My American Dream: Mystery Train
Inside Sun Studios, 2017 oil on linen 40 × 60 in. | 101.6 × 152.4 cm
Inside Sun Studios, 2017
oil on linen 40 × 60 in. | 101.6 × 152.4 cm

Sun Studios (created and lead by the legendary Sam Phillips) is the magical place where Elvis was first discovered and recorded what many believe to be his most sublime music, along with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins (and where the four of them recorded their “Million Dollar Quartet” session of gospels and traditional music), along with blues and R & B artists such as B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Parker and more, and with Ike Turner on keyboards, the “first Rock and Roll single” “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats.

Phillips began as a DJ, but wanted to bring the music he was hearing in Memphis and the South—mostly black music—to a broader public. Much like Harry Smith, who recorded the American vernacular music that otherwise wouldn’t be heard (that gave way to his Smithsonian Folkways recordings) Phillips was successful in bringing the best of the Memphis sound into the studio to record, and his friend, the rockus DJ Dewey Phillips would broadcast on his famous show music of both black and white musicians to an avid group of listeners, hungry for the subversive sounds of what became Rock n’ Roll.

On a hope and a shoestring, along with his assistant and long-time friend Marion Keisker, Phillips opened his Memphis Recording Service studio in January 1950 at 706 Union Avenue. It was here, in the hand-made, humble studio of acoustic tiles that Elvis first recorded and was discovered, along with so many other greats such as Roy Orbison and rockabilly and country music stars like Charlie Feathers, Ray Harris, Warren Smith and Charlie Rich. Despite the colonialist politics of white performers appropriating the music created by African Americans, mixing this with hillbilly music to help create rock n’ roll (if the black musicians didn’t already do this in the first place!), for me, the studio is a sacred spot, a Bethlehem of culture where the world changed with the work created in this small room.

Sam Phillips had a knack to bring out the best in his performers (which I relate to as a teacher of art) by making them feel comfortable and pushing them to work from their instincts and emotions, in addition to their musical acumen to bring out something more than just notes and words on paper. When hearing the gospel music recorded there, a true spiritual quality comes through that reveals the spirit in all the Sun records–the “special echo” of the room in more ways than one (that echo RCA tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to achieve in their Elvis recordings, post-Sun records). This all permeates through much of the early music, which takes one back into a nostalgic reverie for bygone times come alive.

In painting from photos, especially my own, I try to cull from the picture what moves me about it, much like a method actor or even Elvis would try to draw from music and scripts they were adopting to their own artful ways. I love Modernism and the post-impressionist worlds, and like those great painters, I’m striving to draw from the imagery the essence of the place, to bring about a certain abstraction while listening to music (here, the entire Sun catalog!) and audio books (like those of the bios of Sam Phillips and Elvis!) while thinking my own thoughts meditating upon the image. How it is not like the photo is what is “me” about it, and how the literal abstraction that happens I hope to bring about the spirits both inside of me and what I can perceive from the image come manifest and inhabit the image to give it life. In this series, painted after the death of my best friend—but also in the reign of the Trump era. I’m hoping for heroes, ones that could, allegorically, sing into the lone (Elvis’?!) mike, to help make the world a better place just as like with the heroes depicted in the portraits that adorn the room. I bring up my paintings via the classic grid, and how my work jumps off the grid to me feels like how rock n roll and jump off its syncopated beat, to create its own special rhythm. Like how the control booth creates its own painting within a painting (I love early American Modernism that riffs off reality too, to create abstractions) in this picture, I hope that my unconscious creates its own abstraction within the conscious control of my brush and representation, to merge together to create something new, a spirit for our times, looking at the past to inspire something to help us in our futures.