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November 28, 2012

Immovable force

Jeral Tidwell: The famous artist you don’t know

Jeral Tidwell talks about the modifications he recently made to his blue Toyota FJ Cruiser with measured excitement, like a young boy recounting how he caught his first fish.

Tidwell, 43, explains how he managed to build a steel toolbox into a previously useless space in the back, then says, “Come on, I’ll show you what I did to the front.”

The front bumper now sports a customized space to store things like a jack and jumper cables, which, by Tidwell’s estimation, “is where they should have been in the first place.”

He’s right: The engineers who designed that SUV were shortsighted at best. They left a huge space in the front bumper that could have been utilized better; ditto for the odd space in the rear left side of the vehicle. If only they’d consulted Tidwell first.

This is one of Tidwell’s gifts. His brain pulses with ideas and creativity, with solutions to problems as seemingly trivial as wasted bumper space — things most of us would simply accept.

The fact is, Tidwell also is an internationally known artist who will likely go unnoticed if he walks into ValuMarket to pick up some tea. To most in Louisville, he’s just another guy with a beard and a lot of damn tattoos.

But those who know his edgy brand of artwork — often featuring skulls, eyeballs, Ed Roth-inspired cars and even deranged woodland creatures — appreciate, even marvel at what he creates. They may not know his name, but they recognize his distinctive style, which has been inspired by the likes of Jim Phillips, Derek Riggs, Pushead and others.

Paul LePree, who owns Ultra Pop!, a fringe pop culture store in the Highlands, tells the story about his friend from Japan who visited Tidwell’s studio, vaguely recognized his work, and later did a bit of Internet research to make the connection.

“You know,” LePree says, impersonating his visitor in a faux Japanese accent, “your friend is a pretty famous artist in the U.S. and Japan.”

Even if you haven’t seen Tidwell’s work on posters, stickers, T-shirts, etc., you’ve likely seen it in other forms. A Kawasaki billboard, perhaps, or while jamming out to “Guitar Hero III.”

And to him, all that stuff is just part of what he does, like modifying an SUV bumper. He comes up with ideas, he hatches plans, he pays the bills, he makes more art.

No matter how much he produces, more ideas just keep percolating, like when he and friend Justin Kamerer created a publishing/printing business called Crackhead Press through which they release a joint annual (more or less) book as part of a series called “Ink Alchemy.” Crackhead Press came to exist after Kamerer wondered aloud why they didn’t print their own posters rather than continue paying to outsource the work.

“He said, ‘Why don’t we just buy our own stuff?’” Kamerer recalls. “So we stumbled through and learned how to become printers.”

It goes well beyond buying printing presses and learning a new skill; in the late 1990s, for example, Tidwell heard a new song on the radio and simply had to know who that band was. He wondered if it might be Alice in Chains, so he called the radio station to find out, but to no avail.

He finally discovered that band was Days of the New, a Louisville-area group that at the time was on the cusp of breaking out nationally. Not long afterward, he saw the band had a show scheduled in New Orleans, near where Tidwell grew up and still lived, and where he also worked as an airbrush artist.

Tidwell went to the sparsely attended show and told the security guard afterward that he wanted to meet frontman Travis Meeks. Turned away, Tidwell asked the guard to tell Meeks that he could “draw badass trees.” (By that time, Tidwell had learned enough about Days of the New to know Meeks was into trees.)

The two met, they clicked, and soon Tidwell was doing posters, T-shirts and pretty much all of the band’s promotional material. That’s how Tidwell ended up moving to Louisville; he came for an event via an invitation from Meeks, fell in love with the city, and relocated. That was 1999. He wanted Louisville, so he took it, just as he did with Days of the New.

“That’s how every opportunity in my life has happened,” Tidwell says. “I just go and get it.”

It’s how he approaches his art, his work, his life. He routinely works late into the night, and he produces an almost inhuman amount of art. Tidwell doesn’t bristle when it is suggested that it comes easily or naturally to him, but he is quick to set the record straight.

“Everyone who knows me seems to think this shit magically happens,” he explains, “but I am incredibly focused on creating things. I am unstoppable when it comes to my work. I do most of it when everyone else is asleep, so most people think I goof off all day.”

Often, he creates by night and takes care of the business and marketing of his work during the daylight hours when most humans are working humdrum 9-5 shifts.

Tidwell’s best friend, Matt Frederick, calls him “vertically integrated.” Which is to say, if Tidwell feels inspired to create, he creates. If not, he may instead call a book publisher or make sure his printer is full of ink or his scanner bed is clean.

“Or if he wants to go fishing,” Frederick says, “then he’ll just go fishing.”

Deanna Mitchell, Tidwell’s girlfriend, agrees he most definitely does his own thing.

“He’s all over the place, all the time,” Mitchell says. “His mind is racing with ideas — he’s kind of hard to keep up with.”

Mitchell believes Tidwell may actually be better at the business and marketing than he is at the art — which is sort of a scary proposition. But the same stubborn tenacity that got Tidwell his gig with Days of the New continues to propel him. When he wants something done, he simply does it.

Let’s face it: Not taking “no” for an answer is a productive way to go through life; you tend to hear the word “yes” more often that way. Some obstacles in life, however, won’t accept “yes” for an answer. That’s the so-called immovable force. Tidwell has met that force.

The ultimate obstacle, overcome

Sept. 19, 2009, was a picture perfect day — sunny and mild, ideal for a motorcycle ride. Tidwell, a former motocross racer who’d been riding motorbikes since age 8, decided to put rubber to asphalt and take on some back roads in Oldham County.

It was a gorgeous afternoon, and the 20-something guy driving the red Jeep Cherokee was drunk out of his mind. The driver steered his Jeep into Tidwell’s lane just as the two vehicles were about to pass each other going opposite directions.

“I grabbed a handful of brakes,” Tidwell recalls. “It happened like that.” He snaps his fingers on the last word.

“I remember thinking, ‘Shit! I can’t believe this is happening!’ The next thing I know — this had to be less than a second or two — I remember feeling like something hit me in the chest, and then I was looking at the sky.”

When he came out of his momentary shock, he smelled gasoline and jumped up. Gas was everywhere, but luckily there was no fire.

The driver, meanwhile, stood in the small parking lot into which he’d driven, looking confused over the damage to his wheel well. Cars were backed up in both directions, people were screaming, and the man — who Tidwell later learned had a long history of alcohol-related offenses — looked around as if it was simply another crisp fall day.

“You get out of the city so you can avoid traffic,” Tidwell says, “and they come find you, man.”

Unfortunately, when Tidwell grabbed that handful of brakes, the impact of the crash and the metal in the motorcycle’s handles proved stronger than Tidwell’s lower arms. His wrists were shattered.

“My arms looked like they were just mangled up inside my skin,” he says. “It was creepy.”

And they weren’t just broken — they were reduced to shards of bone. “It looked like (broken) glass” in the X-rays.

On the way to the hospital, Tidwell laughed and joked with the EMTs. His arms, the tools of his craft, were destroyed, and already he was refusing to take no for an answer. When Tidwell’s doctor later examined the X-rays, he strongly suggested that Tidwell may have to consider a new line of work.

“We’re friends now,” Tidwell says about the doctor, “but I told him at the time that was a pretty shitty thing to say to someone… This isn’t my career, this is my life. You put my arms back together, and I’ll figure the rest out.”

One of Tidwell’s legs also was broken, and he suffered a shoulder injury for which he had surgery this fall. For at least a month after the crash, in Tidwell’s words, he “couldn’t wipe (his) own ass.”

Friends got him through as best they could, his arms bound in casts. And by early November, less than two months after the crash, Tidwell was creating art again. He admits it wasn’t necessarily his best work, but he had moved the immovable force — or at least stopped it in its tracks.

Even though his lower arms and wrists were now largely made of titanium, he pressed on, though he admits there were days when things felt bleak, even to him.

“I definitely think it was tough on him,” friend Paul LePree says. “He literally could not do anything after that accident. He basically has had to teach himself how to draw all over again.”

And so he did just that, to no surprise of his friends.

“If you give him that type of physical ultimatum, that means nothing (to him),” Kamerer says. “All that’s going to do is make him more determined. It’s just the core of who he is.”

Even Tidwell concurs, though with a dash of self-deprecating humor.

“I’m pretty hard to get down,” Tidwell says. “I don’t think I’m intelligent enough to realize how hard life is. But I believe life is only as hard as you believe it is. That’s probably why I wake up smiling like an idiot every day.”

No place like home

One of Tidwell’s favorite accomplishments is that he has his own line of paintbrushes. That’s right, if you want to sell basketball shoes, hire Michael Jordan, and if you want to sell art supplies, call Jeral Tidwell.

Heck, maybe you’re an artist and you bought an Andrew Mack Brush Co. brush set recently. Yeah, check those and see if the name “Tidwell” is imprinted on the handle.

And therein lies the rub — if you’re Jim James or (god forbid) “Papa” John Schnatter, you can’t go anywhere without being recognized or even mobbed. Tidwell could probably run naked through the Fund for the Arts offices and they’d just think he was a derelict, not an artist.

But Tidwell doesn’t care. He’ll spend far more time fishing this year than worrying about his standing in Louisville’s art scene. Or any other scene, for that matter.

“I never set out to be famous,” he clarifies when asked if he feels underappreciated in this town. “I set out to get my art everywhere. I don’t care if anyone knows about me.”

In fact, Tidwell loves Louisville. It’s home to him. He likes that he can go to ValuMarket for tea.

“I have never wanted to be the big fish in a small pond,” he says. “I would much rather be a piece of plankton in the fucking ocean. For me, it keeps you hustling; it keeps you aware. That’s why I’ve never really worried too much about it. Most people don’t care who I am or what the fuck I do, and it gives me the opportunity to not be under constant scrutiny.”

Actually, Tidwell probably wouldn’t notice the scrutiny even if it existed. He’d be too busy creating new art in his multi-floor studio space, the walls and shelves dotted with posters, sketches, magazine articles, toys and other odds and ends, until 3 a.m.

Case in point: A few hours after doing this interview, he sent out two emails with concepts for LEO cover art. The second one was time-stamped 2:43 a.m.

And Tidwell is always ready to use his seemingly unlimited supply of energy to help other artists.

Kamerer is quick to say that Tidwell, unlike a lot of artists, freely shares his artistic secrets and methods. “He likes to see creative people succeed. I begrudgingly say this, but the reason I’m able to do what I do for myself is because he saw a kindred spirit and really pushed me. I’ve seen him do that with many people.”

Tidwell’s lack of pretense blended with a hyper-focus on the project at hand is how one ends up doing design projects for CompUSA or Doc Martin, and it’s how you end up doing a series of Christian graphic novels with actor Stephen Baldwin. Or for that matter, winning the World Body Painting Festival. It’s how you end up publishing book after book of original sketches and having your art recognized around the world.

Aside from that, people just seem to like the guy, in much the same way they enjoy his unpretentious artwork.

Matt Frederick describes Tidwell as “the most effortlessly generous person I know.” As for Tidwell’s art, it’s an accurate expression of his personality. “He’s exuberant, playful and forthright,” Frederick says. “He is very direct with people, and his art is the same way — he doesn’t deal in subtext, and neither does his art. What you see is what you get.”

And so Tidwell continues to produce at a frenetic pace, often with Kamerer. A below-the-radar Louisville artist in his own right, Kamerer has done concert posters for the likes of Guns N’ Roses, Paul McCartney, My Chemical Romance and Nirvana. Heck, he even does occasional contract work for Facebook.

Yet, these aren’t the types of projects that define Tidwell or Kamerer as artists. The Crackhead Press duo isn’t doing this to make a quick buck — they are committed to creating what inspires them, and the rest is just a bonus.

Among the most intriguing works that Tidwell and his artistic cohorts conjure are books — and not just the “Ink Alchemy” series, which typically are saddle-stitched chapbooks. This year alone, Tidwell has released two hardbound collections.

The first was titled “De Nada,” from Presto Art Publications, and features 174 pages of Tidwell’s original sketches, paint, skateboard decks and other odds and ends (including X-rays of his repaired arms, for good measure). That’s right, 174 pages — he describes it as a 20-year retrospective.

The title is sort of a joke wrapped in a double entendre — de nada, translated from Spanish to English, literally means “of nothing.” It is often used to convey the phrase “it was nothing.” It also is commonly used to convey the term “you’re welcome.”

Tidwell credits his girlfriend for giving him the idea.

“She said, ‘You’re such a smart-ass that you should just call (the book) ‘You’re Welcome,’” Tidwell says. “I talked to my publisher, and he said, ‘Oh god, I knew this would happen.’”

“His energy and enthusiasm is infectious,” says Presto Art’s Brett Bryan, the publisher in question. “He’s like the little snowball that rolls down the hill and gets bigger and bigger, collecting everything along the way. That’s Jeral Tidwell.”

Earlier this month saw the release of “Amigos de los Muertos” (published by Last Gasp Books), a collection of works by Tidwell along with Kamerer, under his artist name AngryBlue, and friends Roberto Jaras Lira and David Lozeau. It is a collection featuring images of dancing skeletons, skulls, dead musicians and grim reapers.

It bears noting here that a large body of Tidwell’s work focuses on skulls. Asked why, his response is preceded by a chuckle.

“My honest answer: Why the hell not? They’re awesome,” he says. “You can make them scary, funny, pretty, ugly. There’s a bit of a challenge to it, as well, knowing that everybody on earth draws skulls. How could you ever make one that is fresh enough to get people’s attention?”

Sounds like yet another challenge, which is nothing new. He was born prematurely due to late-term health problems experienced by his teenage mother, taught himself to draw, taught himself to never take “no” for an answer, and rebounded like a superhero from a crash that not only could have ended his career, but his life as well. Not many could have come so far.

“It doesn’t matter what the world is telling him,” says girlfriend Deanna Mitchell. “He’s going to do what he wants to do, all the time. He is definitely a unique person; he is one of the personalities who makes Louisville a unique city.”

Though Tidwell acknowledges he’s been through and accomplished a lot, he feels like he’s just getting started. In the coming months, he plans to flesh out his work to create more complete drawings. Tidwell firmly believes the next thing you create should be your best.

“If people like what I’ve been doing so far, I hope what I do next will surprise them. I’m going to try some new shit and see what happens.”

Lord only knows what his poor FJ Cruiser is going to look like when it’s all said and done. 

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