The people queue up for their coffee: There’s a girl with a bullring in her nose and a hooded sweatshirt. Dudes with backwards Sox caps. A guy in a Carhartt jacket and workboots.
They could be patrons in any Dunkin’ Donuts in New England. This one happens to be in Beverly. Nothing about the scene suggests a font of creativity, unless you think medium regulars are divinely inspired. The customers know this. They don’t come here to discuss art, so when Amberlynn Narvie, who worked behind the counter of this Cabot Street shop for three years, asked many of them to sit for portraits, every one of them initially said no.
“It’s a self-conscious type-thing,” said Narvie, a 21-year-old senior at the Montserrat College of Art. “Plus, they’re just not used to a weirdo like me saying ‘Hey, can I paint your portrait?”
Narvie can still recall their orders.
Katie, who is recovering from a stroke, likes chocolate croissants heated in the oven. Ted, a man in his 70s, likes his coffee hot, medium and mocha. Linda likes a large hot regular in the morning, in the afternoon she downsizes to a medium hot regular. She’ll occasionally order a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich with no egg and extra bacon. Tom , who lives with his sister about ten houses down from the coffee shop, always ordered a large iced with extra extra cream, seven Splenda and a shot of Mocha. He would show up in the mid-afternoon and stay until 8 p.m. closing time. Narvie has either painted or plans to paint them all.
The project was born out of a need to pick a senior illustration thesis. A professor advised Narvie to find something she cared about, something she knew. At the time, Narvie had worked at the Dunkin’ Donuts for years, making $180 a week to support herself while she went to school. She said she liked interacting with people from different walks of life while she served them coffee and bagels.
“I benefited from talking to a lot of different people, seeing different perspectives,” said Narvie, whose youth was split between two small New England towns — Ellsworth, Maine and Rutland, Massachusetts. “I based my entire senior year on these people.”
Narvie would eventually convince the regulars. When they told her they should find someone more attractive to paint, she told them they were beautiful. She told them they had a story worth telling, she told them they had a lot to say.
Four hundred hours later, she has painted eight of the customers. Some live at the local YMCA. One was known for smoking cigarette butts he picked up off the street. She refers to one as “Jesus” because she tends to bring people together at the shop and gets people to talk about their life and their problems.
“We go through our lives seeing so many different people that we never get to know,” she said. “Some of these people, you wouldn’t go up to them and say ‘Hey, tell me your life story.’ But they’re all a lede to their own story.”
The subjects ended up feeling validated by the process, said Narvie.
“It makes them feel that they do exist in the world, that their lives are interesting,” she said.
Linda LaRosa is a 51-year-old Beverly resident. She is among those who was hesitant when Narvie asked to paint her, initially giving the artist a photo off a much younger version of herself. LaRosa said she was too old, had burns from a house fire and didn’t have any nice clothes to wear for the painting. Narvie assuaged her, telling her she wanted to paint her as she was. Tears were shed. Ultimately LaRosa allowed Narvie to paint her as she was.
Examining the end product in Narvie’s studio recently, LaRosa gave her verdict: “I’m flattered. I look old, but hey, I am old.”
Another Beverly resident, Rob Weaver, mills about nearby by, taking in some of Narvie’s pieces.
“That is the essence of Ted,” he said, referring to the Dunkin’ Donuts patron known for smoking used cigarette butts. “These really are pieces of Beverly.”
Narvie’s last shift at Dunkin’ Donuts was Sunday, April 5. She quit so she could concentrate on her art full-time. She plans to display the works at a show in Beverly April 29. She has plans to paint six or seven more portraits of her regular patrons, she said.
“I think it’s something people can relate to,” she said. “It’s something worth doing.”