 2013 at 5:59pm

A lion, a tiger, some paint, a local brewery and a touch of humility have brought a congressman, an artist and a local brewer together to talk about art, politics and Washington, paving the way for Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., to continue his quest for bipartisan civility.

Unfortunately for cynics who want this to be a story about a town of vicious vipers, you’re going to be disappointed. Washington is a bit more complicated and slippery than the hyper-common, easy and reductive narrative of D.C. as the playground of the malevolent, foolish and power-hungry. Those who focus on that storyline will miss the more interesting tale: the complicated story of an army of earnest dreamers.

More than a year and a half ago, during the fall of 2011, Cleaver, a minister, lawmaker and animal lover, had finally had enough of the acrimony that seemed to infect Congress like the pox. One day, having had enough, the congressman sat down and began to draft a letter, a meditation about civility and what it means to passionately disagree with someone without being utterly despicable to him or her.

A year later, one of Cleaver’s “Dear Colleague” letters inspired a former congressional fellow from another office to paint a new work. Months after that, the artist’s work was chosen to go up in DC Brau, a District brewery.

Lions and Tigers, Oh My!

Hannah Dean, an artist and a former fellow in Maine Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree’s office, received an email from an old co-worker, who still worked in Pingree’s office.

“I know you like painting animals,” the staffer wrote. “So if you have some time to kill …”

Attached Dean found a letter written by Cleaver and dated Nov. 5, 2012. It began: “Although we often use them in the same sentence, lions and tigers don’t exist side by side on the plains of Africa.”

The congressman then began a rather lengthy meditation on the two big cats learning to compromise in order to survive.

“Having an obsession with and thus knowledge about big cats, I will tell you an almost true story about the lion and tiger that showed up at the waterhole at the same time,” he wrote. “Now, the fact that they live in the same neighborhood does not mean that they were neighborly.”

The lion and the tiger growled and started to threaten each other, Cleaver’s story continued. Soon, the natural enemies realized that there were vultures circling above their heads, ready for one predator to tear apart the other. The vultures would be the big winners, the lion and the tiger realized. So, they compromised.

Cleaver goes on to challenge the “donkey and the elephant” to be as wise as the “lions and the tigers” and compromise before the nation heads into “a cornucopia of economic terror.”

Dean sat down and began a watercolor of Cleaver’s lion and tiger circling the watering hole. In less than an hour, she was finished. Dean says she has a remarkable talent for being able to reproduce her work quickly, and accurately. Therefore, if she sells a piece of art, she never truly loses it. She can always repaint it.

Where the Wild Beers Are

DC Brau opened in 2011, a local brewery owned by D.C. residents Brandon Skall and Jeff Hancock. Skall, whose arms and legs are covered with colorful, intricate tattoos, says that the brewery consciously decided to support local artists.

Skall and his brew crew are just a few of a passionate group of Washingtonians who have decided to invest, live and raise their families in the capital city.

This group has also decided to invest in Washington’s local art scene. DC Brau is housed in a warehouse tucked behind a gritty strip mall in Northeast D.C., and the walls of the brewery are festooned with contemporary paintings from mostly Washington-based artists. With only a couple of exceptions, the large murals are surrealist depictions of animals, including a robot reindeer to giant wolves.

After the tour of the building, Dean, the artist, approached Skall, the entrepreneur. She thought her image — the lion and the tiger coexisting — would suit the overall theme of the brewery’s art.

It was the artwork that first attracted him, Skall says. It was only later that he found out about Cleaver’s letter.

Dear Colleague Tactics

After he wrote his first civility missive, Cleaver tasked his interns with folding and stuffing each of the envelopes to his colleagues. He asked his staff to hand-deliver each letter, one to every member’s office in the House of Representatives.

Pretty soon the civility letters became a weekly ritual. Eventually, the staff was relieved from having to act as courier, when the congressman decided to send the epistles through the intra-office mail system. He also included his civility letters in his weekly newsletter.

The letters are unselfconsciously earnest, though they are not without humor.

“When a bee thrusts its barbed stinger in our flesh, it pays a heavy price,” Cleaver wrote in a letter dated Nov. 15, 2011. “The stinger, you see, is most often so forcefully stabbed into the flesh that the bee cannot pull it out, so it is left behind. The spot from which the stinger was fixed becomes an open wound which assures the bee’s death.

“When we sting each other with hurtful words and nasty denunciations, we often injure ourselves so badly that our reputation cannot recover,” he continues. “That, of course, leads to spiritual death.”

Sitting in a red booth at the DC Brau Brewery, Cleaver says that people are probably surprised at the overwhelmingly supportive response he gets to the notes.

“It’s consistently positive,” he says.

For example, “a Republican colleague said, ‘Keep sending them.’ One of the Democrats from Pennsylvania said, ‘You can’t stop this. We won’t tolerate it.’”

Another House colleague, Texan Ted Poe, is a die-hard conservative. But he is a big fan of liberal Cleaver’s civility letters. In fact, Cleaver says, Poe makes every member of his staff sign a copy of the civility letters after they finish reading them.

“I’m a seminary-trained Methodist minister,” Cleaver explained, when asked how he finds something to write about every week. This enabled him to write two sermons every Sunday, hoping to make his congregation reflect without feeling judged.

Likewise with his civility letters, Cleaver aims to write them so neither party thinks that the message is leveled at it.

Meet, Greet, Quaff

Cleaver and Dean met for the first time at DC Brau on April 12. Skall showed the congressman, his staff and the artist through the brewery, which smelled of hot, sour yeast.

Against the wall next to several taps of beer, Dean’s mural, the watercolor musing writ large, was scrawled. Next to the painting, Skall had taped the congressman’s letter.

The three stood to look over the literary and visual representation, murmuring about art and the brewing process, as well as their mutual love of animals large and small. Dean handed Cleaver a copy of the original watercolor. He said he would frame it for his office. Skall described the boisterous, family- and pet-friendly atmosphere of the brewery on the weekends. Cleaver vowed to grab a bus and bring a group of Republicans and Democrats to visit.

During a hazy spring afternoon, a congressman, entrepreneur and an artist sat down to talk, because every once in a while, these disparate groups — the earnest transplants and the devoted townies — meet and find they have an awful lot in common.