Thursday, October 11, 2007

Derek Hess

Tomorrow night (10/12), Pawn Gallery is showcasing the talented Derek Hess. You might recognize him from the numerous band posters and record covers he's designed over the years. Bands like The Jesus Lizard, The Reverand Horton Heat, Pantera, White Zombie, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, R.L. Burnside, Nine Inch Nails, Helmet, The Deftones, GWAR, Pink Floyd, Thursday, and even Cibo Matto.

His fine art is stunning, controversial, and laden with a twisted, dark satire that amuse some, and anger others.

Hey, guys, this is art. If it entices a strong reaction, positive or negative, then it's powerful in my book.

Derek Hess lives in my home state: Ohio. He resides in Cleveland (go Indians!), and has been a staple in the art scene up there for many years.

My good friend Johnny Hardy is a huge fan of Mr. Hess's, and I was thrilled to have someone besides yours truly do an interview on here ('cause I would have done nothing but yammered on about how awesome Ohio is, and you'd know nothing about his artwork). So, I hope you enjoy, and make sure to check out the show tomorrow night!

JH: Have you ever been to Dallas?

DH: I’ve never been to Dallas. The only time I’ve ever been in Texas was when we did a Strhessfest during SxSw a number of years ago.

JH: I understand Strhessfest to be a music and art collaboration event you’ve developed. When did that start, and what’s the concept behind it?

DH: We started Strhess in 2003, with the goal to bring contemporary music and visual art that really matters together in one event.

The music complements the art and the art complements the music, there's a common thread. Be it hardcore rock, emo music, CD cover art, or the fine arts, a like-mindedness has evolved.

The last Strhessfest was in Austin Texas, in ‘04 for SxSw. It’s a pretty big undertaking, and our hands have been full with other things, so what we do now is a Strhess Tour.

JH: Is the Strhess Tour an annual event? How about booking…do you personally select all the bands for the occasion?

DH: Well, I’ve got lots of ties and friends who are agents, you know, from the years when I was booking for the Euclid. So, we’ll pick a date, and I’ll ask ‘em what bands are around the area that could be routed to participate for a day.

It is annual, yeah…but it varies from the time of year it goes on. We usually don’t do ‘em in the winter, but we did one last January in Hartford with Thursday, Murder by Death, Fear Before the March of Flames, and Heavy Heavy Low Low.

JH: Thursday, and bands along that line, is that what you’re listening to now’days? I mean, it’s not too far of a departure from the Jesus Lizard, Helmet…you know, but it’s a little younger, more modern…and you’ve also done a lot of art for them. Are those the acts what you have in your CD player at home, or in the car right now?

DH: Yeah. I mean…I work with stuff I like. Sure I love the Jesus Lizard, and actually I went and hung out with David (Yow) last week when he was in town with his new band (Qui - catch them at Hailey’s in Denton on 10/21, by the way). But there’s a ton of great music going on right now, and it’s not just Thursday.

Generally I lean more towards heavier stuff. Some of the bands I really like now are, well… I think Every Time I Die is the best band out there right now. I’ve been seeing those guys since like only 12 people would show up, and now it’s really cool that they’ve broken into the larger markets. I just can’t say enough about them. Driving around in the car, right now I’ve got the new Celtic Cross, the new Clutch, and the new Nine Inch Nails.

JH: Every Time I Die, are they a local band up there in Cleveland?

DH: No, they’re a Buffalo band, I don’t know what label there on…(interviewer interrupts with laughter)…uhm…but they’re doing really really well up there, you know, probably 500 to 1,500 person venues.

JH: Hey…I’m sorry to laugh there, but did you catch that last Monday Night Football game, Cowboys v Bills? Wow. I mean, it’s a tough life for a fan of any Buffalo team.

DH: Heh heh…yeah, my business partner is from Texas, and he was all about that game…but I fell asleep. I was going back and forth between the Indians game. You know, during my opening at the Pawn Gallery, is the first game of the ALCS against Boston, so I’ve got to leave early. I want to go back to the hotel while you guys enjoy the opening.

JH: In that case, are you keen to any tips on the best dive, or sports bar to watch the game?

DH: Well I’m not a drinker, so I tend to stay away from the bars. It depends on when I get in, and what my days look like. If I’m in town for three, four, or five days, I like to take it all in, you know, but as I’m just flying in, doin’ the show and then leaving, it’s pretty much all business.

JH: Have you been away from booze and such for a long time now? If so, is that a recent change in lifestyle, or has that always been the case?

DH: That’s something I don’t really talk about much anymore. I had a long, long stretch of sobriety and I relapsed, and now I’m back on the clean and sober thing. But that’s been over a span of about 16 years before I relapsed.

JH: Did that (alochol) influence your art?

DH: No. No, I always knew it was a problem, and once I sobered up is when I got my act together and applied to art school. Drugs and alcohol are pretty much a filter, you know. It filters out the purity of the art from the source.

A lot of people think they need to be stoned to be creative, but it’s your own creativity that’s being distorted and polluted when you’re on drugs. I mean, a drug is a mind-altering substance, and alcohol is a drug as well. So, although I was well aware of that, I enjoyed it too much and I wasn’t ready to give it up.

JH: You mentioned “the source” and creativity. Do you tend to draw inspiration from a power, or a source outside yourself, or do you always have an intentional idea to start with?

DH: Well, there’s no absolute. I mean, both ways work. Sometimes I’ll get an idea in my mind, alright… I know exactly what I want this to look like and I’m gonna draw it how it should be, and I can’t make it happen. Then, as soon as I let go of it, how I know what I want and it should be how I envision it…as soon as I let go and let it flow, something comes out and it’s as it should be, not how I thought it should be. Do you understand what I’m saying?

I’m not like a Christian, or a Catholic, or a Buddhist, or you know…whatever, but I’m spiritual. I believe there is a higher source and it’s a matter of tapping into it.

JH: You’re straying away from the concert posters and doing more fine art. Are you using the same mediums with pen and ink, or are you trying your hand with paint brushes and mixed media?

DH: What I’m doing with fine art is pen and ink with acrylic for the majority of it, and I generally work the acrylic like a watercolor. I’ve been doing some collage mixed in with the entire piece. Magazine clippings and tearings from comic books and stuff. Things along those lines.

So I’ve been mixing it up, and the artwork you’re going to see at Pawn is a pretty broad spectrum of the direction I’m going right now, and I think it’s a pretty good variety. I have done theme shows, and those are fun, like when everything was done with pen and ink and only 3 tubes of acrylic. Black, white, red, very much the same thing, visually.

I’ve also done some political themes and hardcore Christian right shows. Now, this show will be touching on everything I’m doing right now. Republican stuff, creationism, and then some of the standard, you know “Why’d you break my heart?” crap, and it’s across the board.

JH: Are you trying to develop a platform for your own views on political, social issues? Or would you rather the art speak for itself?

DH: Yeah, I’m letting the art speak for itself. I’m not very good at verbalizing my ideas, you know, my views as far as the Republican party, or the extreme Christian right goes. I just get too…I get caught up, suckered into it. I find a lot of the hardcore Christian right people practice their arguments, and I just get suckered in. Then I’m about ready to throw a table over and throw down with these people, so while they’re calm and collected, therefore I’m wrong.

I just let my art do the talking and I don’t really argue with them. There’s no point in talking. Their minds are made up, and as far as I’m concerned they’re wrong, and it’s like I’m talking to the Taliban. Why sit down and try to convince them that they’re wrong?

Also, I’m putting out a book called Please, God, Save Us from Your Followers, and I’m doing all the artwork for it, but as I’m not good at writing about it or talking about. I’ve got a friend who’s an elected Democratic official: a tight friend of mine and we’ve both been door guys at clubs and everything. He’s on the school board, and city council, and he’s also a great writer and he’s writing the entire book. He’s got all the facts and can back them up, and it’s well written. I‘m really looking forward to getting the book out.

JH: What’s the timeline for (the book's) release?

DH: Everything is already to the graphic designers. All the chapters have been proofread over and over, so it’s just a matter of the timeline and money it’s going to take to put it out. We’re going to self-publish at first, and if it does well we can take it to a publisher with numbers of X amount sold over an X amount of time and X amount of money to be made, in the hopes of them doing a second printing.

At the same time, we are working on two other books of just the artwork, and I think we’ll put one of those out first. We’re looking at early next year. I’d love to have it ready for the holiday season, but it’s taken a little longer than we thought for a book compared to a poster.

JH: What are you up to with the Place-A-Pet Foundation and Don’t Shop, Adopt!, and other groups?

DH: I’m on the board of directors of one of our no-kill, non-profits here in Cleveland. That’s one of my causes. You know, everybody’s got a cause, and there are lots of great ones, and people want me to get involved in a lot of ‘em. But there’s only so much I can do, and that’s one I’ve chosen to focus on.

What happens to these animals is definitely not their fault. They’re at the mercy of us on the top of the food chain. We create the environment that they have to exist in. It really outrages me, about so much abuse that goes on with these animals and then abandoning them.

And then of course, Michael Vick. But thank God for Michael Vick for making that such a big issue, because there’s dog fighting that goes on around my studio here, and for the cops, it’s just so hard to bust ‘em cause it’s such a tight-nit group. Then can sniff out a cop trying to get on the inside.

So, that Michael Vick thing, it sucks, but it’s also a good thing to really shine a light on it nationally. When I do art shows in other cities, I try to get involved in local pet shelters, but I just wasn’t able to pull it together in time for this Dallas show, unfortunately.

JH: Being from Cleveland and not having made it to Dallas before, do you have any idea about the Deep Ellum neighborhood you’ll be showing in?

DH: No, I actually don’t. I know I’m going to the Pawn Gallery, ‘cause the owner’s there reached out and invited me.

JH: Okay, briefly, Deep Ellum is Dallas’ staple district for authentic, local arts culture. It’s been the hub of our live music and art scene for decades, and we’re in the midst of a pivotal transition between historic hometown relics and new commercial development. It’s been something of a renaissance with well over a dozen new galleries opening over the last 2 years or so. Deep Ellum is where you’ll find true local flavor.

That said, I read another interview you’d done, and I know you’re true to your roots, and it seems you really enjoy having an influence on where the art scene is, and at least the style of the arts in Cleveland. Is there momentum there that you’re a part of , or do you just do your part and let it develop on it’s own? I’m curious if there is something of an authentic ‘scene’ there?

DH: Well, there’s always been one here. I compare it to a music scene, with peaks and valleys, you know. There are tons of galleries here, and some very interesting local artists. There’s nothing exploding at this time, we’re pretty much going on an even keel. I really do respect and like a lot of our local talent.

JH: Your father was a great influence on your artistic development, who else you consider a peer or influence on your own art? R. Crumb for example, and any other comic cats from your youth that have had an impact on your style?

DH: R. Crumb…ya know, the building we’re in where my studio is at, we used to have a gallery here too, but we just got too busy doing other things and someone else took over the gallery, but Alternative Press magazine is in our building, and there’s some recording studios here. Anyway, it used to the be old American Greeting Cards building, and Robert Crumb used to work in here. Isn’t that kinda cool?

JH: Yeah! Real cool! That guy is something else, and obviously a hometown hero for you.

DH: Yeah, he’s a Cleveland boy who then moved out to San Francisco. He probably wallowed in this hallway where I am right now. (laughs) As far as artists who have influenced me, Heinrich Kley, a German illustrator, google him if you’re not familiar. The guys from the 60’s and early 70’s who were superhero artists…Bill Kane is a huge one, Neal Adams, John Romita…

JH: Were you an avid comics fan growing up?

DH: Oh yeah. I have a decent collection.

JH: How ‘bout Sam Keith’s The Maxx?

DH: Yeah, not a lot of the 90’s stuff I liked, but that one’s pretty right on.

JH: What are you working on right now? How often are you creating new pieces?

DH: Oh, it varies. I’ve definitely got a lot of art shows booked, so I’m producing a lot of artwork for, you know, something like what’s happening on Friday (at Pawn Gallery). Dallas is only a two-week show, and then it’s immediately back to Columbus, Ohio, and I’ve got a show there. Then I don’t think I have anything until February, which is Hamburg, Germany. Then New Orleans…

JH: Man, I spent a few weeks in Germany last year but I didn’t make it to Hamburg. I’ve heard it’s a very well developed art and music scene, something along the lines of San Francisco.

DH: They have the Reeperbaum. Reeperbaum is just, like, decadent. An area where anything goes. It’s an awesome city. I’ve had four art shows there, and you’re right, it does have an awesome art scene. I’m looking forward to that.

As far as other artwork goes, I don’t do many posters anymore, but Coheed and Cambria, and Clutch, and the House of Blues are kind of on me to do work for two nights here, for holiday shows…Halloween stuff. I’m also doing a cover for a Muslim hardcore band in Turkey, Since Yesterday. That should be really cool.

JH: Between the foundations, Strhess clothing line and your art, you’ve found success in the lifestyle of a working artist…

DH: Yeah, I’ve been fortunate enough to make a living off of it since ’95. It definitely goes up and down, having to work several sources of income derived from the art at the same time, which is the touring art shows, the internet sales off the website, the clothing line, and commercial jobs like CD covers. So, that’s how I’m able to make it work without having to pump gas.

JH: That’s awesome, man. Very cool you’ve been able to pull it off as such. …and in your hometown, too!

DH: Yes, I’m very much pro-Cleveland.

JH: There are a lot of cats looking forward to your show here. You will be very well received, and deservedly so. Thank you very much for the time and interest. It’s been a treat talkin’.

DH: Thanks. I’m really looking forward to it…I’ve heard nothing but good things about Dallas.

- interview conducted by Johnny Hardy (

-all pictures taken from Derek Hess's website

--You can find out more about Derek Hess @:


the myspace page

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent interview. This show is going to be great!