There’s no missing Andrew Kiss at Siesta Key Beach. He’s usually at a bench near the concession stand, hunched over a black board the size of a sheet of paper, etching the faces of passing strangers.
The etching is loud and grating and sounds like nails on a chalkboard. The frequency causes dogs to go berserk; women, too. According to Kiss, men can only hear the scratching close up.
He uses X-acto knives of varying lengths to scratch the surface of a Masonite board layered with white Kaolin clay and black India ink. The process is subtractive and unforgiving, which means Kiss (pronounced Kish) must make every nick count.
“I let the sounds guide me like strings on a guitar,” Kiss says. “Each tool vibrates with a different frequency. Believe it or not, I consider this music.”
Kiss, 51, has been staking out boardwalks from Siesta Key to the Venice Pier since he moved in 2001 with his family from Cleveland to Venice. Though he prefers to work at the beach, he’s been spotted etching in front of Taste of Italy, on St. Armands Circle, or in front of the Selby Public Library, or wherever there’s good people watching.
He began drawing such a large crowd at the Venice Pier a few years ago that he started bringing extra black boards so he could teach his method to children. The informal art lessons became so popular that he was asked to lead an arts-and-crafts class at the Venice Public Library.
“I found out that kids with Attention Deficit Disorder learn this technique very fast,” Kiss says. “It keeps them busy and focused.”
He usually starts his days early — around 8 a.m. — because by noon his eyes are strained from squinting, which explains the thick bifocal glasses.
“Even the clouds here are inspiring,” says Kiss, motioning past the steady stream of people lugging coolers, folding chairs and beach blankets to the cumulus billows overhead.
“I look at the clouds and I say, ‘OK. There’s a dragon; there’s a dragon trying to swallow a dog ... ’” he trails off.
Kiss isn’t your typical beach artist. Other than his watercolor fish prints, which he sketches by studying the mackerel, snapper and yellow jacks his friends catch off the Venice Pier, most of Kiss’ work is caricature-driven and carefully sinister.
“If you go to any gallery here it’s about pelicans, palm trees and beach,” Kiss says. “It’s like there aren’t any other stories.”
Take, for example, the day he observed a little girl throwing a temper tantrum. Intrigued by the outburst, he began etching a picture of the girl with her mouth agape, her tonsils exposed and her nails shaped like claws. When she moseyed up to Kiss, curious as to what he was drawing, he flashed her the portrait and she recoiled in disgust.
“You’re screaming and yelling so much, I can see your tonsils,’” Kiss told her.
“But I don’t have claws,” she replied.
“Yes, you do,” Kiss teased. “Pointy claws like a wolf.”
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected].