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Painting with pixels

When Kevin Slattery invites pop-culture icons into his art, they come alive for him

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Kevin Slattery of Northfield

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Kevin Slattery of Northfield

  • Recorder/Paul Franz

    Recorder/Paul Franz

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Kevin Slattery of Northfield

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Kevin Slattery of Northfield

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Kevin Slattery of Northfield
  • Recorder/Paul Franz
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Kevin Slattery of Northfield

A series of happy accidents and well-timed opportunities allowed a local man to go from janitor to graphic artist nearly overnight.

After graduating from art school in 1975, Kevin Slattery was sweeping up floors and taking out trash part time for a couple Boston area employers, dreaming of the day he could make a living with his art.

“I was working as a janitor at a nursing home and they’d let me paint on the walls — dancing food in the cafeteria, things like that,” said Slattery.

At the time, that was the extent of his post-art-school career.

“I went off to art school in Boston at the age of 17,” said Slattery. “I got a degree in fine arts, but I really wasn’t trained well enough to find work.”

His dream of a career in the arts seemed destined to remain out of reach. Turns out it wasn’t.

“I had a friend who was a mechanical technical drawing illustrator for Orion Research Inc. in Cambridge,” said Slattery. “Their marketing director wanted to do a series of cartoon ads and asked him if he could do it.”

“I can’t, but the guy who just emptied your wastebasket can,” his friend replied. This might seem like a scene from a movie. If so, call it a case of life imitating art.

“I got hired for the ad campaign and started to learn the production process,” Slattery said.

That was the late 1970s, before computers did the dirty work. Back then, “cut” and “paste” were much more literal terms.

Thus began Slattery’s career as a freelance graphic designer.

Soon, he was hired to put together a training manual for a computer system built for electrode manufacturers. “(Freelancing) led to an education in the graphic arts that I didn’t get in school,” he said. “It opened the doorway.”

So, he drew for work, and he drew for fun.

“Back then, as long as the rent was paid and the heat was on, I could come home and just draw,” he said. Slattery likened this lifestyle to his love of playing in low-paying bar bands.

“If I made enough out playing to buy some new guitar strings, it was enough.”

A few years later, married and with a baby on the way, Slattery knew he had to find gainful, full-time employment.

“In 1981, I got a job at Channing L. Bete, in South Deerfield,” he said. “That’s been the best education I’ve received.”

The company, founded in 1936, was much smaller when Slattery started than it is today. At first an advertising agency, it’s now a multi-million dollar publishing company. As it’s grown, it’s embraced state-of-the-art technology. Slattery was able to put down his scissors and glue and pick up a mouse.

“Apple Macintosh computers were introduced to the company in 1985,” said Slattery, who is now associate art director there. “The computer and its relative software have made the publishing industry a whole new ball game.”

While publishing software is always being replaced with something new, Slattery said Adobe Photoshop, a photo editing favorite and the industry standard, remains a constant on his company’s computers.

Slattery said his job has enabled him to grow as an artist and go back to making art for himself, rather than doing whatever’s asked to earn a paycheck.

“When you’re making a living as a freelance artist, you can’t turn down designing people’s business cards, or other paying work that you’re not into. I feel fortunate to have a satisfying day job that allows me to pursue what I like to do.”

While he’s working for himself, Slattery likes to hang out with famous musicians, actors and other pop culture icons.

He regularly invites household names like John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe, Alfred Hitchcock and Jack Kerouac into his home studio. And they accept.

No, Slattery’s not nuts. He knows those former stars are gone from this world, but that doesn’t stop him from getting to know them through his art. In his artistic process, Slattery said his subjects start to speak to him as he begins to draw.

“The subjects of my portraits come alive for me,” he wrote in an artist’s statement. “I may realize I’m in love with Bonnie Raitt and she might allow me to touch her hair to truly look at it. Bob Dylan tells me things about his lyrics he’s never told anyone.”

Combining his love of pop culture with a knack for drawing caricatures and portraits, he finds photos of favorite celebrities, researches their lives or bodies of work and starts drawing.

“Growing up in the 1960s, as a ‘Beatle maniac,’ the whole hero-worship thing became a big part of what I like,” he said.

Another piece of pop culture was equally influential on a young Slattery.

“I was a religious Mad Magazine fan,” he said. Also influential on the growing artist were underground comics “Bijou” and “Zap.”

Though nothing is safe from Mad’s satire, Slattery is a bit kinder to his subjects.

Slattery has brought several of his favorite pop culture icons together in two self-published pieces, while a third focuses on one in particular.

“I thought to myself, ‘What if John Lennon hung out with Edgar Allen Poe?’ Then, I became the director and started giving everyone roles.”

With that premise in mind, he set to work on “Ain’t Gonna Hang no Pixel — an Artist Stops Painting with Paint.” He cast Bob Dylan in the lead, as a character based loosely on Slattery himself.

The book was inspired by Slattery’s decision to put down his pens and colored pencils and begin making his art in the digital world. He designed and published it for last April’s first Paint and Pixel Festival in Northampton, a gathering of illustrators, cartoonists, comic artists and their fans.

So, what does a digital paintbrush look like?

“It’s a combination of media,” said Slattery. You might find him in his studio, feeding hand-drawn pages into his scanner, or uploading digital photos to work on in Photoshop. When it’s time to edit, sometimes he’ll pick up his mouse and click away, other times he’ll print out one of his digital designs and go over it in colored pencils.

Slattery likened his own transition to Dylan’s decision to replace his trademark acoustic guitar with an electric one at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and the controversy that surrounded it.

Rather than Dylan’s booing audience of thousands, Slattery’s character faces a disappointed art framer, one who looks a lot like Emily Dickinson.

The Amherst poet held the starring role in Slattery’s second book, “Emily Comes to my House.”

Drawing Dickinson proved somewhat problematic. There is only one widely accepted photograph of the camera-shy poet as an adult.

But, though her image almost escaped him, Slattery was transfixed.

He was originally asked by a friend to draw a portrait of the poet, but her image didn’t leave him when he sent the finished piece to its new owner.

“I get immersed in my characters and I was fascinated with Emily Dickinson, the person as well as her work,” said Slattery.

Working with that one photo of Dickinson, Slattery drew the poet in his garden, on his back porch, in his kitchen and his room. She knitted, she drank tea, she stuck around for a whole year so he could capture her essence in each season.

The book takes the reader through Slattery’s process. He shows how he took Dickinson’s image and dressed it in an outfit he borrowed from a portrait he’d drawn of Eleanor Roosevelt. On one page, a spring scene outside Slattery’s door turns to fall as the artist goes over the lush green leaves with red and yellow colored pencils — Slattery’s hand and pencil even creep into the frame.

His latest work, “A Place I Don’t Belong,” started as a three-verse song. He reached out to friends who follow his LiveJournal blog. They suggested additional lines and helped him with the meter.

Ten additional verses and several drawings later, Slattery self-published his “graphic poem.”

Fittingly, the star of the book bears a striking similarity to Jack Kerouac, poet pioneer of the beat generation. Our hero meets an actress, who’s biding her time as a waitress while she waits for Hollywood to come calling. The blonde bombshell looks a lot like Marilyn Monroe, but with her beauty comes a wild streak.

The two set off on an adventure that our poet can’t clearly remember the next morning, but won’t soon forget, either.

“A Place I Don’t Belong” was ready in time for Northampton’s second Paint and Pixel Festival.

Slattery said he’s already hard at work on his next book. What’s it about, you ask? “Here’s the ‘elevator answer,’” said Slattery. “‘Frankenstein meets Sister Mary Shelley; a Young Artist Discovers Creativity Aimed at Authority Can Have Monstrous Results.’ It’s an autobiographical fiction of how my creative imagination and artistic skills during my parochial school years paid off, but not without a price.”

You can find “Ain’t Gonna Hang No Pixel,” “Emily Comes to My House,” and “A Place I Don’t Belong” at Northfield Coffee and Books, 105 Main St., which is also exhibiting Slattery’s art through December, maybe longer. For more from the artist, visit his website, www.kslatts.com.

Staff reporter David Rainville has worked at The Recorder since 2011. He covers Bernardston, Leyden, Northfield and Warwick. He can be reached at drainville@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 279.

Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at pfranz@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 Ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.

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