FOR MOST OF the year, artist Hernan Lopez has enjoyed the perks of painting from his makeshift oceanfront studio in a shaded public pavilion at Lake Worth Beach.
With stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Lake Worth Pier, the pavilion would offer inspiration for any artist or visitor. For Lopez, who is homeless, it offers security, opportunity and a powerful amenity.
For one, it’s safer than his previous studio across the bridge in Bryant Park, which he abandoned earlier this year because of unwanted confrontations with other homeless people.
Plus, the constant foot traffic through the pavilion, from vacationers, beachgoers and Benny’s On The Beach diners, means more chances to sell one of his paintings. (Most of the money he makes from his paintings he sends to his daughter in Peru, he said.)
Then, there’s the secret electrical outlet, the one jutting from the grass just outside the pavilion.
Most of the public doesn’t even know the outlet is there. It’s usually covered by a tall blue plastic tub, which Lopez removes when he arrives every morning after sunrise so he can power his coffee maker and charge his iPhone.
While he doesn’t need coffee every morning, the iPhone is a must, an integral part of his artistic process. Lopez makes his paintings while viewing photographs — of a shark, a child, a dog — usually texted to him by a customer commissioning his work.
If the phone battery dies, his work stalls. For Lopez, the beach pavilion’s electrical outlet is just as important as his brushes, paint and canvases.
And while city workers at the beach have been aware of his habit of plugging into the socket, they have looked the other way.
That changed just before 3 p.m. on Tuesday.
The artist was dabbing a brush on Jesus’ robe when he noticed a city worker crouch down next to the outlet. “You can’t use this anymore,’’ he said the worker told him.
As Lopez voiced his displeasure, the worker proceeded to install a locked cover over the outlet, blocking access to the plug. Just following orders, the worker told him.
Then Lopez really put a drain on his phone battery.
He frantically texted and called people he hoped might be able to help him. One of those people reached out to the city for an explanation as to why the outlet was suddenly covered and locked.
The answer was maybe 20 feet from Lopez, along the sidewalk just outside the pavilion where the city late last month installed a new beach-themed holiday tree.
Made of surfboards hand cut by the city’s Public Works staff and painted by the artist Bulk Styles, the tree lights up at night, bathing the oceanfront sidewalk in a tropical holiday glow.
But not long after the tree went up, it started going dark at night.
Apparently some late-night grinches desperate to charge their smartphones were unplugging the electrical cord that powers the tree’s spotlights so they could access the outlet, city spokesman Ben Kerr said.
Although it's the same outlet Lopez had been helping himself to during the day, he is not suspected of pulling the plug on the holiday tree. He’s long gone by dark, having walked back over the bridge to his sleeping quarters near downtown Lake Worth Beach.
“It had nothing to do with him,’’ Kerr said. “It was just unfortunate that other people started unplugging it to power their own stuff and were cutting out the tree’s lights. That's why the lock was installed.’’
The lock was installed about a week after the city approved a 6 percent increase in electrical rates for residential and commercial users next year.
Lopez said he can’t help but wonder if certain people who don’t like the presence of a homeless man at the touristy beach are behind the locked outlet.
Kerr said that’s not the case, pointing out that the city for a long time looked the other way while Lopez helped himself to the outlet.
“We all saw and knew what was happening but he was always so pleasant and didn't cause any trouble so it was easy just to pretend it wasn't happening. But once it becomes as visible as the holiday tree turning off, it got a little harder to ignore,’’ Kerr said.
“Unfortunately, he kind of got caught because of other people being crummy.’’
Lopez said he doesn’t buy that explanation, though he admits he doesn’t really know if people have been using the outlet at night.
Without getting into details, Lopez said he has access to power at night. By morning, when he starts carrying his painting supplies east across the bridge to the beach, his cell phone and portable charger are fully charged.
But without a place to charge during the day, the battery on his phone will die by mid-afternoon, he said.
Kerr suggested Lopez ask one of the shops or restaurants at the beach for access to an electrical outlet. But Lopez said he isn’t comfortable doing that.
“The truth is the people here enjoy my work, young and old,’’ he said. “I know I look maybe salvaje, wild. But I am a good person. All I need is a little help with electricity.’’
When the city takes down the tree after the holidays, Lopez is hoping they’ll remove the outlet lock, too.
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