Renaissance man: Scott Avett is equally comfortable holding banjo or paintbrush
By Sarah Hall
On July 6, in a letter beginning “To our dearest fans,” The Avett Brothers announced on their Web site that they had signed with American/Columbia Records, and that the legendary Rick Rubin would be producing their next album, taking their signature blend of folk-punk-bluegrass to an even wider audience.
This announcement came as no surprise to the Concord-based band’s fans, who have been watching the Avett star steadily rising and shining progressively brighter. Siblings Scott and Seth, along with bassist Bob Crawford, sold out Charlotte’s capacious Belk Theater last New Year’s Eve, capping off a year that included an appearance on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” two American Music Association awards, and top place on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart for their album “Emotionalism.”
None of this would have happened if Scott Avett had followed his art professor’s advice.
Avett was pursuing a degree in radio broadcasting at East Carolina University and minoring in art, but he ended up with both a bachelor’s degree in communications and a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting. It was his art instructor and mentor, Leland Wallin, who had kept him in college. He urged Avett to continue on to graduate school for more art study with the eventual goal of going to New York as a professional artist.
This would mean quitting his band, of course.
Avett did apply for graduate studies, but the siren call of music was too strong to overcome. He turned his back on graduate school, but he didn’t trade his paintbrush in for a banjo. He has managed to continue painting ó not in spite of, but in harmony with, a career in music.
Avett’s artistic ability was evident when he was a student at Mount Pleasant Middle School. Lin Barnhardt, currently visual arts director for the Cabarrus Arts Council, taught art for 17 years at Mount Pleasant, and had Scott and his equally-talented younger brother Seth as students.
Barnhardt says of Scott, “Even at that age I could tell he had an innate ability and intensity. He stood out for being able to take a project to the next level and for attention to detail. And it didn’t take much to motivate him.”
Students could take art more than one year, and Barnhardt looked forward to having Scott as a student again in eighth grade. So he was surprised and disappointed when the young artist signed up not for art class but for chorus the following year.
Years later, in 2002, Barnhardt attended the opening of the Avett’s art gallery in downtown Concord, right after Seth graduated from UNC-Charlotte.
“I should have bought a painting that night,” Barnhardt says with a laugh.
Had people known that the Avett brothers would become, well, “The Avett Brothers,” sales probably would have been better.
According to Scott, “nobody came in there” during the five months the gallery was open. But that suited him just fine. He didn’t want anyone to come in. He was using the time to paint, and with few customers to disturb him, it turned out to be a prolifically creative period.
He doesn’t speak of his current grueling tour schedule as an obstacle to painting. Instead he looks for inspiration in his travels.
“There’s a lot of down time on the road,” he says. “While we’re traveling, I’ll get myself excited about a project by reading, networking, visiting museums and galleries. It doesn’t matter that I can’t paint while I’m traveling because making plans for the next step is just as important as the step itself. It’s the same way with writing music.
“I’ve gotten over feeling guilty about not producing. It’s counter-productive. I can get eaten up if I let guilt take over. I also maintain a lot of interaction with family and other people that keeps me on the shore.
“The more well-paced I stay, the longer my production will be.
“I used to feel I had to jump right out of bed, hurry to get things done. Now I take time to think. When I do get in the studio, the time is more potent, more productive, and because of the limitations, more valuable. I can make two hours very useful.”
New York’s Envoy Gallery will present an exhibit of Scott Avett’s paintings July 31 through Aug. 29, in a joint exhibit with Crackerfarm, the husband-and-wife photographic arts duo of Mike Beyer and Lindsay Rome.
The Avett Brothers have been frequent subjects in the work of Crackerfarm, which has documented the band’s career with still photography and video.
They met the Avetts when they were hired to do a photo shoot. Hearing the brothers for the first time, the couple was totally enamored by the Avetts and their performance.
Rome and Beyer say the Avetts are “like family” to them now. Traveling often with the band, they are producing a documentary with hopes of timing its completion to coincide with the release of the Avett Brothers’ full-length album with their new American/Columbia label.The Envoy Gallery describes Crackerfarm’s work as “traditional imagery fused with the aggressiveness of punk rock.” Their upcoming exhibit focuses on Scott Avett as a subject, portraying their friendship in what the gallery calls “a unique chronicle of this rapport.”
Avett writes songs that are unabashedly autobiographical, and his visual art reveals much about him as well, representing “states or emotions in his life.”
In his portraits, Avett introduces characters which later become subjects in events shown in his multiple figure paintings. So his characters, like “The Hypochondriac” or “The Exhibitionist,” will become involved in stories that unfold on future canvases.
This narrative approach began with “The Underdog,” a painting reminiscent of David and Goliath, and has continued with such works as “The Imposter Set Sail at The Burial of Viejo de Saco” and “Struggle at The Burial of Viejode Saco.”
Avett is in no hurry to let these characters work their way through their situations. Barely into his 30s, Avett says he will probably be in his 50s or 60s before his plan is complete. He adds that the meaning of the paintings will not be readily apparent to most people, who will “make up their own story,” which Avett welcomes people to do.
He compares this to his songs, which have definite context, but listeners interpret the meanings differently than what he intended.
He uses as an example the song, “Murder in the City,” which begins “if I get murdered in the city, don’t go revengin’ in my name.” On the surface the song seems to be a testament about the Avett brothers’ relationship with each other, their parents, and sister. Scott says it is actually a letter he wrote to his wife. He says because of his “paranoia” he has been known to leave notes with instructions in case of his death, such as a directive to Seth to finish a particular song for him.
“Murder in the City” is one of the songs on the newest Avett Brothers CD, “The Second Gleam,” an EP being released this week. This six-song album will help satiate their fans’ appetites while they await the full-length album currently under production.
While the Avetts are famous for their joyfully aggressive, string-breaking stage shows and punk-like approach to folk music, this CD, like the first Gleam, reveals the brothers as poets in brilliantly simple and gorgeously evocative arrangements.
The Avett Brothers haven’t had a headlining show in North Carolina all year, but they will finally be performing in their own state again this Saturday, at Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary.
Now that the brothers are recording in Los Angeles and performing all over, will they turn their backs on their Concord roots?
In a song on their “Emotionalism” album, they sing “Disappear from your hometown, go and find the people that you know,” but the brothers aren’t following that advice. Scott says that anytime they have more than a couple of free days in their touring schedule, they hop on a plane for a trip home.
Even though they have signed with the Columbia label, Concord’s Dolph Ramseur will continue as their manager.
Scott claims he’s not cosmopolitan yet. “New York City still impresses me,” he says.
Here’s betting when his exhibit opens at the Envoy Gallery, New York City will be equally impressed with Scott Avett.
You can view more of Scott Avett paintings at www.scottavett.com.
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