A seminal figure in downtown Lexington’s art scene, Patrick McNeese is an accomplished fine artist, musician and film maker who has found a way to make his art into a business. He’s perhaps best known for his stylized series of oil paintings and two-dimensional mixed-media on paper portraying colorful pensive figures in a blend of post-modernist and Cubist style with nods to Chagall and Picasso. He describes his brand of original introspective music as “Appalachian Jazz,” in which he sings and plays edgy piano and rhythm guitar, usually complemented by others playing mandolin, fiddle and various percussion instruments. He’s recorded and produced three albums, “The Singing Bridge” 1989; “Me, Mywolf and I” 1993; and “Any Day Now” 2005, has a live album in the works, and has also extended his songwriting talents to composing sound tracks. In his award-winning career as a film maker, McNeese has not only art directed commercials, but produced, directed and edited three regional documentaries: Hemplands; Of Myth and Muse: Stephen Foster and My Old Kentucky Home; and Searching for Wolf Boy: The Art of Jimmy Gordon. He was also production designer and art director for the local feature film 100 Proof and a location scout for Simpatico, starring Jeff Bridges and Sharon Stone. This interview was originally published in a much shorter form in Business Lexington.
Frances: What choices have you made in order to live your life in such a way that you were able to make a living from your art?
Patrick: If you are trying to be independent and not take some prescribed corporate route, you have to do a lot of different things. From early on, I never thought about a single pathway. You keep yourself open to many choices within the area where your talent lies. As an artist, not only do you wear a lot of hats, you have to have about three different heads under those multiple hats. I have six or seven micro jobs. They are all very important; some of them bring me more income, and some of them bring me more satisfaction.
To have control, you are willing to trade a lot of other things. I live in the top of a building down here [in downtown Lexington], I’ve never owned a home; I’ve never really aspired to own a home. My wife Claudia is a painter and we never went after those kinds of things, thinking that freedom and flexibility and the ability to be creative and take those paths that present themselves was very important in the way to design a life.
Patrick: If you are going to be in the art or music business, you have to be an innovator; on some level, you have to embrace innovation. I’m going to take what I’ve been given, and I’m going to change it. That could be an act of arrogance, that could be an act of courage, however you want to frame it. I heard a great quote the other day: “The country demands bold, persistent experimentation.” This was FDR and he was talking about the depression, but that was his very short, and I thought very eloquent and true recipe for moving ahead and that’s true in the arts, true in trying to change the environment, trying to improve our business practices, the way we treat each other – everything.
At this moment, it seems like we are at this flash point where there is going to be an awakening – because the Styrofoam container bullshit is done, and the giant car and the burning up of limited fossil fuels. It’s the big slowdown. We have to change the way we do things, or we won’t be able to move ahead, we won’t be able to innovate.
As an artist, you are not working directly with the environment, you’re not working directly with the people that actually have their hands on the levers of power and can actually make those changes, but you are certainly like the pioneer kind of guy who at least, through his art, figures out a philosophical way to live that then translates into ways that improve modern life. Scaling back and simplicity, which sounds really painful to a lot of people, is a shared philosophy between the arts and the environmental and sustainability movement. How can we do more with less, how can we save our resources, how can we recycle everything we use? We can’t be throwing things away and keep living the materialist, consumerist life that our parents did.
Some artists go for the more practical, straightforward connection in terms of using recycled materials in their work, but my art comes from a more self-oriented narrative. Rather than literally demonstrating the connection between creativity and sustainability through my work, what I do and the way I do it, and what I have to do in order to achieve what I do means that I employ a lot of those same sustainable tenets, and I had to figure that out on my own by reading good books and having experience.
We are all like a bunch of cows standing out in a field, bored and frightened, mindlessly consuming, and anybody who can get their head up out of that modern day trap and do something different is really a breath of fresh air.
Patrick: I would argue that the more involved, engaged, creative and open people are the people that like art. They want to dream a little bit. They want some sort of magic or almost religious experience that art provides. There is a mystery about art. If you make it, you’re very cognizant of that.
But struggle is implicit in that choice of being an artist. I wrote a song called “And I Will Struggle.” I will struggle through the days and nights; I will struggle all my life. It’s like a little prayer. If you sign up for this life, struggling is inherent. When art is derivative and only emulates something else, that’s people refusing to struggle.
In Lexington, there’s not a gallery system. You come in and, there are a few galleries, but it’s not New York City, it’s not San Francisco, it’s not Chicago – even Asheville has a better gallery system. The problem is a lack of audience, and in the visual arts sense it’s a lack of purchasing audience. So the visual artist is very dependent on a gallery that can market their work. For example, Marjorie Guyon is really the template of successful Lexington artist because she works here, but she’s been able to market herself elsewhere. She’s found galleries that support her work and her vision, and she’s done well.
The economy could improve… and actually the ‘90s was better than the present time; I was selling more work then. It’s like we have to lift up the level of the whole lake, and then that particular boat will rise.
Frances: How do you strike the necessary balance between immersion in your work, and marketing it?
Patrick: It’s a rare artist that can do both of those things well [at once] because a very different portion of the soul is needed [for each]. The artist that is a really good marketer I sort of don’t trust as an artist – and vice versa. I’ve tried to overlap it; I turn certain switches off per a period of time. I haven’t made a painting for a number of years; right now currently, I’m mostly a musician. But through the 90s I painted hundreds of paintings. I developed and finalized the style most people know me by and I still have a big backlog of original work that I haven’t sold; I was so prolific.
The best thing about marketing in the last few years is Facebook. You hit people like raindrops, again and again, and you have to be consistent. “The Face” is perfect for a visual person. Luckily for me, my paintings work in a little thumbnail: at first viewing you can look at those little faces and it works. People are driving by all this [marketing] at a high rate of speed; they’re scrolling through and it’s usually a visual thing that catches them. For the visual artist, Facebook is great because the visual hooks them. And then you can upload your music or films. It’s a great tool for the small producer/creator who wants to bring 40 people to a show or sell a painting. It’s the hygienic of marketing: you are doing something every day to market yourself, like flossing your teeth. I’ve sold more paintings in a year and a half on Facebook than in the five years prior, so it’s visceral. The computer is a great tool to build community, and art can ride on that.
Frances: Over the years, you’ve been playing more and more live music in Lexington; in fact, that’s how we first met when I saw you play at Shakespeare in the Park in the mid ‘90s. How do you get your gigs, and how do you feel music as an art form contributes to social development in Lexington?
Patrick: I shifted [from painting] to live music performance five or six years ago. I like it because it takes a lot of physical energy to perform and I like the community and the collaboration of it. And there are all these other non-artistic considerations that inform that decision: You realize you need a community, and ask yourself what kind of artistic work best builds community. And music has that quality.
In Lexington, I know all the players. I’ve been here so long; I have the rolodex. There are people who hire me for private parties. I played at Alfalfa’s every Friday night for ten years. One of the problems with being an innovator is, people want to buy a known product. And they’ll ask, “What do you do? Is it like this?” And my response is, “Well no, it’s not like that.” Also, the cultural scene has been dictated by college students – that’s been a limiting factor. Natasha’s is a wonderful example of trying to do it right from the artist’s point of view. It’s a good marketing gig because it’s high profile; they do a great job of marketing. The Lexington Area Musical Alliance (LAMA) is a great new thing that’s going on that goes right to what we are talking about; it was created expressly to support local music production and performance.
Music right now because of its communal sense is a real important thing. People know how music makes them feel and they know that that’s important. These guys are in front of you live, making this thing happen, and you see the mistakes, you appreciate the humanness of what is going on, with its triumph and its potential disaster. It really is how church functions. We come together and we acknowledge certain things and reaffirm them amongst ourselves and these guys on the stage are going to create something under the threat of failure. That’s a magical moment and that’s truly music making. [My] next album is going to be live. That live feeling is real important.
Last night I saw Big Maracas playing right down the street from me here. A guy from South America, Enrique, came up here and taught all these guys all these Latin rhythms and it’s like you’re in Havana, and it raises my blood! That’s my favorite band because I’m just instantly made happy. Everybody was just gyrating: young people, old people, people who had some money and people who looked like they didn’t have money – and everybody was in communion.
Patrick: When I started out downtown Lexington in the ‘80s, it was me and the lawyers – there were like three other artists. Now everybody is wanting to be an artist and talk about art and even a business magazine wants to talk about art because they see that, in a society that has a lot of problems, part of what we are doing is dying off so something else can grow, and art is the laboratory for that. There are those individuals that are bold and persistent and experiment. I responded to a certain reality around here that has its limits and I just bought into and accepted those limits and don’t always think about how they can change.
Central Kentucky’s my home and that is a powerful elixir to sip – and you want to make it work. I’m glad I stayed here, because there was a period where I left, and I always came back like a magnet. I’ve met a lot of good people. The woman I’ve spent the last 25 years with, Claudia Hatfield, an oil painter and chef, I met at the University of Kentucky in art school, so that’s a great benefit. I’ve had this primary relationship with somebody that is like me – that is an artist – and we sit at the breakfast table and we talk about what we’re confronting. They’re witnessing what you are going through and you’re witnessing what they’re going through. The value of that kindred spirit can’t be overstated as far as survivability goes.
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