Nov 7, 2023 - Business

Hidden portraits guard a historic Utah bar scene

Drawn portraits of men, labeled with their names: Frank, Johnny, Jim and Phil. Hanging on a wood-paneled wall.

Portraits of the "Dirty Dozen" regulars hang in the Regis Club in Helper. Photo: Erin Alberty/Axios

Some of the most meaningful art in Helper, Utah can be found in a row of fading faces in the back corner of the Regis Club.

  • Meet the Dirty Dozen — the 12 remaining pieces from a pencil-drawn portrait studio that paid off some guy's beer tab in the 1960s.

Details: "It was an old guy that came in here and said, 'I don't have no money,'" recalled Tino Gutierrez, now-owner and longtime employee at the Regis.

  • But, the man said, "I draw."
  • "Old Man Regis" — Larry Regis, the bar's previous owner — agreed to accept payment in trade, suggesting: "'Why don't you draw the people that are in here?"

By the numbers: The man drew 56 portraits of Regis Club regulars, focusing on the poker players, Gutierrez said.

  • The artist didn't sign the drawings but did include the subjects' names and speech bubbles with characteristic remarks. "Cut the cards," mutters Pete. "Who, me?! Bluff?!" demurs Robby.

The big picture: Helper's artistic renaissance was driven by high-profile artists who moved in from elsewhere. But the coal mining town was already enthusiastic about its art, from the historic New Deal mural at the post office to the famous "Big John" statue at the library.

  • Look for tributes to home-grown artists like former coal miner and City Councilman Thomas Elmo Williams, whose work gets pride of place at the Helper Museum.
  • Pop into the Regis during the annual Arts Festival, when Gutierrez opens the overflow room that contains a traveling artist's portrait of Eber Monroe, a mountain man whose ghost reportedly haunts the bar.

The latest: Only 12 of the original 56 portraits remain at the Regis; the others were given to the families when the subjects died.

  • Gutierrez says he wants to keep the remaining "Dirty Dozen" as a public memorial to the Regis' patrons and history.

Context: Larry Regis transferred the bar to Gutierrez in 1982, over Gutierrez's objections; he didn't have money to run the business.

  • Regis took him to the bank that used to operate next door to transfer $5,000 he'd been saving for Gutierrez as a starting loan. "He told me, 'Tino, I don't want this place to close. Will you take it over?'" Gutierrez said.

The bottom line: In a state whose culture and politics have scant respect for bars as community institutions, the Dirty Dozen stands sentry over a rich history.

  • As the daughter of Frank Martini told Gutierrez when she found her father's portrait last year: "I want him to stay with the Dirty Dozen. I'm afraid if I take him out, I'm taking him away from all his friends."
A drawn portrait shows a man's face, labeled "Robby" with the quote "Who, Me!? Bluff!!?" and his obituary taped to the corner.
William "Robby" Robertson's portrait and obituary in the Regis Club. Photo: Erin Alberty/Axios

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