WESTERLY — When she was a little girl growing up in New York, she dreamed about running away, joining the circus and becoming an elephant trainer.
Fortunately for those of us who appreciate whimsy and a good cocktail or two, artist Jill DeGroff instead became an artist, married Dale DeGroff — a Westerly native who is often saluted as the mixologist behind the revival of the great American cocktail — and moved to Pawcatuck .
On Sunday, an exhibit featuring her paintings and caricatures — “Bon Vivants, Barflies and the New Cocktailians” — will open at Westerly’s United Theater as part of an unusual three-pronged event at the United that combines film, mixology and art.
Following the exhibit opening, ticketholders are invited to attend a talk, tasting and book-signing and a screening of “Hey Bartender,” a documentary from the award-winning filmmaker Douglas Tirola, which is set inside the craft cocktail movement.
Jill, who has garnered high praise for both volumes of her book, “Lush Life: Portraits from the Bar,” said she’s thrilled to be showingcasing her work in the United gallery and tickled to be collaborating with Tirola and her husband, Dale — author of the 2022 book “The Craft of the Cocktail” and the recently released “The New Craft of the Cocktail: Everything You Need to Know to Think Like a Master Mixologist.”
“It’s a moveable feast,” said DeGroff earlier this week as she discussed Sunday’s event and her paintings — many of which are large and all of which have a story — “and a fabulous opportunity.
“Every single one has a story to tell,” she said, “and they have a lot to say.”
DeGroff said she has painted “all species of cocktailians as well as writers, musicians and denizens of the night.”
In addition to her depictions of well-known luminaries like “Papa Hemingway,” Josephine Baker and Edna Lewis, DeGroff said she has drawings of “other cocktail fanatics” and “street characters.”
“And there’s one of Anthony Bourdain,” she said. “Dale was on his show back in the day.
“And I even have a couple of locals,” added DeGroff with a laugh, noting that The Café, next door to the United — with its long bar and amazing collection of art — has become a favorite hangout.
“I’ve been caricaturing the new café society for many years,” said DeGroff, who has sipped iconic cocktails at bars all over the world, has met some of the industry’s most celebrated bartenders and whose work has been exhibited at the North Shore Art League, Wine & Spirits festivals, and at bars including Danny Meyer’s Porchlight, Sunny’s Red Hook, and the Cornelia Street Cafe.
It was while accompanying her husband — who is often applauded for reviving the great classic cocktails when he worked at the legendary Rainbow Room, and credited with reinventing the bartending profession — on his talks and journeys, and “hanging out in bars,” that she got the idea to sketch luminaries from the lush life, she said.
She always made sure she was equipped with her sketch pad, pen and ink and watercolors, she said, and captured what she saw.
“I’ve had some incredible experiences,” she said.
“There are tons of characters who hang out in bars,” said DeGroff who is well-known among the cocktail cognoscenti for having captured the craft cocktail era like none other. “Big characters.”
“It’s a salute to the mystique of nightlife,” said DeGroff of the exhibit.
Writer Sara Gorelick, in a 2011 story in “Inside F&B,” said DeGroff’s “Lush Life: Portraits from the Bar, Volume II,” “catalogs stories from the bar illuminated with sketches bearing a stunning resemblance of the movers, shakers and stirrers the spirits industry has come to know and love.”
Last year, two of DeGroff’s most iconic New York pieces sold at auction at Swann Galleries. Her work can also be viewed at Stage Left in New Brunswick, NJ, a city, she said, well-known for its cocktail culture.
“Jill’s work completes the evening’s trifecta and forwards our mission here at the United,” said Bess Gaby, an artist who is also a staff member at the theater, “to unite the community through the arts.
“I couldn’t have dreamed of a better way to experience the joy of a colorful evening at my local watering hole than through Jill’s paintings,” she added. “Nor could we have found an artist that complemented this event more splendidly.”
On Monday, Dale DeGroff will host a master class in mixology at the United — and next door at The Café — for members of the bar guild who will travel from Hartford, Providence and Boston, courtesy of Daniel King, executive director of the Royce Family Fund, “the force behind the revitalization of this art deco theater/arts complex,” Gaby said in a statement.
United Theater Artistic Director Tony Nunes said in a statement that the collaboration with The Café will be “the first of many events” designed to “bring outstanding professionals from the culinary and beverage industries” to Westerly. “We are so fortunate to be able to tap into the talented individuals [who] are attracted to what the United is able to offer to our community.”