When John Duke walks into his house after a long shift as a police officer, he’s like most other officers: He wants to relax.
But he goes about it a little differently. After grabbing an iced coffee, he sits down to paint.
This is no mere hobby, gleaned from public television. Duke is a long-time artist with wide-ranging credentials, and his paintings are currently on display at the Arts Barn Gallery as part of the “Modern Surrealists” exhibit, running through July 4.
“I paint because I feel like if I’m not painting something, I’m wasting my time,” said the 20-year member of the Gaithersburg Police Department. “This will be kind of like my legacy. I feel like I need to do it. It’s not always about the money. It’s a part of me, I guess.”
Duke, who describes his style as both realistic and surrealistic, creates highly detailed images of common sights found in nature and civilization and combines them in ways that would never occur in real life.
“There are weird juxtapositions of things,” Duke said. “There’s a lot of symbolism in it, things that might cause some food for thought.”
One could observe the same about Duke’s own life path. A talented artist as a child, his love of fine art began in earnest when his father gave him a book of Salvador Dali paintings when he was nine years old. He pursued the passion to Shepherd College (now Shepherd University) in West Virginia, which he attended on a football scholarship. Once there, he majored in fine art and minored in photography.
There was just one problem. “Fine art doesn’t pay,” Duke said, laughing.
After graduation Duke took to freelancing, producing illustrations for everything from text books to fantasy gaming cards. Influenced as a youngster by “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars,” the robust fantasy subculture was enticing, but as with other forms of art, it just didn’t get the bills paid, at least not consistently.
At age 26, Duke decided to try something new: He went on a ride-along with a police officer pal. He was hooked.
“It was a pretty slow night,” he recalled, “but when we got a call, with the adrenaline rush, I was hooked.”
Now 46, Duke oversees the police department’s composite sketch software program, among other things. He also regularly takes commissions from his fellow officers—and plenty of other people besides—for pet and wildlife portraits. He earns enough from the commissions that he says it might some day make a nice “retirement gig.”
In his heart, though, he prefers the kinds of surrealistic scenes displayed at the Arts Barn Gallery. That’s what you can find him doing, when he’s finished being a police officer.
“Everybody sees these things on a daily basis,” Duke said. “But you can give it a different context.”
“Modern Surrealists,” also featuring the works of Marco Cuba-Ricsi and Thomas Germer, will be on display through July 4. The Arts Barn Gallery is located at 311 Kent Square Road, with viewing hours Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday, 1:30 to 5:30 p.m.