The Weird, Wonderful Bluegrass Art of Tim Lee
by Joshua Heston
“Let me think,” shares Tim Lee, North Carolina artist and mandolin picker. “This project is bluegrass. It is Raleigh. It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do what I love most.” Lee’s answer to one very special question was Yes! thus making him the official artist of Wide Open Bluegrass 2014, the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual convention / festival, now hosted in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina.
Last September, Lee was humble part of the event’s street fair, demonstrating his unique style from beneath a pop-up canvas tent. “A guy who has a design firm in town — and did the posters for last year’s campaign — walked by the booth, walked away, then came back. ‘Hey, do you think I could catch you for next year?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ In January he called back.
“‘I’m looking at your stuff,’ the design firm owner said, ‘And there’s a good chance your work is a perfect fit. Send me a copy of the Mandolin Girl [upper left, Plate 1].’” A month went by and then came the call. “When are you ready to start?”
“I knew the deadline would be tight,” shares Lee. “There were four big pieces to get done.” The artist works full-time with Raleigh’s NewsObserver and also is part of Hey Brothers, a local bluegrass band.
Lee’s work is a provocative combination of surrealist curves, whimsical circus art, pop culture references ranging from The Wizard of Oz to StarWars, all with a dark, back-hills feel and a supernaturally macabre edge. “We really want you to do the artwork,” he was told, “But dial back the weird.”
“You can’t dial the weird all the way back or it won’t be Tim Lee!” laughs Lee. “So I found myself dancing around the whole thing, keeping some room to run with perspective, unusual lighting, but then pulling myself back to keep from scaring the kids.
“What I’m doing is not corporate looking. We want people to have a connection with the artwork. To see something totally different. To feel something. To get their own story in their heads about what the World of Bluegrass means to them. That is what makes it really different.”
“I can’t just draw a skull with a guitar!”
“In the Bluegrass Ramble, the band is getting off their old bus [the Bluegrass Express, no less!], going to their venue at night. There in the window, the shadowed silhouettes of another band is on stage. There is the older fiddle guy, the banjo-playing woman, the young guitar player, the bass fiddle is strapped on top.
“I'm trying to stay nostalgic but touch all bases on age. I think that’s a big part of bluegrass. You have the history but you have the new people — kids coming in who are very young. It is this whole mix.”
An iconic mascot, a squirrel with a banjo on his back, is also a part of each completed piece. “We wanted to have something — a character — that could be placed on lots of different things and serve as an emblem for the festival.”
In another piece, a simple black-on-orange / orange-on-white motif combines with the irregular lines of coon dog and banjo-totin’ mountain man. Screen print patterns resonate in an oddly shaped moon and pine tree silhouettes. Ole Rocky Top is artwork that insults, then resonates, then attracts. It is powerful in its simplicity.
Colors resound, the orange a fundamental color of pop culture advertisements in the 1970s. Strangely, the gutsy color also brings to mind the setting Appalachian sun, the classic Pontiac Firebird emblem and even the unsettling threat of Deliverance.
“We talk about the basic concept, then I do some roughs,” says Lee. “We make comments, then the roughs are sent to the committee.
“The Streetfest art is a tough one. There are a lot of figures. A lot of people. It is a crowd scene with full bands on stage. The capitol building is centered at the end Fayetteville Street. There is a lot of diversity.” This time the squirrel mascot can be seen sporting a feather-plumed corsair hat — a clever nod to Sir Walter Raleigh, the city’s namesake. The four music stages amidst a throng of festival-goers denotes the open-air concert that fills the downtown streets of Raleigh during Wide Open Bluegrass.
Fiddlehead, with flames and a cartoon-yet-demonic face against a fiddle faceboard, creates an eerie, provocative piece. The f-holes frame the grimacing, green-gray visage.
“Bluegrass sounds happy but a lot of the songs are really dark,” muses Lee. “Going to prison, the hard life, folklore, mystical themes. It is not as dark as New Orleans but that side is there. The fun but slightly dark stuff people like.”
“Wide Open Bluegrass concepts are pretty simple but [the execution of the artwork pieces] are not. In addition to the people, the faces, the crowds, each has to have the PNC Building [a top event sponsor], Raleigh landmarks, the Shimmer Wall of the Convention Center.
“The main stage piece is basically a performance shot of a bluegrass band and I am developing each of the characters.” Be sure to check out the squirrel (lower left, now playing his banjo), the four irregular patches of purple to draw in the eye, and the oak tree shimmer wall. City regulars will notice, amidst the swirling lines and stylized colors, an impressive attention to accuracy. It is downtown Raleigh yet within a dream.
In Devil’s Dream, the explosive, evocative power of Lee’s art confronts the viewer with unbridled passion. “...[T]he devil went down to Georgia, he was looking for a soul to steal...” goes the old Charlie Daniels tune. For long generations, the fiddle was associated with the underworld. Daniels’ 1979 hit merely brought the old stories to modern attention. Visually Lee’s piece does the same.
“The devil jumped up on a hickory stump and said, ‘Boy, let me tell you what!’” Here, fanciful flames encircle the goat / bug-like devil. Smoke billows in clouds while dark things of the underworld peer out — from tree crevices, even from the tree bark itself.
“I’ll bet a fiddle of gold against your soul that says I’m better than you!” Evil eyes stare, unblinking, in the darkness. A light in the window offers no comfort but a terrified rabbit (lower left) provides a touch of humor, a reminder that this is all folklore and nothing but a song.
In times past, it was the storyteller’s job to paint pictures with words, allowing the imagination to run wild in the untamed dark or beneath the light of an yellowing tallow candle. Today’s rampant media indundates us with imagery and yet now rarely an artist grasps those things most elemental — our folklore, our hungry imagination, our fears, our humor — weaving all into a tapestry to inspire rather than dull our very souls.
And that is the power of the weird, wonderful bluegrass art of Tim Lee.
September 24, 2014