In March of 2016, The True North Gallery-The Music Gallery in Waterdown, ON, opened its doors. Owned by True North Records/Linus Entertainment head Geoff Kulawick and wife Brooke, it showcases art created by a veritable Hall of Fame of stars from the music world. The list of those whose work is on the walls there includes Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Patti Smith, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Ron Wood, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Jerry Garcia and Jimi Hendrix, as well as SOCAN members Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Murray McLauchlan, Marc Jordan and David Francey.
The exhibition prompted us to consider the parallels between songwriting and the visual arts, and we asked five SOCAN members skilled in both fields to contribute their thoughts and experiences.
Hamilton’s JUNO Award-winning musical maverick Tom Wilson (Junkhouse, Blackie and The Rodeo Kings, Lee Harvey Osmond) is now also an in-demand visual artist. He produces large and colourful works reflective of his larger-than-life persona, and he discusses his art with typical gusto.
“I began painting in 1996, the second time I stopped drinking,” he recalls. “I wanted to do something constructive with my time. I started painting on our kitchen table after dinner, with kids running around. Most artists would find that distracting, but I feel art should be born out of the life that surrounds you. It shouldn’t be something created in a rented space in some loft.”
Wilson’s first public exhibition was auspicious: “I shared it with Michael Stipe and Daniel Lanois at Toronto’s Spin Gallery. The curator asked me to price my work and I suggested $500. He said ‘We can’t make money at that,’ and he priced them from $3,500 to $5,000. They all sold, so I kept on painting!”
Wilson has had other shows, but prefers to sell through his website. Last year, the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS) and the City of Hamilton music office commissioned The Mystic Highway, a 40 ft. x 40 ft. mural that pays tribute Hamilton’s rich musical past and present. It was displayed in the city’s downtown, coinciding with the 2015 JUNO Week and Awards.
Wilson’s earlier style featured words scratched into oil, but he says, “I’m currently working on wood, using oil on oil.” He enjoys “blurring the lines of the media in which I work. I would etch my lyrics onto the canvas, and then go to those canvases as I was writing songs. They were like giant colorful notebooks I had hanging around my house.”
Wilson enjoys the fact art can be judged on its own merits. “It doesn’t confront people the way popular music does,” he says. “You don’t have to have the right forehead or groovy pants. People can approach it without a bunch of hoopla around it.”
As a longtime member of The Rheostatics, singer-songwriter and guitarist Martin Tielli achieved Canadian indie rock stardom. His talent as a visual artist has been showcased in striking album covers for that group, his own solo projects, and those of other musicians.
A recent Rheostatics reunion concert aside, Tielli has left music behind. “I stopped music altogether, and have been painting full-time for about seven years now,” he says. “That has been a pretty seamless transition psychologically. In playing music and painting, the physical movements are different but the psychology is the same. I never thought of them very differently.
“The art was first and easiest for me,” he recalls. “I’ve always considered that number one. Music came at a later age, and it became all-consuming for some decades there.”
In his teens, Tielli trained as a scientific illustrator: “I illustrated extinct animals for the Paleontology department at the Royal Ontario Museum for two years, until the Rheos started touring.”
Designing Rheostatics-related artwork came naturally. “It made sense that somebody who’s part of the making of the music should have a clear idea of what it should look like,” he says.
To Tielli, “music and art both access a similar part of the brain, the part that is not linguistic. To me, music, both lyrically and sonically, is visual. and cinematic. I see pictures, from landscapes to monsters, in music.”
His well-documented stage fright means the solitary act of creating his meticulously crafted paintings suits Tielli well. ““When I’m painting, people aren’t looking at me,” he says. “I never quite liked that part, especially the older I get [laughs]. Plus 90 percent of the time I’m working on art, I’m actually doing it. In music, that’s about three percent of the time.”
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Sarah Slean has long been attracted to and influenced by visual art. “I think it’s an ancient urge. We all draw as kids,” she says. “I went back to drawing and painting in my twenties, as a way of soothing my frustrations with music. Turning off the ears in favour of the eyes, and shifting the brain’s focus from time to space, is extremely helpful in freeing up that blocked creative energy.
“I love the experience of total mental quietness when painting or drawing. Even if I’m listening to loud rock music or Beethoven string quartets, the mental experience for me is one of stillness. Not so with music, the song and the sounds are in your mind, whirling around, trying to get out, to be translated into the real world.”
To Slean, the creative processes involved in music composition and art creation are “totally dissimilar, which is why visual art is a welcome shift. Art for me is often exploratory and revelatory. There is a seed (that magically appears) and I don’t willfully expand on it, I just feel around, let it grow, following instincts. It unfolds. Music for me can be torturous. The process of making art for me is still a kind of miracle. I have preserved my innocence with it.”
To date, Slean has had a small number of public shows, primarily selling work through her website. “I’m a bit shy about exhibiting art, as I mainly identify as a musician and writer,” she explains. “I plan on having more in the future. I believe the rules are bending, the boundaries and shifting and blurring, creativity is becoming more open and experimental. Disciplines collide and overlap, which is very exciting.”
Internationally acclaimed jazz saxophonist, composer and bandleader, five-time JUNO Award winner and Order of Canada recipient Jane Bunnett has had a lifelong passion for visual art. “I grew up in an environment of creativity,” she says. “My parents and I would regularly go to art galleries in Toronto, and I was always drawing.”
Bunnett studied design while simultaneously studying classical piano and jamming with her musical friends. Upon finding her creative fulfillment in jazz, music took precedence. “In the end the solitude of being a lonely painter was not what I wanted,” she says. “I really enjoyed the camaraderie of being in a band.”
But she has continued to sketch and paint. The True North Gallery show, her first public exhibition, primarily features her colourful depictions of such jazz heroes and inspirations as Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson.
Bunnett fluctuates between music and art, depending on her performance and recording schedule. The return of Maqueque, her acclaimed project with young female Cuban jazz players, means those players now stay in the room Bunnett usually uses as her art studio.
“I may take my paints up to our cabin and paint there, or work in my sketchbook and plan something down the road,” she says.
Her sketchbook has long been a constant companion on her travels, and it is full of vivid depictions of scenes from as far afield as the Caribbean, Saskatchewan, and Serbia.
To Bunnett, the creative process used in composing and writing “both involve the same frame of mind. You slow down into a rather meditative thought process as you internalize things, whereas with performance there’s a certain amount of adrenaline that kicks in.”
Asked about the affinity so many musicians and singer-songwriters have for art, she reflects that “musicians use the part of our brain that is visual. If you ask a musician about a room they were just in, they can likely describe it in real detail.”
Singer-songwriter, screen composer, guitarist, painter and multi-media artist Kurt Swinghammer has enjoyed a long and successful career in both music and the visual arts. A prolific solo artist and composer of film and TV scores, he has designed album covers, posters, music videos and clothes (The Shuffle Demons’ famed costumes), and exhibited his paintings. One such work, “Red Canoe,” was bought at the True North Gallery opening by music industry veteran Frank Davies.
Art was Swinghammer’s prime early pursuit. “I had my first gallery show at 16,” he says. “I thought I’d keep music on a more personal level, keep it uncontaminated.” He attended Toronto’s OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design) and now works concurrently in music and visual art.
He has interesting observations on their similarities and differences. “Painting is the ultimate indie act, but it affords very little opportunity to integrate ideas and energies from other people,” he says. “That’s a beautiful thing in making music. I enjoy that balance of the social and the solitary.
“I learned that, in the art world, finding a personal voice, seeking individuality, is prime. That’s not the dominant thing in music, with its trends. In the visual world, if you don’t have a signature style, forget it. My solo music was more about trying to do that, too.”
He views the two activities as possessing parallels: “The process of fishing around for an idea is similar for both, but with the type of music I do, and the art, I don’t think there’s much similarity in terms of executing the work. With my current visual work, I do think of music in terms of colour relationships, the tempo of brushstrokes, and the composition dynamics.”
Swinghammer acknowledges that “there can be pressure to just do one thing, but I think it is natural to do both. Joni Mitchell was one of my major heroes and I certainly knew she did her album covers. That affirmed that it’s totally fine to do both.”