New York, NY | Edenton, NC
Picture this. You’re a young artist living in New York City in the early 90s. You’ve lived at the Chelsea hotel, worked as an assistant to painter and sculptor Richard Artschwager, and now you’re partnering with another artist to create genre-blending work combining installation, found objects and pop art. The work is grabbing a lot of attention from all the right people, and your star is rising in the New York art scene. Next, arguably the most established gallery ever offers you an exhibition. You expect to pull it off but push the envelope too far (for 1992), and the show is misunderstood and panned by the critics. It’s brutal, and you vow to never make art or walk into a gallery ever again. That was Jack Early’s story.
But not long after the North Carolina native closed that door, another one opened up, this time in the form of melodic whispers he began hearing as he walked the city pavement. A guy who plays no instruments and cannot read music, all he could do was write lyrics for the persistent melodies that kept forming in his head. With the help of some musician friends, Early slowly started laying down tracks for what would eventually become his catalog of more than 50 songs, including one that became a hit on the radio and was later used on TV and in a film. He also wrote a full fledged musical called Rainbow based on an original fairytale he’d written and illustrated, a fairytale that would lead to a comeback exhibition for the artist.
“I put art out of my mind, I guess. But you think you lose everything and all of a sudden something else comes along — even better, with a little luck. So that’s when I found out I could write music, and ultimately my music brought me back to making art.”
At a gallery in Greece in 2007, Early was invited to make an installation of his fairytale illustrations, which he displayed alongside Victrola-like podiums that played colorful vinyl records of the songs from Rainbow. A big collector bought the whole room, and Early’s career as an artist entered a new phase — one where he uses visual and auditory elements to compose bitter sweet remembrances of his past. Bright images of popsicles, cereal, Playgirl-like pin-ups and toy soldiers holding hands appear in his subsequent work exploring childhood memories, where ordinary things and events can leave long-lasting impressions.
“Since I started making art, basically what I’ve been trying to do is recreate the bedroom I grew up in when I was a kid,” Early explains. “I was really proud of my bedroom. My mom let me choose the wallpaper, the colors, the posters. It was just a kid’s room, but it was carefully curated. And I would lie in bed thinking about what I could do next.” Today, having recently purchased a house back home in North Carolina where he now lives with his husband Geoff, Early is on the hunt for the perfect studio space, and still dreaming up what’s next.
Artsuite is currently exhibiting Early’s prints of popsicles and paintings of colorful Lucky Charms marshmallows — Magical Surprises — at the Hudson.
Do you see art as a way to recapture parts of your childhood?
“I don’t feel I [purposefully] try to make work about my childhood. But I do think I’m not much different right now than I was when I was 12, or maybe 7. I think I walk around and mow the grass having the same old thoughts since then up in my head, [humming the same songs]. And the Popsicle paintings I made are not about a pop reference or any big icon either. I think they are about me remembering how I used to think about the Popsicle colors—how each particular color made me feel. I think I equate them with other things that are important to me.”
You stopped making art in 1993. How did you come back to it?
"I had a little show in Greece called “Jack Early Six Songs” in 2007. Nobody really knew about it here, but I thought of it as my comeback show. I had written a musical, a fairy tale, and I’d written it all in song. I was making drawings of the fairy tale, too. A Greek friend of mine insisted on showing the drawings [at a gallery in Greece] and he wanted to play some of the music to go along with them. He mounted a little show of it in a room of its own, and it went over well. This big collector bought the whole room.”
Didn’t you write a song that made it to the radio or TV?
“Yes. ‘It Don’t Rain In Beverly Hills.’ Beverly Hills 90210 picked it up, and it became the song of Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick’s silent screen film test, for a project for the Warhol museum. So it was recorded by a band called Dean & Britta, a single on their album “13 Most Beautiful.” And of course, they made it a hit.”