Kool Kat of the Week: God May Be Away on Business But Artist Chris Hamer is Tempted by Tom Waits

BIG IN JAPAN, a solo art exhibition by Chris Hamer of works inspired by Tom Waits. Octane Coffee. April 1-30. Opening reception featuring special guests Blast-Off Burlesque, Fri. April 1, 7-10 PM.

The first time I met Chris Hamer was at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Monster Bash one summer at the Starlight Drive-In. As usual, the heat was broiling, but Hamer’s tent afforded not just welcome shelter from the heat but a jaw-dropping assortment of those ugly kitschy landscapes that are usually condemned to thrift stores and yard sales. Except looming by that tree, standing next to Jesus or rising out of the lake was a monster with one big bug-eye. Had I discovered Godzilla Americana?

Most of Hamer’s creatures, however, aren’t menacing but surprisingly friendly-looking, even shy and a bit gangly like they’re more nervous about meeting humans than you should be about them. In other words, the grinning red-bearded artist in a baseball cap not only has a comic sensibility and a talent for recycling found objects into something unexpected, but no worries about his art being dubbed “low brow” and even gloriously geeky. Even “Urbnpop,” the handle for his studio/company, sounds just right. Soon I realized I was running into him at all my favorite urban pop-culture hangouts—artist festival markets, H.C. Warner’s Alcove Gallery, Atlanta Rollergirls matches, comics conventions and even in Orlando at the Spooky Empire horror con.

All of that raises no doubt that Hamer is one quintessential Kool Kat. But when he announced that he was doing a solo art show dedicated to Tom Waits called BIG IN JAPAN at Octane Coffee in west Midtown, with Blast-Off Burlesque performing at the opening party on April Fools Day, it was a no-brainer that ATLRetro had to unearth the missing link between the pop-culture monsters and one of America’s more enigmatic gravelly-voiced rock singer-songwriters. 

ATLRetro: On your Urbnpop Website, you have this enticing quote: “Tom Waits started to influence my art over 10 years ago. I blame him for all the quirky weirdos that inhabit my brain.” What about Waits’ music made him such a muse to you?

Chris Hamer: It was a slow introduction. I found myself captivated by his lyrics. Every line to me was a new visual, and the more and more I listened to the songs, I found myself seeing these characters. and the more entranced I was with his storytelling. So a few years back, I was doodling something, and I remember saying to myself, “that looks like someone you might find in a Tom Waits song.” Then it started to click in my head that it probably was—or at least my version of it.

Over the last year or so, I have branched out from monsters to these whimsical, wonky-eye people—this is where I blame him the most. [Waits’] ORPHANS [box] set had come out, and I heard the name “Blackjack Ruby” from the song “Bottom of the World,” and I sat out to draw Mr. Ruby. Then it was a steady process of new characters. Last year, when I started working on this show, I listened to a lot of Tom Waits music, and I noticed that I was drawing more and more people on top of all the monsters. I knew that Tom Waits had planted the seeds of what was to come.

What was the first Waits song you heard? Was it a sudden epiphany or did his influence on your work grow gradually?

“Tom Traubert’s Blues” off SMALL CHANGE is one of the first songs I remember. I’m sure I’d heard others before, but this one impacted me a lot. I felt so sad for this guy, who was in search for some human interaction. I felt that this guy was just broken, and that if he had just one more night with a person, he would be whole again. I still approach this song that way. I’m sure that if you asked Mr. Waits or any other fan, they would have a different view of the song, and that is fine, but that is what I saw out of it. This was part of the introduction and the part where the lyrics started to stick in my head and visuals were becoming clear.

It just did not seem right [until now]. I was still searching for something. I have only been a full-time artist [for] four years. Before that I did odd jobs and attempted to do art but had this constant fear [that] I could not do it [for a living]. So it’s all about timing. Every year since the beginning of these last few years, I have done a solo art show. The first one, as good as I can feel about it looking back, was me figuring out my way and not having a clue what I wanted to do—the themes of the art was all over the place. Then last year’s show was starting to make the shows about me, what I like in art, the themes that I’m trying to capture in my art and the stories I wanted to tell. This year, I’m still trying to continue with that, but I’m using Tom Waits as my conduit.

Am I correct that each piece of artwork on display will be inspired by a Waits song? How did you pick the playlist?

Yes, every piece is a different Tom Waits Song. That was the challenge. Like I said, when I sat down to work on this show, I listened to a lot of Tom Waits music. When I would hear a song, I would see how many ideas came to me immediately, then I would file that song away in my brain. Then I went to his Website and read all the lyrics for the songs I picked to see if I just hear[d] a lyric that was not in the song, because sometimes when you’re in the car singing along, I know I have a tendency to improvise words. (laughs) So if things all lined up and I still felt that I could do the song justice with my art, that song went on a list. After a few months of narrowing down, I had my list. Then I just had to make sure I could bring them to life. If I could, they made it to the final rounds and became a piece of art!

Don’t want to destroy all the surprises but pick one of your favorite songs from that playlist. Why do you dig it, and can you describe the creative process from song to finished piece?

“God’s Away on Business” is the song we will talk about for this question. The second to last verse of the song goes like this:

“Goddamn there’s always such a big temptation
To be good, To be good
There’s always free cheddar in a mousetrap, baby
It’s a deal, it’s a deal
God’s away, God’s away, God’s away
On Business. Business.”

I see this as the struggle to be your own person, to approach the world with this “I’m who I am,” [attitude]. And if I want to be this way, I need to watch out for these temptations that might hold me back or derail me from my journey. This song also hit home with me in the sense that I’m always away on business because I travel across the US doing comic/horror conventions and art shows. So I approached this song as if I was a traveling saleman living out of a suitcase. It will make more sense when you see the piece. Then I asked my wife, who went to Bible college, to help me find a verse from the Bible that would fit well with the song. So it was not only a song I felt strong about, but in a small way, I got to have her collaborate a bit with me, which is very special for me.

Chris Hamer at Wizard World Miami, 2011.

A lot of your works start with found art such as old thrift store paintings, sometimes quite kitschy, and often involve monsters. Is that true also for this show and if yes, did you go shopping especially for this show or how did you pick the “base” pieces?

This show was a bit how I do my thrift store pieces, but I did the shopping at antique stores instead. I would travel around to different stores with a song in mind, walk around, do a lot of staring at stuff, and buy it [if I had] the feeling that I could make it work. When you listen to Tom Waits, or even see a photo of him, there is this nostalgic, romantic quality to him. I feel that with his music, he does not fit into this new polished sound that is on the radio or popular with a wide audience. It’s almost like his fans are antiques or vintage themselves. By no means am I calling them old, but you just do not hear people talking about him as much as you do a mainstream band or singer. I did not want to just simply make a wooden box or buy some canvas for the art, I wanted to take the vintage old soul approach with the art. So each piece has some sort of lost antique or discarded feel to it. One piece that will stand out the most in the show is for the song “Old 55.” I used an original pre-‘50s Ford truck door for my canvas to paint on. It’s all rusty and looks like time forgot all about it. I love it.

Like many of your shows and some of the best pop-art shows in Atlanta, there will also be a performance element at your opening reception, including Blast-Off Burlesque. How will their acts complement the show?

I think that just going to look at art is fine, but if you can add an element to the art show that would bring a new crowd to see it, then why not? I have referenced the movie HAPPY GILMORE to the way I approach art shows, with how he was a golfer and golf is a quiet sport, but he does much better at it when it is a party and the crowds are not the typical crowd. I like to make these shows more than a bunch of folks sitting around sipping drinks. I want people to interact with me and each other. I want noise and commotion.

With Blast-Off Burlesque, I feel what they do with the vaudeville approach to their shows is a perfect match with what Tom Waits music is all about. To be honest, they were the first folks I reached out to for this show, and I was on pins and needles waiting for them to agree to be part of the show. I was jumping around and talking about it like a schoolboy crush to my wife when they said “yes”!

The show runs through April 30. Are there any other special events planned at Octane?

For me, just this one. After that, I’m sure the folks at Octane will have tons of cool things happening. It’s best to check their Website: www.octanecoffee.com

What question should I have asked you about Waits, this show and/or your work that I didn’t think of? And what’s the answer?

That is the hardest question out of all of these. I think one would be “Do you think Tom Waits would approve of the art?” My answer would be “ask me after the show!!”

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