Saturday, May 5, 2012
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
5:00 a.m. Sunday, April 29, 2012
There’s no mistaking a Neal Hamilton painting.
Van Gogh had his signature swirls, Degas his delicately longlimbed dancers. Hamilton, a relative Atlanta newcomer who took up painting again after a devastating house fire convinced him he had “nothing left to lose,” employs a technique so vibrantly distinctive he’s given it a name: “Paint Out Loud.”
He mostly paints portraits of musicians, with the occasional superhero thrown into the mix. Rarely employs a paintbrush. Sticks to the same five bright primary colors, used alone or in combination.
Everything gets “signed” with the small splash of white space near the subject’s eye that’s become his artistic calling card.
“You have to be good at what you do,” Hamilton, 55, explained recently inside his small studio at Art Space International on Atlanta’s west side. “But you also have to have a brand everyone can identify.”
Since he came here 16 months ago from Cleveland, (his wife took a job here), Hamilton has built a brand that merges his two passions: art and music. His specialty is portraits of musicians, an interest honed from years spent as the official photographer for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
Hamilton also paints portraits of famous rock stars on the bodies of donated guitars. The artists sign the finished works, and then donate them to a charity of their choice to raise money at fundraising auctions. One of the first was Latin pop star Carlos Santana.
“Santana loved the guitar so much, he got one for himself,” said Dan Harr, an Acworth musician who solicits the guitars from major guitar makers.
The guitar work has spread Hamilton’s name far beyond Atlanta. Earlier this year, a pair of Paul McCartney guitars graced a table at an event during Grammy Week.
‘Art that stands out’
Hamilton’s success is all the more remarkable because he knew almost no one when he moved to Atlanta and wasn’t represented by a gallery.
He essentially took matters into his own hands, loaning his work to nice restaurants and salons for display and exhibiting at high-profile public events like the Creative Arts Industry Night taking place at Colony Square on May 8.
Travis Gonzales was browsing at Evolution Home Theater in Buckhead when he stumbled across Hamilton’s all-in-moody-blue take on a certain jazz great glowering from a wall.
“As soon as I saw the Miles Davis piece, I said ‘Holy [expletive],’ ” said Gonzales.
He ended up commissioning a 5-by-7 foot portrait of Ludvig van Beethoven for his home music room from Hamilton.
“It transcends art and music on their own and comes together to make something else entirely new and different,” said Gonzales, an enterpreneur and partner in IT firm Initio Partners.
He wouldn’t disclose how much he paid for the one-of-a-kind Beethoven with custom, musical-clef embossed frame by Gary Bixler (Hint: a smaller, 3-by-4 foot Hamilton portrait of Bette Midler at Art Space foyer is priced at $4,500). But he’s less shy about assessing the prospects of the painter he now considers a personal friend.
“I see Neal going as far as he wants to take himself with this,” said Gonzales.
Still, it’s not entirely in Hamilton’s hands. The marketplace for big, colorful portraits of Beethoven, Bob Marley or Bootsy Collins — however well done — is much smaller than the one for, say, landscapes. Even the charity project is subject to the whims of, well, rockers.
When things get rough, Hamilton remembers what he told himself early on in his new studio in an unfamiliar city.
“I have all my friends in here with me,” he said, referring to the colorful canvases he’d brought along from Ohio. “I have figured out a type of art that stands out in a crowd.”
Fire stirred creativity
Officially, Hamilton began figuring out his “type of art” in 2005. Unofficially, the process started long before he came across some half-used cans of paint at his parents’ country house, where he’d gone after a fire ravaged his own home.
“My parents knew I was artistic, [so] they put me in classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art around the age of 9 or 10,” said Hamilton, who has four grown children, including a daughter studying at SCAD-Atlanta.
He later studied technical illustration and found a mentor in famed sports artist Gary Thomas, who does portraits for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Hamilton worked as designer for a lighting company, a commercial artist and illustrator and as the Rock Hall’s photographer from 1996 to 2006.
“Sometimes they would page me in the middle of the night, 3 a.m., and say, ‘Prince is in the building,’” Harrison said. “I’m not star struck. I learned they’re just people.”
He’d pretty much put his art career on hold during that time. But the fire, which happened about a year before he left the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, stirred something creative in him.
“If you think about it, most people — especially artists — they say it was when they were at the worst point in their lives that made them do what they’d always wanted to do,” said Hamilton, citing Tyler Perry and Tina Turner as two people who essentially hit bottom on the way to the top. “That fire was almost cosmic. God said, ‘Here’s some orange and black and red [paint], and you go make something with it.’ ”
His first painting was of Sting. Rather than carefully brushing on the paint (he uses Sherwin Williams acrylic latex house paint), he poured it on. Then he employed putty knives, razors, even his fingers, to scrape and detail, to texturize and shade.
“I was trying for the first time in my life to be loose,” he says now. “When you’re a commercial illustrator, you have to be real precise and fine. Here, I poured the paint on and scraped it real fast. I said ‘I like the way that looks.’ So I tried it with the next painting, and again, I said, ‘I like the way that looks. That can be my trademark.’ ”
Mission accomplished, suggests Dan Flores. Hamilton might not have been in Atlanta for very long, but his work already is managing to stand out.
“It’s the technique he uses,” said Flores, curator of the Creative Arts Industry Night show that will feature work by nearly 50 artists, some of it presented live, music and more. “He uses different materials to get a look on canvas that’s uniquely his.”
Hamilton hadn’t been here very long when he responded to Dan Harr’s ad for an artist for his “MNN Guitar Project.” A veteran of the music business (as a session player, songwriter and founder of a music news website) Harr, 50, had Stage 3 cancer three years ago. The music industry helped him pay bills then; now, he wanted to return the favor.
When Jane’s Addiction played The Tabernacle in March, Dave Navarro autographed “his” guitar. Last year, Navarro had donated an acoustic guitar of his to an auction for the Julian Rock Memorial, which raises money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“This year I’d been reaching out to [Navarro’s] manager, saying, ‘We’d sure love to have you again,’ ” said Don Thorvund, a San Jose, Calif., resident who started the Julian Rock Memorial in honor of his newborn son who died of a rare congenital disease in 2005. Thorvund plays guitar for fun and has several friends who are professional musicians; but he hadn’t heard of the MNN Guitar Project until Harr contacted him with some good news: “Out of the blue came a call from Dan. He said ‘Dave [Navarro] autographed the guitar last night and said he wanted it to go to your charity.’ ”
It’s more than a guitar, Thorvund said. It’s “a very large collision of rock and art.”
Last year’s auction raised about $7,000 total. At this year’s auction, to be held on May 20 in San Jose, this one guitar alone will have an estimated value of $8,000 to $10,000.
“It’s a custom made guitar with a Neal Hamilton on it,” Thorvund said. “It’s not a reprint or a lithograph [of Navarro]. You look at it and you can see the layers of paint. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen.”
Creative Arts Industry Night
6-10 p.m. May 8, $15.
Alliance Francaise d’Atlanta, 1197 Peachtree St., Atlanta. www.manoartshows.com