Real People Stories

Van Go

UPDATED 11/16/1998 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/16/1998 at 01:00 AM EST

A few years ago artist Daniel Shay was painting a study of a nude model, as many artists do. But because Shay was painting while driving his van in Washington, D.C. (the model was in the passenger seat), a busload of tourists got a taste of capital culture that was not in the brochures—and videocameras began rolling. "I know some are showing it to their friends," says Shay, 51, "and saying, 'This is what Washington is really like.' "

Since buying an open-topped Suzuki Samurai in 1995, Shay rarely works with nudes anymore. But on his 20-mile commute from Silver Spring, Md., to his job supervising the handling of art at the National Gallery of Art, he becomes a dashboard Leonardo da Vinci. With his left hand on the wheel and his right moving between gearshift and paper, Shay has created some 500 abstract visions of the landscape over the past 15 years. He has shown many at local galleries and sold 200 at about $150 each.

Not everyone is buying. Shay's behavior is "patently irresponsible," says Dave Van Sickle, director of automotive information at AAA. "When you take your eyes off the road, even for an instant, that can cause a rear-ender." Shay stands by his track record: He has never had an accident while painting (though he was once ticketed for running a red light). He insists he's no more a threat than people who talk on cell phones. "If it was dangerous," he says, "I wouldn't do it."

The son of an Army colonel and a homemaker, Shay has been drawing all his life and has taught on weekends at the Maryland College of Art and Design for 12 years. The artist—who lives with wife Loretta Russo, 45, also an artist, and two children, Dante, 6, and Ginevra, 11—even did sketches in the hospital while his wife was in labor. He has no plans to give up his need for speed, though he does long for a larger working space: "I would love to drive a Metro bus," he says, "and draw at the same time."

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