Brett is a Baltimore-based artist who creates intriguing portraits of musicians www.brettstuartwilson.com. He loves music and promotes music appreciation and respect for the legacies of those who have come and gone. Still, make no mistake, Brett isn’t only a music lover, but an accomplished artist who has created his own unique method of creating portraits. Read on and find out more…
MICHAEL: Hey Brett, You work seems to be devoted to music and music icons. What's the inspiration behind it?
BRETT: Hi Michael, First let me say "thank you" for your interest in artists and their art and presenting this opportunity. I grew up in the 50s/60s and there was so much great music out there. My family was military so we moved constantly, different cities, different countries and I really didn't have many friends. I found my saving grace by getting absorbed in music. I spent all of my free time in the record stores where you could listen to a huge variety of albums, I snuck into NCO clubs and listened to soul bands playing Stax-Volt and Motown stuff. I discovered the blues by listening to the British Invasion like Clapton, John Mayall and Beck. When I researched their beginnings, I found out about their idols, the original blues icons. So long story short, music is what kept me going, it's what motivated me, it's what filled my lonely hours and gave sustenance to my life from Radio-Free Luxembourg to the present. It's pivotal to who I am and the inspiration for my art.
MICHAEL: What was your earliest exposure to visual art? Do you come from an artistic family? How did you become an artist?
BRETT: That's an easy one. I've never not had art in my life. My mom was an artist and from my oldest memory she always had a project going on. I clearly remember though, when I was in my early teens we were living in Italy and she took me around to the museums and it was then that I became hooked. From that point on there was never any doubt about what I wanted to do and that's what I did.
MICHAEL: What actually made you hooked? How did Italy affect you? The sights, the sounds? How is Italy different from the U.S. when it comes to art?
BRETT: There was so much art. Everywhere you looked there was some art-form. It was an ever present mind-set of exceptional art and culture. I don't think there is another place on earth that has so many types of art styles ranging from primitive Etruscan art to Metaphysical. It was present in the architecture; Renaissance piazzas, Palladian Villas, sculpture, fresco's, museums filled with all of the major art movements; it was intoxicating. Keep in mind, I was 13-15 years of age living in Vicenza and I already had exposure to American art and this was just over the top stimulation. In addition, I got to hop on a train into town and get away with drinking wine. What more could a adolescent want! When I think about my own art today, I see where I've pulled some of those influences into it like Futurism in some of my paintings. I like to experiment breaking up realistic forms and colors, and definitely Art Povera is in all of my art steering away from conventional portraits by layering found materials. I like to think of my portraits as a conglomeration of many art styles. Maybe it's a bit schizophrenic, but I don't think musicians would like to see themselves documented as boring.
MICHAEL: What are you trying to achieve through your portraits? Is it documenting musicians or making an artistic statement? I do appreciate your painting approach.
BRETT: Thank you Michael. It's both, I document musicians because I think music is an integral part of life and I find that the mass population isn't very knowledgeable about where particular styles originated from. In the not so distant future, musicians we appreciate now will become a blur to a new genre of music. So I'm carrying the torch, so to speak and creating art, my way. I certainly appreciate realism, but I want interruptions in my portraits. Musicians live turbulent lives, most anyway, so perfection doesn't have a place here. Portraits have typically been expressed in a glamorous way except caricature which some of my earlier work leaned toward, but I want my art to demonstrate a physical depth, irregularities, some of them have more real color usage, some have a more graphic approach with blocks of exaggerated color. I have an Elvis that I worked toward a chiaroscuro approach to show a sadder side. They are constructed and built upon, layered with stuff, not carved. All of my work is intended to be viewed from a distance. They really don't make sense up close. Some people have misinterpreted them for paper mache, but they aren't, although they do have paper in them. It's a process that I worked on while doing my second Masters and I have since enhanced that method so they'll last as long as any fine artwork on canvas or wood. I guess my statement is assemblage based portraits, several art forms thrown in with my own spin. I want it to look enough like the person to invoke the question of who were they and what was their contribution, but I don't want to get hung up in perfect aesthetics, I like the process of piling materials on to do that.
MICHAEL: I love it when you said, "perfection doesn't have a place here." That statement in itself is perfect because it's dead on. If people gave up this toxic search for perfection in this fallen world, we could really appreciate art and music. No?
BRETT: It's true. My comment identifies that artists and musicians are not perfect nor are their lives. You bring up an interesting thought, one that I have spent a lot of time contemplating about; why is art less popular now? I think art has taken a much bigger hit than music in the appreciation arena. My conclusion is that people are over saturated with media, schedules, technology and they are sensory tuned out. They have all of this stuff accessible to them so that standing still admiring art is just too static, they need fast moving images. They no longer take time to really see, smell, and hear, they've lost their individual conscious. That observation paired with yours would be precisely what Marshall McLuhan talked about in "The Medium is in the Massage" Of course that was meant to be “message” and at the time he had no idea how much the internet age would add to the damage. The media shows us how perfect we should be, bigger and better, faster and richer and these things will make you more popular. Culture is becoming secondary.
MICHAEL: It's really frightening. I can literally see how people are devaluing culture and they're losing their ability to relate to other human beings. They only relate in terms of competition or conflict. This is the very antithesis of art and arts education.
BRETT: I can see it too. Competition, conflict and the one who is the most pompous wins. The shift is greater, but hasn't it always been like that to a degree? Haven't artists whether visual, written, musical etc., always been left of center? I know I've always felt like a stranger even among my peers. I took a hiatus from my art for quite a spell to play music and I saw another conflict. The arts are so under-appreciated monetarily that there becomes a jealously within the sector itself. The art group (all inclusive) is struggling so much to become known, appreciated and paid that they literally undermine their fellow artists. Getting seen becomes a popularity contest. If you don't play the game, if your personality isn't the Soup du Jour, you'll get a slammed door by those in a position to promote. I don't have an outgoing personality, music helped me with that a bit, but for the most part, I realize that I shrink away from having superficial conversations. In most any other profession, your worth is based on a desirable product without being exploited. I love making art and I'll never stop, with the hopes that there are still people out there who love having something more than a TV on their wall.
MICHAEL: Where are you exactly? DC? How does your environment influence your work?
BRETT: I'm outside of Baltimore. I don't think my geographical environment influences my work or my decisions of work at all. I could be in a cornfield and it would be the same. My personal experiences from childhood to being motivated enough to teach myself how to play the harmonica, by sincerely appreciating music and its history, these are my subject influences. My intellectual influences are also my childhood and adult exposure, my education and personal investigation. I started off as a printmaker and went through the whole sphere of art. It was when I started making models/subject matter for printmaking that I became intrigued by sculptural pieces. All my life has just morphed into my current art. People have portraits of their loves ones on their walls, businesses have portraits of presidents and diplomats because they are important to them. Portraits are a very old art form and my goal is to capture these people who shared their music with us and influenced other styles of music into an artform that extends past the traditional style. There are layers of stuff underneath like the layers of stuff that make the music that it is today. Some of my larger than life portraits have flat foreheads, some dropped eyes or are exaggerated, some show sadness, happiness, some are solemn. I want to keep it a little left of center with a little bit of real emotion. They're not gods, but they're worth remembering especially to the people that have been moved in some way with music. I want to share myself and my experiences with music. As an artist, the only thing you can do is project yourself in your sermon, your approach to the art in hopes that others feel something from it. I could be in a cornfield and it would be the same for me what would be different is how people respond to it and that is based entirely on what stimulates them.
MICHAEL: Times are always tough for artists, but now is an especially difficult time. How are you doing? It's almost impossible to convince people to buy art when the economy is in a slump.
BRETT: Times are tough for everyone right now except for the rich. Although they will try to convince you otherwise, they would like you to believe that art has taken a hit so they can purchase it cheaper. Do you think that luxury cars and private planes (and so on) have depreciated in price? The gap between the classes is becoming greater because of the hype that is being fed. Artists should not fall for the big business psych-out. I have to maintain a space to make art, with electricity, heat, insurance, promotional fees, art supplies and my valuable productive time. I have two art masters degrees, a world of experience and artistic knowledge and if I lower my asking price, I have not only depreciated the value of my art that other people who valued and bought from me, but I have lessened my own value as a person. The people who have always bought my art have money so it really comes down to whether they want it or not. If they do, they will buy it. My lifestyle has ALWAYS been hard except perhaps for when I was in the academic world and had a small, but consistent adjunct faculty salary. That arena was too much politics for my liking so I've had to augment my art sales with hard construction type jobs when needed. It's what I do. My wife and I live frugally when necessary and we appreciate life and enjoy the ride. In conclusion, rich people have money for luxury items, the middle class has money to buy electronic gadgets so if these people want the art, they’ll buy it. I think the biggest dilemma in the art world is still the fact that only a few select people "appreciate" art.
MICHAEL: Having said that Brett, you know, so many people are suspicious of contemporary art. They think they're going to see cow dung and dildos in galleries - which is not to say they could not actually BE art if done right - but you catch my drift. They also think they're going to be snubbed by "art people." Thoughts?
BRETT: Almost every gallery now posts who and what art is being shown with links to the artists. Anyone who wants to go gallery shopping can do a search first to decide where they want to visit if they are concerned about being offended. Typically, galleries that show edgier art have a reputation for doing so, presenting a higher probability for that kind of art. Just like books and film, there is something for everyone void of censorship. As far as being snubbed, that does exist. For example, about a year ago we made a trip to Philadelphia to scout out the galleries. I like to go into the galleries before approaching them to look at the wall space, lighting, the art that is represented and see what type of reception is present. In one gallery, Jamie asked about the type of material used and the owner or rep snarled out an answer that was intended to demean. We exchanged eye contact and left immediately. Another gallery person remained on the phone the entire time we were in there. Some were available, but never approached us. Out of the seven galleries we visited, two were pleasant. The owner at the Seraphin Gallery was the most impressive since it was obvious that she was knowledgeable about art, loved it, collected it and was eager to talk about the represented artists. The galleries collect a hefty commission to sell art, it’s their job. I don't know what's going on with that, maybe it's a write-off for them at the artist’s expense. I saw 30% actually making an effort to initiate a conversation. I would at a minimum like to see them introduce themselves and then the artists work giving just a brief intro so that the visitor starts to feel connected to the art, perhaps a small pleasant education about the collection. If the gallery owners have become jaded because of the looker/buyer ratio perhaps they should hire an upbeat college student that can show a little enthusiasm to front the gallery. This is one piece of the breakdown of arts success. I would think that the gallery is the place where the public should start acknowledging how good the presence of an original piece of art would feel in their home. People need to be educated. The seed has to be planted.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. How do you think contemporary art is changing and where do you think it's heading?
BRETT: I think the most obvious change reflects the encompassing mindset of the population which would be digitally manipulated photography. I don't think that is the future of art, but the present. It really is impossible to say where contemporary art is headed or it wouldn't be art, it would be someone trying to corral art sales or even manufacturing. No one could’ve predicted Marcel Duchamp's Urinal in the Armory Show or Jackson Pollocks Abstract Expressionism's Drip paintings. I think the future of art will continue to be people buying what they like, investments and the unknown mystery of a new way to express what we see and feel. Sylvio Perlstein has a vast collection of art (including my own) because he loves the diversity and had the foresight to know that there is no foresight in art.
MICHAEL: And finally Brett, is there a message in your body of work thus far? What do you want your work to say long after you're gone? This is you talking now, not an art historian or critic.
BRETT: Well Michael, there's no critics or historians in my closet so you've still got me here. There has always been a message in my work, and that is; a portrait does not always have to be an image of perfection. It can have lumps and bumps, an absence of formality, expressing a sense of boldness and freedom from being overly contrived. Long after I'm gone and hopefully in the present, I want my work to say that a portrait can possess the qualities of improvisation; that it holds up on its own while straying from the standard. There are many ways to depict a face and I will continue to investigate those possibilities. I would also like to encourage anyone considering art to take chances. If any piece drums up something inside of you, know that you have made a connection, trust that it is art and allow yourself to step out of your comfort zone.
MICHAEL: Brett, this has been a great pleasure. All the best to you.
BRETT: Great appreciation Michael for being a rare advocator of the artists.
Check out Brett Stuart Wilson at www.brettstuartwilson.com.