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At Tampa Convention Center, attendees pose for posterior art

TAMPA

Rob Free is a mercenary sketch artist. He travels from Minneapolis to Tulsa to Kansas City, from convention halls to corporate retreats to weddings. His enemy, across the nation, is vanity.

Of course. He sketches his subjects from behind.

Free is an artist for Original Butt Sketch, a Dallas-based company that appeared this week as an exhibitor at a national conference for special events coordinators at the Tampa Convention Center.

Enthusiastic is the default position of an events coordinator. At the exhibit hall Thursday, they gushed over table linens and glitter-coated bonbons. They smiled, kindly, at an exhibitor teaching them how to cook grits. They were game for wearing Mohawks made of light sticks.

But did they want a drawing of their backsides?

"As long as they sketch me skinny," warned Anna Noriega, a 28-year-old events planner from Miami. She turned around and jutted out one hip.

In about 21/2 minutes, an artist named Pjae Adams went to work, using a charcoal pencil, and rendered the back of the blazer-and-jeans-wearing Noriega.

Noriega peeked around the easel. "Yay!" she said.

In the drawing, she looked like a sassy and lithe but curvy model — as did many of the other women who posed for the sketches.

"We flatter," Free said. "Hence, 25 years in the business."

Original Butt Sketch was started by Dallas street artist Krandel Newton. He painted Edward Hopperesque scenes until one day a stranger pulled up and saw a sketch Newton had done that included the backsides of paradegoers. The man said he'd take it, and paid $125.

Today the company has eight artists, and they charge between $175 to $275 an hour, plus expenses. Newton, who estimates he's sketched the rear view of nearly 400,000 people, has been featured in national media.

He said his goal is for people to love what they see — and want to take it home. "In the quiet of their homes, when they unfurl it, you want them to say, 'Oooh,' " he said.

Free said he hardly ever gets complaints. Once, he said, a woman thought he'd downplayed her assets.

Not so on Thursday. Saundra Hadley, an events planner from Indiana, posed as her friend provided running commentary.

"Wait 'til you see your butt!" the friend said.

Finally, Hadley did.

"That was me 15 years ago!" she said, looking at the easel. "I love you."

Reach Jodie Tillman at jtillman@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374.

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