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Face the Music

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Face the Music

“I love music and every time I paint, I have music going,” says artist Chris Cook. “So definitely music is tied to my painting and my art.”

Beyond listening to it, music has become a common thread that runs deeper through his artwork. Chris’s latest body of work, a series of portraits, captures the faces of famous people ranging from musicians and writers to activists and movie stars.

“Music filled the beginning of that series pretty heavy,” he recalls.

Chris first started painting the portraits two years ago. After finding an emotional photograph of a young lady crying, he picked up his paintbrush and used it as his pencil, dipping it in black ink and drawing her out. The portrait sat in his studio for almost two months before he got his palette knife out and started adding color to the background around her face. As soon he saw the finished product he knew he was on to something.

Next, Cook found a photograph online of writer Truman Capote to paint and he was hooked. “Because I love music, I did Mick Jagger; I did Bob Dylan; Jimmy Hendrix and Johnny Cash,” Cook says. “I started right in on musicians more than writers, more than artists, more than movie stars.”

Since starting the series, Chris has painted nearly 50 portraits. In several cases, Cook has painted the same person multiple times. Johnny Cash is the perfect example of this. “He has a great face,” Chris notes.

Searching for photographs of subjects can often take a lot of time. “Sometimes it’s hard to get one that just resonates,” he says. “I know when I see the photo. It speaks to me. I look at their face, at their expression and I know that’s the one I want.”

Not long after he began painting the faces, a friend, Kathy Russell, came by his digital marketing and web design business on West Jefferson Street in Madison and saw the portraits. Russell was captivated and insisted that Chris do a pop-up show at her recently renovated space on the corner of East Washington and South Main Street, where the Ye Olde Colonial restaurant used to be located. Chris agreed, and the first Face to Face exhibit took place on May 5, 6 and 7, 2017.

Cook recalls the opening of the exhibit being so packed that there was barely enough space to move. During the Face to Face exhibit, Chris sold five of the portraits. He did a silent auction for one of his paintings of Johnny Cash and gave the proceeds to the Madison-Morgan Boys & Girls Club.

After the show, Chris was approached by a number of different people asking him to paint various famous people. In 2018, Cook hosted another Faces exhibit in Augusta. Most recently, 

his paintings were featured in the “Faces in Time” exhibit at Steffen Thomas Museum of Art and during Black History month at the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center and the Morgan County African American Museum. “Every show that I have had, I have sold multiple portraits,” Chris says.

A lot of what inspires Chris’ portraits of musicians is what he listens to. However, some, like his portrait of Aretha Franklin, steam from his deep respect for their artistry. When asked if he plans to continue the series, Chris said yes. He has an endless supply of people, including more recent popular musicians and even a few athletes. “I haven’t even done the Beatles yet,” he says.

Originally from Atlanta, Chris and his wife Robin moved to Madison 16 years ago. His current fine arts studio is located next to their house in a rescued farm building. Considered a Southern artist and an Outsider artist because of being self-taught, Cook is also recognized as a Southern Expressionist painter. According to Chris’ website and the online encyclopedia, “Southern Expressionism is a movement that began in the late 20th century by a group of painters from the American Southeast.”

Southern Expressionist subject matter is typically subjective and either figurative or non-figurative and is almost always inspired by the personal experience of the artist. “As a little kid, I think a lot of little kids draw and color with markers, but I never stopped,” says Chris.

After being awarded a scholarship to study art at Reinhardt College in North Georgia and winning Outstanding Freshman Artist of the Year, he switched his major to commercial art and acquired a love for illustration and advertising design. Most of Chris’s work, like the portrait series, is painted from photography found online. However, he sometimes works en plein air and has recently begun creating three-dimensional pieces.

"In my quest to constantly improve my craft, creating a vision and interpretation of life as I move through it, I shed my skin and allow myself to wander and wonder,” says Chris. “I never rest on my laurels. I explore, turning my back on both successes and failures, to move on, unburdened by, but certainly learning and building on, my past work.”

--This article by Leila Scoggins is in our July/Aug. 2019 issue of Lakelife.