Truth be told, George Hunt is tired of the Year of the Blues tour. The Memphis-based artist, who created new paintings for the touring exhibit this year, is returning to Memphis with an exhibit of new work opening Friday at D'Edge Art & Unique Treasures on South Main.
While the images may be new, the colorful and expressive style that has made Hunt an artistic mainstay will still be in evidence. "The show is about what I consider to be spirits or vapors -- not so much musical pieces but pieces that give off the spirit of the blues," says Hunt. "I just wanted to stand back and get a fresh perspective -- my perspective -- on how I got started in this thing in the first place."
Hunt's "in the first place" is a young boy in Louisiana whose first recollection of the blues came from the tunes off an aunt's old phonograph. Although he could never play an instrument or sing, Hunt fell in love with the sound. He followed artists like Little Junior Parker and Sonny Boy Williamson throughout the blues circuit of juke joints, clubs, and outdoor "concerts" along the blues highway in Mississippi, Memphis, and Arkansas. His experiences were enhanced by watching the musicians' after-hours activities, like gambling, drinking, and storytelling.
Still, Hunt didn't paint images based on his experiences until years later, opting instead to create traditional works as taught by his college professors. "These kinds of blues images were taboo in the black community," he says. "You were supposed to create images that would uplift in a way, like mother-and-child pieces. I did those for a long time before I started coming to these images in the back of my mind which had been with me since childhood."
Since making the transition to blues art, Hunt has more than made up for lost time. In the almost two decades he has been painting these pieces, he has managed to be a featured artist in local galleries on Beale Street and South Main, poster artist for Memphis in May and other music festivals, as well as displaying pieces throughout the country, including the White House.
He credits his start to his work as a courtesy-car driver. At the requests of riders, Hunt began drawing and painting musicians like B.B. King, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash. "I didn't consider myself a realist, so I would distort my images and use color to convey emotions. I found out that a lot of people liked what I was doing," he says. "But not so much in the African-American community. Even my mom still looked at my work as being symbols of oppression or stereotypes that they were trying to get away from."
According to Hunt, it was not until the mid-1980s, when a reawakening of African-American art and blues music occurred, that his work received acclaim. Years of work culminated in his being named the featured artist in the U.S. Senate's designated "Year of the Blues." His title piece, High Cotton Tour, represents the never-ending cycle of the music form. Included in the cycle, Hunt says, is an evolution of sound and an expansion of the blues to other cultures. "Musicians have come a long way, but we've still got the blues. It's about a means of improvising," he says. "The blues is about being down, but, hey, I'm not going to be down always. The sun's going to shine in my back door some day."
With all of the accolades bestowed on Hunt in recent years, he still considers his work to be folk art, meaning "he hopes folk buy it." Of the D'Edge show, Hunt says some of the works will be of easily recognizable blues individuals, while others will deal with images not usually associated with the music. He doesn't expect to complete the images until days before hanging the show. The paintings, some done on rough boards and without frames, are symbolic of the "making-do" spirit of the blues.
"I'd like to say that I'm putting these together for the audience. I'm 'playing' these. I'm going to play these blues and ain't nobody going to play them like me. These 15 to 20 'songs' are going to be my songs." n
George Hunt's "Blues Spirits" opens with a reception Friday, October 24th, 6-9 p.m., with music by Reba Russell and others. The show runs until November 25th at D'Edge Art & Unique Treasures.