Jeff Maki's artistic talent was discovered via a Styrofoam coffee cup.
The artist works on his art at the New Life Day Center on Martin Luther King Boulevard. The center offers Styrofoam-cup coffee and donuts for homeless people who need an indoor respite during the day.
Maki is by definition homeless, but he doesn't want you to call him that. He lives in a tent community elsewhere in town, and says he is comfortable outdoors. His clothes are clean, and he says he is healthy: no drugs, no alcohol, he says.
Maki shows extraordinary talent is his artwork. In some of his work he creates vast futuristic cities composed of buildings that swirl and loom in a crazy quilt of perspective. In others, a colorful selection of skyscrapers opens to a tiny bit of space hundreds of stories below.
Maki's talent has caught eyes in Lexington. His work is on display at Walker's of Lexington, a restaurant at 400 Old Vine Street. He sells prints out of his portfolio for $20 each. Asked to sign a print, he whips out an upscale Cross pen, the tool of executives. It's important to have good tools, Maki said, because you get a better result.
Maki likes fine things for his work, but for his living arrangements, he likes to stay outdoors. He doesn't like sleeping amid large numbers of people that he doesn't know and doesn't feel deprived staying outdoors. He points out that the harsh winters of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where he's from, make Lexington's winters feel like a day in Florida.
Born and educated in Michigan, Maki — the name indicates his Finnish descent, he said — attended Michigan Technological University and studied marketing. He started drawing at 12; he's now 53. Married twice, he lost one wife to illness and another to divorce.
He talks about pets he has had: In his portfolio there's a sketch of four cats he once owned, and Maki talks about Sherlock, a purebred cocker spaniel he once owned.
Maki has had a variety of jobs, including working in circulation at a newspaper. He came to Lexington because he has an older brother who lives nearby, but the living arrangement didn't work out, he says.
He is content with the life he has, he said.
"The art was always good, in my opinion, but still, we've got limitations," Maki said.
One of those is finding a place to work. Without a consistent work space, he'll work at the day center and sometimes at the main library.
He is well known among the inhabitants of the day center: A woman who sees Maki pick up a Styrofoam cup and pen gets excited, whispering, "There's the artist guy" to her companion.
A few feet away, a selection of Maki's fancifully decorated coffee cups adorns the area above a set of lockers.
Brian Wright, a Lexington public relations executive who volunteers at the New Life Day Center, said that he first noticed Maki's art while giving Maki a coffee refill.
"I immediately noticed his cup, and I said, this is really good. It was months later when I saw his portfolio. I saw the drawing I bought (of an elaborate futuristic city) and I said, I have to have this — his attention to detail, his color, the imagination."
"He's living the life he wants to live, he's content with what he's doing," Wright said of Maki. "I think his art makes that possible for him."