Interview: artist Brett Hunter
Brett Hunter‘s art is as distinctly Carbondale, IL, as The Lost Cross House or post-show night lake swimming. His artwork is everywhere in town — from punk house walls, to light posts, to boutique stores, to large music venues. Somehow between writing, recording, and touring relentlessly with his bands, The Copyrights, The Heat Tape, and Dear Landlord, he finds the time to make a ridiculous amount of quality art and live off of it. He makes fliers, large sized paintings, t-shirts, shoes, sunglasses, you name it. I’ve been a huge fan of his work since I first saw it just over a decade ago. He’s a huge inspiration to me and a lot of people in our shitty little town because he proves that you don’t have to move away to a city in order to live off of what you love doing — being weird and working hard is all you really need.
by Ray Martinez-Suburbia
When I first met you back in 2002, you were primarily known in town as a musician who did some occasional flier art. Even then your art had a very distinct style, one that you’ve obviously elaborated on and honed over the years. Did the music come before the art, or the other way around? When did you think, oh shit, I’m an artist? Or have you even ever thought of yourself that way?
I don’t think of myself as some great important artist, but I’ve come to realize that it is what I am meant to do, and will be my life’s work. I’ve always made art, pretty much my whole life. It was very encouraged when I was a kid. I didn’t start playing music until I was 17, so the art definitely came first. But, I guess I really didn’t think, “Oh shit, I’m an artist,” until Bollman asked me to paint one of the window boards at Lost Cross. That was probably around 2002 — he made these boards to fit in the windows when there were shows, so that “the pigs” couldn’t see or hear all the fun we were having. I had never really painted anything that wasn’t on cardboard or paper at that point, and had never really sold anything, or shown work, or any of that stuff. He just knew that I was into drawing from fliers. The board turned out great, and I realized I could paint with cheap paint on cheap plywood, with three or four colors straight out of the tube, and make a surprisingly effective image. I had an art show at a coffee shop about a year later and started selling paintings. I’ve pretty much been doing the same thing ever since.
You’ve been using a lot of the same motifs in your art over the years, almost in phases. I remember a lot of babies and variations on the Old Style logo; now there seems to be a lot of eyes and text, and of course the obvious self-portrait style references. How did these different motifs develop? Have the changes been conscious?
Most of the themes or repeated images just came out of unconscious scribbling in my sketchbook. Then, looking back afterward, I could pick some images from those scribbles and use them in bigger paintings. Over the years I’ve come to realize that once I start thinking about something too much, or at all really, it ruins the whole thing. This goes for songs as well as paintings. Recently, I’ve embraced the idea of “effortless action,” just clearing my head and letting things happen without thinking about them. I just decide to make a song or a painting, get an initial idea, start working, and follow through. I like to get things done all in one day, never stopping to second guess myself. I work much better that way. You can learn a lot about yourself by going back and looking at what you unconsciously created.
As for text, I always grew up around American folk art. My grandparents liked to drive around and visit these weird self-taught artists all through the ’90s. They collected works from a bunch of different people — Howard Finster and Dow Pugh are two of my favorites. A lot of these pieces have strange messages on them, sometimes covering the entire piece. This was a big influence on my work. I can relate to these people because I have no real training but feel compelled to make things always. I consider myself to be a folk artist. Maybe “neo-folk” artist, ha ha.
As much as some people like to pretend it’s not true or that it’s total bullshit, punk and art have always gone hand-in-hand. Before punk became a lifestyle, it was an aesthetic. How much influence did punk art have on you and your own art? Were there any album covers, or even stuff like t-shirt designs that blew you away when you were younger?
I’ve always been a sucker for the shocking images from Black Flag and Dead Kennedys album covers — Pettibon and Winston Smith. I like it that they even freak out punks as well as squares. I mean, a cop with a gun in his mouth that says, “Make me cum, faggot”? Amazing. I like it when people try to be offensive and shocking; it makes me laugh. I like art to be ridiculous, mine included. Unfortunately, it’s hard to sell a painting of a naked kid trying to sell the freshly severed head of a naked man to another naked man. When did penises become offensive anyway? People even seem offended by breasts lately, or nudity of any kind — what the fuck? Squares everywhere, even in punk.
[pullquote]I mostly use nude figures in my paintings, because I feel like adding clothing adds unwanted stigma… Positioning the limbs to cover the “privates” seems really fucking lame to me, so I just put the dick in there, ya know, where the dick goes. That’s how I found out that the whole world hates penises.[/pullquote]
Considering you are, in fact, the resident artist in all the bands you’ve been in, why is it that you’ve only done three record covers — The Copyrights’ Make Sound LP and the Dear Landlord/Chinese Telephones split 7” in 2007, and The Copyrights Learn the Hard Way LP in 2008, which was old art recycled for the cover. Have you done any shirt or sticker or miscellaneous other art for any of your bands?
I guess it’s because I never felt like I could just do whatever I wanted. All of the input and criticism from band members bummed me out and blocked me up. Also, I’m just not that good at graphic design stuff. I’ve had several t-shirt designs that I did that flopped because, frankly, they totally sucked. I think my “do it without thinking” philosophy doesn’t work for that kind of shit. Lately I’ve gotten into drawing electronically, on my tablet thing; that might make for some cool designs. I do all of the t-shirts and record layouts for The Heat Tape. I feel like I can do whatever I want with that band.
When Chinese Telephones and Dear Landlord went on tour together back in 2007, it was the first time I ever saw you selling non-band related art at shows. It was screen-printed self-portraits on large pieces of wood with different colorings and text painted over the repeated design. No band name, or logo, just pieces of art. You were selling them at totally affordable prices too, something like $20. Was this the first time you tried selling your art on a tour? And what made you think of doing that?
I did that once before, on the same kinds of boards, all the same size but different images on each one. It was for a tour with Groovie Ghoulies. I guess Kepi Ghoulie gave me the idea to sell art on tour. I was in a crazy hurry to get a bunch of pieces together before tour, and it took forever. I decided to make it easier the next time by including a screen-printed outline and minimal painting. This also made it easier for me to let them go for a minimal price. I sold a handful, probably gave more away. It was great to get 20 bucks in my pocket every couple of days. I remember Lauren from The Measure (SA) bought one, which was flattering. I haven’t brought art with me on tour since then, really. It was always awkward trying to fit my stuff with the band merch, and I felt like everyone just found it annoying. It took up space in the van and I was always freaking out about everybody else fucking them up. I recall roadie extraordinaire Lew Houston drunkenly cramming a stack of my paintings in the van as if he were stuffing pizza boxes in a trash can. He apologized in the morning.
I know that you’re not the first weirdo artist in your family. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your grandfather and his art and how that has influenced you. What has your family thought about the stuff you do? I’m curious as to what a parent’s reaction to a near life-size self portrait of their son with a droopy eye and a hammer dick would be.
My mom has always been an artist. She painted when she was younger, but currently she makes cool bags and other wearable stuff. My grandfather (her dad) started making things as he neared retirement age and had more spare time, a true folk artist. My grandma always showed a creative side as well — making weird little shrunken heads out of apples, stuff like that. She made some nice ceramics in recent years. My mom’s brother, Randy Shull, is a very successful and well-known artist living in Asheville, NC. My dad is more of a craftsman and doesn’t really dabble in art, though his most recent moped restorations might prove otherwise. Grandpa used to make stained-glass windows, then he moved on to turning wooden bowls. After that, he started making whirligigs, little mechanical wind-powered carvings of people and animals. He now makes amazing wooden coin-bank figures, metal lawn sculptures, and all kind of other things. He even invented a garden tool. I guess all of these people have showed me that there are all kinds of artists, trained and untrained, and you can take it as far as you want, and be as serious or as casual as you want. You can sell the stuff or never sell a goddamn thing; it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the work, and the satisfaction that comes with it. This goes for music, too. Everyone is very supportive of what I do, but worried about how broke I am all the time. As for their reactions to some of my more disturbing pieces… I got a few chuckles out of grandpa, but grandma doesn’t like it.
And for the record, I haven’t put a hammer-dick on anything in ten years or so, and I feel like it wasn’t ever on all that many pieces, probably less than ten, but I still catch hell about it all the time. I wasn’t even trying to make a statement or anything. I was just catering to my audience’s square-ass reaction to a penis, replacing it with something else, and unintentionally got an even stronger reaction and I guess that I kind of fed off of that for a while. I’d always made drawings with hammers and other things instead of hands and heads, so why not instead of a dick? I mostly use nude figures in my paintings, because I feel like adding clothing adds unwanted stigma, like a weird connection to a style of clothes or something. Positioning the limbs to cover the “privates” seems really fucking lame to me, so I just put the dick in there, ya know, where the dick goes. That’s how I found out that the whole world hates penises. I’m honestly disgusted by the general public’s (even punks!) fear of a nude figure, and especially a penis. A stupid little cartoon suggestion of a penis even! So lame.
A few months ago we were talking about how you haven’t had a real job in over year. You’re basically living off of music and art. Was it a hard decision to throw yourself out there and focus only on creating things? Was there any fear that you were shooting yourself in the foot? How’s it been working out? And what was the last actual job you had?
It’s actually been four years. My last job was working at a local screen-printing shop. It was somewhat fun, I worked with friends and got to blast music and stuff, but a dead-end job. At the time, I had recently started paying very low rent — $120 a month — and touring more and actually getting paid a little bit of money at the end of tours. I was about to leave for a two-month tour and had a talk with my boss, and agreed that I wouldn’t be guaranteed a job when I got back but that I should definitely give him a call and he would see what he could do. I never called. I had plenty of time to think on that trip. It just seemed like if I put the same amount, or even half of the time and effort spent working into art instead, I could make it work. It’s hard to be completely self-propelled, but I’m not going back to working dead-end jobs unless I prove that I can’t get by on my own. People are always complaining that they don’t have enough time to spend doing what they love. I figured, fuck it, I have nothing to lose, I have the opportunity to give this a shot and see if I have what it takes. I went on tours that didn’t suck. I got a roommate and cut my rent down to 60 bucks. I got more active with making art and selling it. I had art shows around town and posted stuff online. I got on food stamps when money got low. I did odd jobs here and there. It’s not for everyone, but it’s not that fucking bad. I don’t give a shit, I’m never going back.
Talk a little about the trailer you live in. From the outside it looks like something John Waters would have come up with in some sort of poppers and coke addled fever dream. What do your neighbors think about your walk-in art piece? I also remember hearing that you were putting together a darkroom and making a kiln as well. Don’t you have a studio too?
I had a really cheap studio space above the Thai restaurant for a few years, but that fell through a while back. Now I just work out of my trailer. Me and my girlfriend Becky have plans to set up a simple darkroom and a tiny ceramics studio, but it’s just in the beginning stages. We have a small kiln, but have only fired it a couple of times. I live in a trailer park in the woods about five miles from town. It’s called Raccoon Valley, and when locals hear the name they kind of cringe. It has a really bad reputation for being full of meth cookers and thieves and fuck-ups, which is somewhat true, but mostly it’s just a bunch of people and families trying to get by on as little as possible, in a place where no one gives a shit what you do. I have friends in a few trailers out here, but I don’t really like to associate with any of the other neighbors. There are some nice people, but just to be safe, I pretty much keep to myself. A good way to make sure no one bothers you is to make your house look weird as all hell. When I first moved in I painted my front door with a weird red man with a crooked face, and attached some arms extending out of the door. I made one of the hands have six fingers. I don’t think anyone ever got close enough to notice. When that shitty door rotted off I painted a new one with a three headed pink man and attached the red-man door to the wall next to it. While I was painting it, my nice neighbor shouted from across the way, “Hey man! You went from the devil to aliens!!” The next day I was buying some paint and saw that they had little one-pint samples of house paint for just a few bucks. I got about ten different colors and just went nuts on the front of my place. I set up some mannequin parts and faux flowers and my grandpa’s giant metal spider and called it a day. My neighbors were laughing their asses off. I’ve seen the UPS lady taking pictures. Other than that, I don’t really know what people think of it, because they don’t come anywhere near my place. I guess my plan worked.
Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of pictures of the wearable art you’ve been making. What made you think to paint on shoes, purses, sunglasses, etc? Was it financial decision cause they might sell better than an oil paintings? Or am I being too cynical thinking that? And where do you get the stuff you paint on?
A few years ago I started buying vintage shoes at thrift stores and selling them online, I sold a few pairs, but not many. This left me with a bunch of shoes taking up space. I started painting on them one day because I ran out of boards to paint on, and was getting sick of all of this junk lying around. I painted on all kinds of crap. I didn’t really think people were going to be into them but I’ve gotten a good response, mostly from women and drag queens. It’s hard to keep up with different sizes though. I started ordering wholesale sunglasses and painting on those, because I figured that was something cool and cheap that people could buy. I actually have better luck selling paintings. I’ve never worked with oil paints by the way — too expensive — but painting on shoes and stuff is something I can do while chilling out in my recliner.
I know you’ve had the occasional local art show. Have you had your work exhibited anywhere outside of Illinois yet?
I have sent stuff to Minneapolis, and years ago to Sacramento for a show that Kepi Ghoulie did. I made a few paintings on drum heads while in Europe and sold them to a bar owner in Switzerland. I’ve really only done a handful of shows locally and regionally. I do OK just selling stuff as I make it, and rarely find myself with enough pieces to have an exhibition. Sometimes I wish I could plug into the art world somehow, but mostly I’m glad that I haven’t. My real dream is to someday be like the folk artists that my grandparents collected, putting out a sign by the road and selling art from my home. Most of those people didn’t start making art until they were in their 60’s. I guess I have a good head start. If I could make that work I would be very happy.
What kind of impact do you think living in southern Illinois has on your art? Besides the practical benefit of being able to afford to live off of it, do you think it plays a part in what you do? Have you ever seriously considered moving some place else?
Southern Illinois can be isolating, and I think that has an impact on what I do. Not a lot of influence from other artists. There’s not a whole lot of art-related stuff going on that doesn’t have to do with the university, and most of those events are only advertised on campus, and I rarely see them. I often think about what it would be like living somewhere with a richer art scene, and having that community and competition, and how it would affect me. It’s a tempting thought to move somewhere else, like maybe to Asheville, where I already have a connection with my uncle. He and his partner own a large building used as an active art collective. But it’s also intimidating — it’s comfortable here, I kind of get that small-fish-in-a-big-pond feeling when I think about moving.
Since I’ve known you, you’ve always been in two or three bands at any given moment. What are you doing these days music-wise? Anything cool coming up or coming out?
I’m still in The Copyrights, The Heat Tape, and Dear Landlord. The Copyrights are working on re-recording the Groovie Ghoulies’ album Reanimation Festival with Kepi. He asked us to do it, and said we could just do our own thing and send it to him to do vocals. That’s pretty fun. The Heat Tape has been playing shows and slowly working on songs and stuff. We are planning on doing a bunch more videos soon, now that the weather is nice. Dear Landlord has slowed down considerably, it’s hard to stay active with everyone so far apart.
As for the art, do you mostly just sell your stuff locally? Or do you do an online gallery/shop type thing going on as well?
I try to be active online with posting photos of what I’ve been working on, reminding people that I’m still here making art, like always. It works. I’ll post a photo and someone will message me, “Hey, I just remembered that I want a painting from you.” I have my Etsy store, that’s more for my painted shoes and sunglasses and stuff. I also recently made a website, brettdouglashunter.com, so I can post photos and sell stuff online, without going through any of the Etsy/eBay/Facebook crap.
One last question: Years ago you started drawing/giving people tattoos. I remember when you graduated from the good old fashioned stick-and-pokes to some crazy post-apocalyptic looking homemade tattoo gun. What made you decide to start doing tattoos? Have you ever considered that an extension of your art? Do you still give them?
I don’t really know how that whole thing started. I think I saw that movie The Decline of Western Civilization — that scene where everyone is giving each other stick-and-poke tattoos — and I thought, “That’s so coooooool,” ha ha. I also remember Lew Houston having a stick-‘n’-poke, and being super jealous. I always thought tattooing would be a cool way to make money as an artist, but after using an actual tattoo machine a handful of times, and ruining a few patches of skin, I quickly realized how much work it was, and that I don’t have the skills or the patience to do it for real. Stick-‘n’-pokes are awesome though. I haven’t given a tattoo in years…what’re you doing tomorrow night?