How a Las Vegas Diner Painting Gained a Cult Following
Picture, if you will, a Bob Ross–style landscape: a stream hidden in the woods, trees and terrain awash in a red light and dusted with snow. The scene is hushed and peaceful—until your eye follows the brook back to its source, a bright clearing of pine trees, out of which, quite suddenly, the barrel of a gun emerges. Painted in a completely different manner than the rest of the picture, with broad, loose strokes, the firearm is one of a pair. They frame the ghostly visage of a man with a furrowed brow who hovers over the landscape like a gun-slinging god. He looks a little like Clint Eastwood—or is it John Travolta? Whoever he is, what the hell is he doing in the sky in the middle of the woods? And why are he and his verdant landscape hanging in a diner in Las Vegas?
“The whole painting, it’s a question,” says Vickie Kelesis, the owner of this beguiling artwork and of the Las Vegas establishment, Vickie’s Diner, where it hangs like a beacon for devoted followers. The painting isn’t by anyone famous, but its inscrutability has earned it a kind of cult status: fans have their own Facebook group, and there are “self-appointed guardians who will go in and make sure it’s OK,” explains Allison Hayward, a Las Vegas–born lawyer who created the group on social media.
The painting—which is untitled and so has become known, over the years, simply as “that painting”—is a local institution, much like the diner it inhabits.
Kelesis and her husband bought the establishment, formerly called Tiffany’s Café, from his uncle, Peter. The place itself dates back to 1955, when it was the lunch counter of the White Cross Drugs store. Customers famously included the Rat Pack and Elvis Presley.
Kelesis acquired that painting 15 years ago. She was a waitress at the diner then, and it was a gift from a former delivery man. When business was slow, he would sit in a minivan in the parking lot and make art. “He was not professional professional, he just liked to paint,” Kelesis says. He gave her three paintings before he left Vegas and moved to Greece. The weirdest one—the one that transplants the outlaw Josey Wales onto the upper left corner of an idyllic landscape—became the crowd favorite.
“It gives you a reason to go to that particular greasy spoon,” says Hayward. “Unless you knew you wanted to go there, you probably wouldn’t. But somebody tells you there’s a funny painting, you gotta go. So you get up your courage to walk through the door into this old-school diner, and there’s the painting. It draws you in.”
The artwork looms large over a booth in the back of Vickie’s, occupying a corner that’s perfect for taking photos. People post them in the Facebook group, which currently has 173 members: smiley selfies and pictures of meal companions posing knowingly with that painting. Fans are so steadfast that, in 2016, when the painting briefly disappeared from the walls of Vickie’s, it set off a minor panic.
“I received email from thousands of people—‘Please, Vickie, save the painting! Put the painting back there, please!’” Kelesis says. Vickie’s had been tapped for a makeover on the Food Network’s reality TV show American Diner Revival, and, in the process of renovating, everything on the walls had come down, including that painting. “Of course I had the painting in storage in the back of the restaurant,” Kelesis explains. “I locked it in because I don’t want them to touch it.” When the renovations were finished, she hung it up again, a reminder of the diner’s more recent history amid squeaky pink new surroundings.
“It’s this awful thing that is genuine and makes you feel happy when you see it, like everything hasn’t been surveyed and focus-grouped out of existence,” Hayward says.
“It’s the thing that just makes me laugh every time I see it,” adds Ginger Bruner, a Las Vegas native, musician, artist, and radio professional, and one of the self-appointed guardians of that painting. “To hear people argue about it over bacon and eggs is, I really think, the way most art should be enjoyed.”
Louise Sacco would agree. Sacco is the permanent acting interim executive director of the Museum Of Bad Art in Boston, a DIY institution dedicated to “bad art in all its forms and in all its glory.” “Traditional, serious fine art can be intimidating,” Sacco says. “When you find art that’s not so intimidating and serious—it’s approachable—even people that would never set foot in a traditional art museum will look at and think about and talk about these pieces.” Sacco has never seen that painting at Vickie’s in person, but, when given a description, she speculated that it would fit right in at MOBA, whose collection ranges from nudes gone wrong to inscrutable surrealism.
“We contend that pieces like this should be celebrated,” she says.
In that, she and the Las Vegas locals are not alone. Kelesis says she was recently offered $20,000 to sell that painting to “some people from Philadelphia.” She told them no. The universal adoration of that painting is seemingly enough to affirm its value.
“Everyone loves the thing,” says Bruner. “Even if they think it’s a terrible piece of art—and it is a terrible piece of art. Nothing about it is good. But that’s what makes it great.”