For the past two years, Buffalo artist and designer Mickey Harmon has spent his lunch breaks making Victorian-style line drawings of a long-lost Buffalo.
Harmon’s black-and-white drawings were based on key points in the life of Grover Cleveland, the two-time United States president who spent much of his adult life in the Queen City and the artist’s longtime obsession.
And on Friday night, “The Life and Times of Grovey Cleves,” Harmon’s whimsical biography of the 22nd and 24th president, which he co-authored with writer Scott Mancuso, will debut as part of an exhibition in the Western New York Book Arts Center.
The project began as a series of simple illustrations and later blossomed into a semifictional account of Cleveland’s life story. The exhibition will feature a series of shadow-boxes with three-dimensional versions of the illustrations that appear in the book.
Though the dates and events in “Grovey Cleves” are correct, the specifics of Harmon’s scenes and Mancuso’s often dark and experimental prose are entirely imagined. One section, for example, is written from the perspective of a tumor on the roof of Cleveland’s mouth, while others explore his alcoholism and hint at a profound depression.
“I picked 40 points on Wikipedia and said alright, I’m gonna draw this, I’m gonna draw that,” Harmon said. “I was very haphazard in my research.”
Mancuso, a Buffalo lawyer who has written for Block Club magazine and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, suggested that Cleveland’s story and his faded reputation made him the ideal candidate for a piece of historical fiction.
“He’s so little known, so you can kind of make your own mythology about him. He’s not like Lincoln or Washington,” Mancuso said.
The story tracks Cleveland as he works his way through Buffalo’s legal world and aristocracy, eventually becoming the city’s sheriff and mayor before rising to the governorship of New York State and eventually the White House. Various panels depict his accomplishments in and out of office as well as his personal misgivings, affairs, misdeeds and insecurities.
More than most young Buffalonians, Harmon has a deep obsession with the city’s history. He has adopted the digital persona of “Grovey Cleves” on Instagram, an indication that his interest in the character and his era extends beyond this single project.
He credited Buffalo’s bustling creative community for giving him the means and inspiration to do the project.
“Throwing out the idea that I was going to get a job and abandon the city like a lot of my other peers do, I just kind of stuck it out and kept an open mind,” he said of his decision to make Buffalo his creative home base. “It’s this community feeling that I got.”
For Harmon, the project is as much about honoring Cleveland’s legacy as it is about discovering Buffalo’s history and twisting it into something new.
“The show description quotes Cleveland as saying that one day he will be better remembered,” Harmon said. “And unfortunately for him, that day has come.”
What: “The Life and Times of Grovey Cleves”
When: 6 p.m. Friday through May 10
Where: Western New York Book Arts Center, 468 Washington St.
Info: 348-1430 or wnybookarts.org