Ten Musicians Who Paint as Hard as They Rock

David Bowie has been painting nearly his entire life, but only since 1994 has he made it public knowledge.
David Bowie has been painting nearly his entire life, but only since 1994 has he made it public knowledge.
'Aladdin Sane' album cover

Musicians are typically loath to confine themselves to one particular genre, so it’s not entirely surprising that many of our favorite musical masterminds have expanded their artistic palate away from the recording studio and stage. From Miles Davis to John Mellencamp, a slew of musicians have put down the guitar and picked up the pen and/or brush to embrace their inner painter. (See: the Kills’ Allison Mosshart, with whom we recently spoke).

Bernie Taupin's Macbeth in ManhattanEXPAND
Bernie Taupin's Macbeth in Manhattan
Courtesy of Bernie Taupin

Now, with longtime Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin set to present his first one-man show, NY, Blueprint - A Retrospective, at Mark Borghi Fine Art’s Bridgehampton location from July 12-26, we thought it wise to dig a bit deeper into the musicians who also fancy themselves visual artists.

Cat Stevens, a/k/a Yusuf Islam
It’s understandable if Cat Stevens has fallen a bit off your radar. Perhaps it’s due to the fact he took a 25-year hiatus from recording popular music, or maybe that he’s gone by the name Yusuf Islam since his conversion to Islam in 1978. Nevertheless, the “Wild World” singer, who last year was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, also doubles as a fantastic painter. He drew and designed his own album covers, including the famous Teaser and the Firecat, which he eventually turned into a children’s book and cartoon.

Miles Davis
Not only is the Prince of Darkness one of the most celebrated musicians of the twentieth century — cue up Bitches Brew or Birth of the Cool, lean back and soak in those delicious grooves — but Miles Davis was one helluva painter. In fact, the jazz musician was so prolific as a painter — a discipline he took up in his mid-fifties and dove into headfirst — that in 2013 an entire book of his work, Miles Davis: The Collected Artwork, was published. “It’s like therapy for me, and keeps my mind occupied with something positive when I’m not playing music,” he once said. Influences in Davis’ work range from Picasso to Basquiat, often with a vivid African tribal-art bent.

Ronnie Wood 

Widely viewed as one of the premier British guitarists — not to mention a personification of rock n’ roll excess — Ronnie Wood, longtime guitarist for the Rolling Stones as well as a member of the Faces, has recently been recognized for his supreme visual artistic chops. Painting and drawing since the age of 12, Wood lends his brush primarily to portraits, often of musicians, celebrities or those with whom he is personally acquainted. An exhibition of his work, Ronnie Wood: Spend or Expend, was displayed in 2010 at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio.

John Mellencamp
“I enjoy the solitude of my own company,” John Mellencamp recently said, and to that end, the heartland rocker finds peace in viciously attacking his canvas. Mr. “Jack and Diane” has long been recognized as an avid and accomplished painter, but as his musical output has gradually slowed down, that passion has only increased. Mellencamp, who studied at the Art Students League in New York in 1974 before obtaining a record deal, draws influences from Soutine, Dix and Basquiat; his work ranges from portraiture to text and graffiti-incorporating compositions. His exhibit, Nothing Like I Planned: The Art of John Mellencamp, ran in 2012 at the Tennessee State Museum.

David Bowie
Sure, David Bowie is principally known as a musical artist, but it doesn’t take too deep a dive into the British icon’s work to understand how fully immersed in all aspects of artistic expression he truly is. Bowie has been painting nearly his entire life, but only since 1994 has he made it public knowledge. As he explained in a 1998 New York Times interview, painting and music are intrinsically tied together in his creative process. “I’ll combine sounds that are kind of unusual, and then I'm not quite sure where the text should fall in the music,” he explained, “or I'm not sure what the sound conjures up for me. So then I'll go and try and draw or paint the sound of the music. And often a landscape will produce itself.”

Marilyn Manson
“They might expect me to have painted in my own shit or something,” Marilyn Manson told Rolling Stone in 2002 of prospective art critics when discussing his debut exhibition, The Golden Age of Grotesque, shown at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. Alas, the shock-rocker did not paint in his own feces; rather, he displayed a strange if not eerily enchanting and occasionally unsettling knack for portraiture. Manson draws inspiration from artists including Bosch, Warhol, Mark Ryden and Fellini. “I never intended to show them, much less sell them,” Manson said of his art, “until several years of paintings built up. And when people would come to my house, they would urge me to show people my art.”

Patti Smith

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Her 1975 album Horses established Patti Smith as a vital and singular musical artist of her generation, but for nearly as long the singer-songwriter has also been a standout in the world of visual art. “I was completely smitten,” she once recalled of her first time at an art gallery. “I totally fell in love with Picasso and I dreamed of being a painter.” In 2002, Strange Messenger: The Work of Patti Smith, a three hundred-work retrospective, was organized by the Andy Warhol Museum, showcasing Smith’s sometimes abstract, occasionally photographic but always thought-provoking work. “I’m a worker,” she said in 2009. “I do everything with the same conviction, whether I’m taking photographs or performing or painting or writing. I’m the same person.”

Bob Dylan
It should hardly come as a surprise that Bob Dylan would also be an accomplished visual artist. The songwriting genius has long been a well-regarded painter, focusing largely on watercolor work. A vast array of his art was collected in his 1994 book, Drawn Blank, later displayed for the first time in 2007 as part of his The Drawn Blank Series at the Kunstsammlungen Museum, in Chemnitz, Germany. More recently, Dylan’s Brazil Series, a visual dive into the dichotomous, cultural and enchanting nature of the South American country as reflected in Dylan’s brush, was shown at Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen.

Kim Gordon
The Sonic Youth bassist and generally inspiring badass has always considered herself more a visual artist who just happened to be in a band. She’s long been a well-respected conceptual artist; as vividly recounted in her excellent memoir, Girl In A Band, she befriended renowned art dealer Larry Gagosian in her twenties, and he has staged three shows of hers in recent times: 2013’s “The Show is Over;” last year’s “Design Office 'Coming Soon;'” and the recently launched “Sprayed,” which runs through August 1 in London.

Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams has a flair for the outré: from his releasing singles somewhat haphazardly at a manic clip to his well-publicized obsession with pinball, he dives head-first into everything he touches. Naturally then, it’s not a shocker to learn he’s also a prolific visual artist. In 2009, the singer-songwriter became the Morrison Hotel Gallery's first artist in residence, displaying a collection of his original paintings at their Bowery space in New York. Adams’ work largely consists of acrylics on canvas, and his Morrison exhibit, like much of his best-known music, was highly influenced by New York City.


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