Hanging alongside a 17th-century painting in the Old Masters section at The North Carolina Museum of Art is “Julianne in Vain,” a striking chiaroscuro portrait North Carolina artist Scott Avett painted in 2009. The anachronistic placement is a recognition of the deep influence artists like Caravaggio have had on his work. But fans of Avett’s music will instantly recognize the painting as the cover art for “I and Love and You,” the 2009 Rick Rubin-produced album that was the major label debut for his famed alt-folk band The Avett Brothers. Before becoming the internationally known musician he is today, Avett earned a BFA from East Carolina University and opened his own gallery with plans to pursue a career in the visual arts — oil painting, screen printing and block printing. Competing for his time and attention along the way was the band he and his brother Seth co-founded around the turn of the millennium, and in 2004 Avett decided to defer his acceptance into an MFA program at the University of Florida so that he could dedicate himself to touring and recording with The Avett Brothers.
As the band and its fan base grew, so did Avett’s painting practice, albeit more quietly. Yet it wasn’t entirely a secret. In addition to paintings that became album covers, in 2012 he was part of a pop-up exhibition in an abandoned apartment in Charlotte, NC and quickly sold most of his medium-sized work. The show, though successful, left him feeling unsettled. The realization that a body of work it had taken him a decade to build could be gone in a single weekend made him vow to do it differently next time. He wanted to go big — bigger paintings, bigger venue and a longer exhibition — and was happy to wait for the right opportunity to make it happen.
“I usually have a ton of projects going on at once. It’s something that’s easy to see as a problem. But every time I’ve addressed it as a dysfunction, I realized that I also thrive off of it and I can use it.”
In 2019 Avett’s vision came to life in the vibrant eight- and nine-foot paintings that dominated his first solo exhibition, I N V I S I B L E, at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. In these portraits of the artist, his wife and their three young children, an unvarnished truthfulness shines through, and the impact of intimate moments captured on a large scale speaks to the beauty Avett sees in the everyday-ness of life. Unflinching and personal, it’s the same thread of vulnerability that animates his lyrics and makes his music both captivating and relatable. Because he’s best known for being part of a grammy-nominated band that plays to stadiums packed with fans, it sounds strange to hear Avett say that he doesn’t really think of himself as a musician. “I play music, but I’m not a natural musician. I really have to work at it,” he explains. “I'm much more naturally a visual artist. Even when I’m writing, I’m thinking visually, and I feel like everything trickles down from that.”
The farmhouse studio behind his home in Concord, NC is set up to make the most of any serendipitous trickling in either direction. The first floor is dedicated to painting and printmaking, a vaulted space with lots of natural light and paint-splattered plywood floors. A narrow staircase leads to a music studio/loft — outfitted with recording equipment, a piano and two guitars — that has a little balcony overlooking the art studio, giving Avett a bird’s-eye of his own colorful creative process.
Say you’re going through something difficult or you’re celebrating something, like maybe the birth of a child. If you want to express yourself, would you sit down in front of a canvas or would you start to write a song?
“It’s a song for sure. Music is one of my ways to pray and meditate. For paintings, that stuff processes a little later. I might shoot a picture or something in a moment like that, and it might make its way to a painting. But I’m not going to trip over my feet to get to the canvas for it.”
Has living through the pandemic over the past year changed your approach to your music or your art?
“I’ve had to address my obsession with completing things and achieving everything that needs to be achieved in a day. By lowering that expectation, I’ve found that the work is more harmonious with my life and with my soul. It used to be: ’Hurry up and create,’ or “Hurry up and make something great.’ Now it’s more about realizing that creation is in relationship with my life and I just have to let the work reflect that.”
You and Seth are both super successful in your creative careers. Do you think the way you grew up set you up for that in some way?
“It was the 80s and 90s. We grew up on a farm — 65 acres at the end of a gravel road. We had livestock and grew vegetables. I was always so jealous of my suburban friends who had MTV. We never even had cable. But now I’m so grateful because we created our own things. We had to entertain ourselves, so we turned to music and drawing.”
Do you consider yourself a collector? Any artists you’d like to mention?
“I wouldn’t say I’m really a collector. My collecting has been just a handful of friends [whose art] I've collected or been given. They’re very precious to me. I have pieces from my friend Jeremy Okai Davis and a print from Michael Ehlbeck, who was one of my printmaking professors. I have a Danny Clinch photograph and photographs by Mike Beyer from Crackerfarm.”