The scene shouldn’t seem that jarring, should it? A fellow seated at a coffee shop with his tubes of oil paint, brushes and a canvas revealing a work in progress.
But people find it confusing. Curious. They point to the canvas: “Are you painting that?”
Artist Trace Schoenhofer could spout a snappy answer to a stupid question, Mad Magazine-style, but he doesn’t.
And he has no objection when shop patrons veer wide, position themselves behind him and take a cellphone photo. He knows that if you turn a public space into your art studio, it’s going to attract some attention.
Schoenhofer doesn’t have a studio in the Crossroads or West Bottoms or even at his home in Olathe. He paints in public, starting at 8 a.m. every day and knocking off at about 10 p.m.
Maybe you’ve seen him around the metro at a Starbucks or Panera Bread. Or Parisi Cafe or Mildred’s Coffeehouse or Great Day Cafe or Thou Mayest Coffee Roasters or Black Dog Coffeehouse.
If you do, say hello. He’s just a guy following his dream — in a bit of an unorthodox way.
He can’t say he forged a grand plan to launch himself as an artist. But never underestimate self-confidence mixed with serendipity.
“I have the mentality that I can do anything,” he says, not in a boastful way. “I think that comes from growing up on a farm.”
Schoenhofer, 36, is originally from St. Paul, Kan., about two hours south of Kansas City, a town of about 600 surrounded by crops and busy with school sports.
The third of four boys — “Trace” is short for Tracy — he graduated from nearby Pittsburg State University with a degree in business management and a long resume of part-time endeavors, from carpentry to golf course work.
Not oil painting, though. He had always liked sketching, but he took just one painting class in college.
In 2003, the Walgreens store where he worked as a manager switched to a 24-hour operation. His new work schedule was quite different: one week of 12-hour overnight shifts followed by a week off.
“Suddenly I had a whole block of off-time,” he says. “It really got me to explore what other things I could do.”
Time to dream, in effect.
He’s an outdoorsy person, hiking and camping, and a gym-goer. So there was that. But he decided to delve deeper into painting.
Turned out the free time was, in fact, freeing — and instructive. Schoenhofer discovered a real love for painting and, new to him, a knack for oils.
“Creating is definitely what I like,” he says, “and as I painted, I also liked challenging myself with more and more difficult projects.”
A lack of formal training didn’t dissuade him.
“It was a learning curve,” he says. “It was trial and error. But I developed a level of confidence in myself, making the paint do what I want.”
He moved from 16-by-20-inch portraits to canvases as large as 6 and 7 feet. He painted out of the tubes, mixing colors on the canvas.
One day, rather than take a book to his coffee-shop break, Schoenhofer carried his canvas and paint tubes there — and kept painting. It was a revelation.
He had always loved people-watching. Specifically he enjoyed faces. Faces became the focus of his paintings, and zooming in required more and more attention to their intricacies and surprising array of colors.
He discovered something else: the social and marketing aspect of painting in public. He’s met everyone from business executives to another regular who’s a video game designer.
“I talk to people all day long about my art,” he says. “You end up getting to know a lot of people.”
In the past few years, the popularity of taking work to non-office places like coffee shops exploded with mobile devices. Advocates cite many advantages, including the stimulating environment and the potential to meet new people and even build relationships.
Of course, most everybody spends a lot of time staring at a screen. Not Schoenhofer, says T.J. Saathoff, general manager of Panera Bread on 119th Street in Olathe.
“It’s refreshing because he’s actually creating something with his hands,” Saathoff says. “That’s really cool.”
Saathoff says Schoenhofer long ago went from “a regular” to “a staple” at the shop.
“Everybody knows Trace,” Saathoff says. “Our associates sit down and talk, and I’ll have to tell them to come back to work. And he’s a hard worker. I’ve seen him struggle with something but just step back, redo it all and stay all day to finish it.”
The past two years, besides portrait commissions, Schoenhofer found a niche in painting sports figures, with his same thorough study of faces.
Albert Pujols was his first, but don’t worry, Royals fans, he’s also done Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and many others, plus a painting of the Royals on-field celebration after the 2014 American League pennant win.
In 2012, when Schoenhofer was discussing the juggling of his management career and his painting avocation with a financial adviser, the adviser shot him this advice: “Why don’t you just go be an artist?”
And that’s what he did.
“The first year was pretty unsettling,” he says about the lack of a regular paycheck. “I’ve made it three years. I’m amazed by that myself.”
So he all but clocks in at a coffee shop, taking painting breaks to eat, go to the gym and for the occasional weekend trip, often to go hiking. He’s never without an audio book: The latest is Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose,” the 974th on the list of books he consumed.
On a recent afternoon at the 119th Street Starbucks, Schoenhofer was working on a commission from the Miss High School America Pageant, painting a portrait from a photograph of last year’s pageant winner. It will be displayed at the 2015 ceremony.
His work for the pageant and scores of other paintings are at traceartproject.com. A common size of a commissioned painting is a 20-by-30-inch starting at $300.
“It’s a long day painting, really,” he says. “Even if I talk to someone for an hour, that’s OK. I don’t really judge how far I should have gotten in a day. But you feel good when you feel productive.”