How the Rock and Roll Icon Art work began.
What factors prompt an artist to begin a new body of work? For me, the reasons were complex- so complex that this may turn into a truncated autobiography. In junior high school, I made work that was symbolic (I loved Dali). It helped me sift through issues in my psyche (like a bad drug experience). During that time I also explored the writings of Carl Jung, Eastern Religions. I panted things like aliens hatching from eggs, and a portrait of myself sitting depressively in the dark with my thoughts shown as doves with iron locks on their wings.
After four years of training at the Kansas City Art Institute and a decade of working as a freelance artist, I thought I’d found my passion as a portrait artist but it soon soured for me. Although painting like John Singer Sergeant had been my dream, I soon realized I lacked the skill and the inspiration to pull it off.
My Father’s dream for me was to become the next Norman Rockwell. Fast forwarding to this current time- I explain my work as a blend of Norman Rockwell and Dr. Seuss…(so maybe my father got part of his wish).
Back to my story. In my late twenties, I was living in Nashville Tennessee. Frustrated by the lack of direction for my work, I had an epiphany while viewing a show by Randy Toyzini. He was classically trained but painted symbolic narratives in a folk art style. I was spellbound by the freedom he enjoyed by way of subject matter. The pieces encompassed themes from the last supper to sexuality to Elvis. I also envied his break with the constraints of perspective and anatomy. I’d never been trained well in those conventions anyway…(having attended an art institute during the mid-seventies)- so tossing those things out and expressing my ideas as I had in junior high school had overwhelming appeal to me.
Speaking of tossing things out- I have a good example to interject here. In my forties, I went back to graduate school. One reason for returning to school was to pick up some of the skills I’d missed. My class in advanced anatomy was taught by a Professor who also did his undergraduate training during the seventies at Yale. He told me about a day in his anatomy class when his fellow students hoisted the plaster busts (used to teach classical drawing techniques) over a balcony. They did so in rebellion against classical conventions. My professor was not in solidarity with that idea and rescued a few of them off the lawn. This true story is a perfect picture- of how artists were encouraged to leave old conventions behind during the seventies. I also heard stories about how many art students rarely saw their professors during the seventies. Even in the best art institutes, the rule of thumb had become not to spend hours a day drawing from a classical sculpture or a live the model but to stay in your studio, drop acid and paint whatever popped into mind.
Back to Toyzini’s work- if I’d had the money I would have bought most of his work- (especially the Elvis stuff). I’d recently made my first trip to Graceland. After returning home, I felt some themes stirring in me for new work. The way Elvis’s image was homogenized in every representation within the gift shop struck me as strange. I found myself curious about the man behind the image because of the strict monitoring of his image. Things didn't add up during the tour of Graceland. Our guide said Elvis picked out the kitschy wooden furniture for the jungle room at the local furniture store for a joke. I questioned that official story (knowing that tour guides like to make stuff up). So I asked myself if Elvis considered it chic or kitschy and decided on the former. Upon entering the front hall I was shocked by the small scale. After all, it was billed as a mansion. The glossy color photographs I’d seen in books made each room appear so large! In retrospect I realized the pictures must have been taken through a fish eye lens to give an illusion of spaciousness. In the gift shop , I asked one of the cashiers if she had known Elvis and all she said was “he was a very nice man”. Later on, I tracked down a restaurant where Elvis supposedly hung out and asked the bartender if he knew any real-life stories about Elvis. He said Elvis wanted to be a medic when he was younger (not a musician).
Upon returning home I decided the real Elvis had been gone for too long- and all that remained were stories and myths about him- so I decided to make up a few myths of my own. My first Elvis work was made in a folk art manner (like Toyzini’s)... and like Howard Finster’s (who I’d also just discovered). It was series of “I Saw Elvis” paintings. There was “I saw Elvis at the Laundromat” and I saw Elvis Selling Velvet Elvis Pictures in a Parking Lot from A Van” ... etc. The idea was that if Elvis had faked his own death (as some modern mythology taught) then he would need to do his own laundry and support himself somehow (and what better way than to sell velvet paintings of himself?). As a side note- Susan Sarandon purchased that painting about a year later and she became my first celebrity collector.
The work was fueled by the time and place I lived and the way my life paralleled what I was seeing. It was Nashville TN.- during a time when people were loading up their pick-up trucks and leaving everything behind to move to music city with the hope of becoming famous. A waiter one day told me he'd tossed a few suitcases, his demo tapes, his wife, and baby in his truck and moved to Nashville because he had a showcase at a listening room called the Bluebird and was certain a big record company would be signing him soon.
I’d done the same thing in my own life as a visual artist just a few years earlier. In 1984 I left Charleston S.C. (which I claimed as my home at the time) for the chance to become a famous New York artist. It never happened- but that’s another story. Back to Nashville- I watched former carpenters and school teachers waiting tables in Nashville- and handing out their demo tapes to anyone who might help them get a foot in the door of the music scene. I’d done the same thing while living on Long island. One of my jobs to make ends meet was office cleaning. The job was done at night when the offices were closed. One night while cleaning under a desk on my hands an knees – I was startled by a handsome man who came back to his desk to retrieve something. I was so embarrassed by my lowly job that I blurted out “I’m really an artist”.
I saw myself in the would be Nashville stars. I saw myself like Elvis, wrestling with the enigma of who I thought I was, who I hoped to become and who I would be if I were famous.
This leads me to a paraphrased thought by Annie Berman who analyzes the fascination with the images of Elvis, The Pope and Princess Diana in her documentary (linked in the footer below). She says people once venerated images of saints and royalty but now we venerate pop culture icons.
I’m often asked if I like Elvis or the Beatles and the answer is “kind of.. but that’s not why I make art with them in it”. They work as my doppelgangers to express my own ideas about life and culture. Consequently, the images track with my own life in autobiographic ways.
The rock and roll art I make has developed over few decades now. It began with Elvis and now encompasses scenes with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and a few others like Janis Joplin. The scenes I put them in are compositions through which I do my storytelling about life. I think one of my strongest artistic capacities lies in composition.
This body of work continues to evolve.