You can get stuck in a trap of copying yourself, giving your audience what you think they want to see. You do something and there’s something divine in it and you’re rewarded for it, so you try to copy that. But you can’t do that. You have to continuously push. That’s why there are certain eras in my work. I start getting comfortable with a particular thing, and then it’s painting for painting’s sake and not actual expression
Tim Hussey is speaking to a group of fifteen at the Cassique Clubhouse on a breezy fall day. He is thoughtful, trying to articulate the very heart of his work, his process. Hussey is the inaugural Artist-in-Residence on Kiawah and sets the standard high.
When I break new ground people don’t always get it at first. But those are often my favorite pieces—the ones that were the beginning of something new that aren’t necessarily crowd pleasers.
A Charleston native, Hussey came up with the likes of renowned artists Shepard Fairey and Jill Hooper, and he attended the Rhode Island School of Design and Parsons Paris. He has lived in New York, Los Angeles, Santa Fe, Paris, and Knoxville. He’s the first to say that his deep expression of the unconscious has been a long time in the making. After his classical training, Hussey spent fifteen years as an illustrator for Rolling Stone, GQ, and The New York Times, to name a few, and was awarded one of the “Top 20 Illustrations of the Year” by the prestigious American Illustration. He was known in the industry as a painterly illustrator, taking strong liberties with metaphor and line. His depictions are layered and vibrant, heavy with symbolism.
My illustrations had a frenetic, gritty, and obsessively overworked style—I wanted to go further into the abstract, but I had to stick with the story I was hired for…and that was frustrating.
It was in New York that Hussey got a taste of what it meant to live as a working artist.
His first job was painting sets live on air for MTV. Then he worked in the magazine world for nearly twenty years, art directing and designing as well as illustrating. It was the day job that fed his art habit.
Illustration couldn’t fulfill me—I had to survive, you know—so I played with a friend’s computer at night to learn how to design magazines.
It was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that he really began to paint. His early works still show the effects of a long and successful career in illustration. There are body parts and smiles, half obscured by layers of paint and archival material.
It took a while to shake off the need to still “illustrate” something in my first few years of painting. It was a gradual deconstruction to the abstract, filled with a lot of doubt.
But now, at forty-five, looking back at different eras of his fine art career, he’s wistful about the evolution. He doesn’t overly identify with past work. Sometimes I have to look back at my whole body of work to remember who I am as an artist. I can get so deep into a painting that I forget where I came from and where I was trying to go. But for Hussey, that’s where the truth lies. There’s nothing cerebral about his process, but rather it is a chess game between emotion and intuition. Each painting is a new world unto itself, abstract expressions of the unconscious.
Hussey and his wife, Elise, a budding painter, recently moved back to Charleston from a three-year stint in Los Angeles. They are renovating their brownstone on Bull Street and a new studio on upper King Street, where they can both work. Charleston feels like home to the couple; it’s where they met and spent the first years of their marriage.
Elise and I could have stayed in LA forever—it suited us in so many ways. But we have a lot of family here. Ultimately we’ll split our time between both coasts.
They’re settling into Charleston again, and figuring out what works. I find that I have to leave the banal day-to-day stuff behind when I’m in the studio and go into another realm. If I’ve had too much coffee or I’m overexcited, I risk making a wrong move, or worse, it reduces me to nervous non-action. If I’m sleepy or hungry, I just stare at the painting, thinking of all the brilliant next moves but not feeling propelled to execute them. It’s a fine line.
Hussey pulls a canvas from an easel across the room, still tacky from painting that morning. It’s the piece he’ll donate to the Island at the end of the weekend. He explains the layers, the evolution. Yesterday this was predominantly yellow, a completely different painting really. I thought it was done. I thought, Great! Now I can just relax and enjoy the weekend! He gestures at a small section of yellow revealed from behind a wash of moody gray and white. But of course, in the middle of the night I wake up and know it actually isn’t finished if I don’t feel it, and then more layers are added. You have to push yourself, you know? Hussey oftentimes has several layers of paintings hiding behind the final. Sometimes it’s an aggressive, spontaneous race to completion, and he’ll finish a piece in a day. But mostly it’s a long, deliberate process—weeks, maybe months, with a painting.
Hussey is sensitive and quirky, and the audience loves him. The way he describes his process is open and self-deprecating. As a young painter I used to think about what I could do to be noticed, to make a loud statement. Like I could nail a chair to a wall and put a snowball on it! But over time I’ve become more and more grounded in my process. He looks over at Elise. You know, it’s important for me to have life, to have a home and my wife and this lifestyle. I have to just be me. Because that’s the art.
The next Kiawah Artist-in-Residence seminar and reception will take place in January 2016. Tim Hussey’s work can be found at husseyart.com.