Columbia artist Clark Ellefson can usually be found in the evenings at Art Bar’s oval island bar top, sipping a beer beneath strings of multicolored hanging lights.
As a co-owner of the space, he’s been coming here almost nightly for 25 years.
The bar hasn’t changed much.
It still looks like “the place where George Jetson relaxes after work,” which was how a State reporter described the spot when it first opened in 1992.
It still has an artsy, spaceship vibe, with metallic details, a blacklight mural and robots lining the walls like sentinels.
In a way, it’s been like a mother ship, beckoning to Columbia’s alternative crowd since the earliest days of the Vista – when there was nowhere else for them to go.
The Vista wouldn’t be the Vista without Art Bar.
Where can I get a drink?
Before there was Art Bar, there was Strock Tire Co. at 1211 Park St.
And there was Clark Ellefson. His Lewis and Clark gallery was one of the first to call the Vista home. Back then, there was nary a place for a thirsty artist to go after finishing a long day in the studio. Ellefson decided to change that.
When Strock Tire went out of business, Ellefson partnered with Jeff Helsley, then-owner of Goatfeathers, to turn the building into a late-night bar.
From the beginning, they rejected the look of a typical taproom or pub. They wanted it to be visually different the minute you walked in. That meant local artwork on the walls and no big TVs.
We were supplying an alternative, funky scene. I think it was something people in Columbia were hungry for.
Art Bar co-owner Clark Ellefson
“We were supplying an alternative, funky scene. I think it was something people in Columbia were hungry for,” Ellefson said.
Back then, the bar opened at 8 p.m. and stayed open until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. (The bar now closes at 2 a.m. per a 2011 city ordinance.) A former shed where Strock Tire employees used to change tires became an enclosed dance floor where Columbia’s young, hip crowd danced the night away.
Dozens of bars have sprung up in the Vista since 1992, but Art Bar remains a staple of local color.
“You never quite know what you’ll find at Art Bar, but its artsy feel is perfectly at home in this neighborhood,” Vista Guild executive director Meredith Atkinson said.
‘An intergalactic roadhouse’
Part of the transportive power of Art Bar is its decor. Where else would bartenders at one time keep Sharpie pens behind the bar for people to scrawl messages on the blacklight mural and bathroom walls? Art Bar’s bathrooms are now well known for their Sharpie graffiti.
“In the beginning, they were just bathrooms,” co-owner Andy Rodgers said. Rodgers started at Art Bar as a bartender shortly after it opened. He eventually became manager and bought Helsley’s share of the bar about 10 years ago.
Around the early 2000s, it was determined the writing on the walls was getting out of hand and the bathrooms were painted, he said.
“Then, of course, people started to fill them up again.”
Another Art Bar hallmark is the robot. Or robots, plural.
The bar’s glowing androids are leftovers from an Atlanta company called Robots International. An Art Bar employee with connections to the company offered to sell them to the bar years ago.
“We thought about a robot theme and said, ‘Yeah, that will work,’ ” Ellefson said.
“Clark always called it an intergalactic roadhouse,” Rodgers added.
The robots made perfect sense.
The best place for people-watching
If you’re going to Art Bar, you’re going to need an open mind. After all, you wouldn’t travel to a new galaxy and expect everything to be what you’re used to.
Art Bar employees agree that the bar makes for some of the best people-watching in town.
“Especially in our early days,” Rodgers said. “A cross-dresser could walk in as Marilyn Monroe in a gold lame dress, and people wouldn’t bat an eye.”
Columbia’s gay community especially embraced the bar for its welcoming, come-as-you-are attitude.
“We never sold ourselves as a gay bar … it happened organically,” Rodgers said. “We just wanted to be an everybody bar.”
Straight people are welcome, too, of course, as are doctors, lawyers and USC professors.
“We don’t really care who comes in,” said Shawn Dell, Art Bar’s longest-serving bartender behind Rodgers.
A crossdresser could walk in as Marilyn Monroe in a gold lame dress and people wouldn’t bat an eye.
Art Bar co-owner Andy Rodgers
Even celebrities have come to Art Bar to drink and pass the time.
Dell remembers when Tony Hawk came in 2010, after making a surprise appearance at Owens Field Skate Park, which was funded in part by a grant from the famous skater’s foundation.
Standup comedian Bill Bellamy spent hours sitting at the bar one night, and actor Danny DeVito nursed a drink in a corner on a separate occasion.
Another time, the entire cast of the TV series “Vampire Diaries” came in and sang karaoke.
“When you work in a bar as eclectic as this one, you get a lot of memorable moments,” Dell said.
Rodgers has his own share of memories. A big one: meeting his wife. He was working behind the bar one New Year’s Eve when her name and number were slipped to him on the back of a credit card receipt.
“The rest is history,” he said.
The future of Art Bar
Ellefson contends that Art Bar was always meant to last. In 1992, he had “certainly hoped” it would still be around today, he said.
The future of the bar rests largely on Rodgers, the younger partner. He considers it an honor.
He said he sees the bar embracing more live music and emphasizing craft beer in the years to come.
Columbia Arts Academy director Marty Fort spent the past 12 years helping Art Bar build up its live music offerings as a booker. As the acts increased in frequency and popularity, the bar invested in better staging and sound equipment.
“I think live music is a great transition for us,” Rodgers said.
Another is craft beer. Two years ago, the bar stopped carrying Anheuser-Busch InBev products, spurning the big corporation in favor of smaller, local brewers.
Other than that, Art Bar will stay Art Bar.
“I almost miss the underground, hidden-away days of it. But the Vista grew, and we grew with it, and we’re happy to be here and have 25 years under our belt,” Rodgers said. The official anniversary is in September.
On a recent Saturday, another Art Bar employee who found love at the bar got married. The reception was at Art Bar.
Naturally, it was not a closed event.
It was open to everyone.