Sunday, July 06, 2014

Hebru Brantley: King of Arts from Splash section of the Sun-Times

                       Hebru Brantley: King of Arts

BY Rachel Handler | Photos by Maria Ponce

With hordes of celebrity fans, high-profile exhibits and an ability to inspire hope on Chicago’s South Side, artist Hebru Brantley is Chicago’s own superhero.



When we first encounter our hero, Hebru Brantley, he’s apologizing for the weather. It’s late June, and the 6-foot-8-inch Bronzeville native is in his Pilsen artist loft, where, despite several open windows, a loud fan and a lot of good will on Brantley’s part, the 90-degree heat keeps seeping in. “I’m getting an air-conditioning unit tomorrow,” he promises, wiping sweat from his brow.

If stiflingly hot, the space offers a revealing peek into Brantley’s brain: It’s filled with half-finished artwork that draws on everything from street art to figurative fine art to whimsical cartoons, piles of old Marvel comic books, hundreds of spray paint cans, Xbox games and a Michael Jordan Wheaties box leaning precariously against an empty Champagne bucket. In one corner, a giant sculpture of Fly Boy — Brantley’s signature character, who appears often in his work — dwarfs multiple figurines of The Hulk, the iconic superhero who also makes a cameo in one of Brantley’s bicep tattoos. “He’s always been my favorite superhero,” says Brantley. “I’ve always been attracted to the idea that everyone has two sides. And his raw power — he’s as close to a god as he possibly can be, but he doesn’t have the capacity to understand it.”

Hebru-SLH-070614.3 AtTheShoot-SLH-070614.3

It’s not surprising that Brantley identifies with The Hulk, whose existential dilemma, while fantastical, is akin to the artist’s own: How does a gifted man harness his talent to combat evil? Or more specifically, how does an artist like Brantley stay true to his vision, achieve commercial and critical success and inspire hope in one of Chicago’s most blighted neighborhoods — and still make it home in time for dinner?

It’s something Brantley wrestles with often. Though the self-taught artist, 33, has been painting, sculpting, drawing and making short films for nearly two decades, he’s garnered national attention only recently: Last year, he was the featured artist for both Chicago Ideas Week and Chicago Artists Month; in 2012, Jay-Z and Beyoncé dropped $20,000 on one of his paintings at Art Basel; and hip-hop heavyweights like Nicki Minaj, Lupe Fiasco and Swizz Beatz (who Brantley’s texting with during our interview) publicly identify as Brantley’s friends and fans. Currently, he’s showing two exhibits in Chicago — “The Watch,” an installation of 13 sculptures facing Lake Shore Drive, and “Parade Day Rain,” a series of paintings and sculptures on display at the Chicago Cultural Center through Sept. 23.

But like any good superhero, Brantley is conflicted about the trappings of fame. He plays down his celebrity fandom (“It’s cool to be accepted by your contemporaries, to be able to vibe with them on that level, but I try to keep it to myself”), stays mum about most of his personal life (“It’s Hebru the artist versus Hebru the man”) and is particularly concerned about being pigeonholed as the “the hip-hop artist” or “the graffiti artist.” “I don’t want to be a jack of all, master of none, but there are so many things within the realm of the arts that I want to do,” he says. “My intention is to make people happy when they enter a room of my work, to make them smile, make them feel good.”

He aims to accomplish that through what he calls the “universal language”: comic book characters. For the duration of his career, Brantley’s been developing his own set of young superheroes — the Fly Boys and Fly Girls, inspired by the Tuskegee Airmen, the fabled group of black military pilots who fought in World War II. His goggle-sporting protagonists star in “The Watch” as large, colorful sculptures lined up to represent “soldiers, people that are standing up to [things like] violence and hunger”; in “Parade Day Rain,” they’re featured in every piece. “I use these characters as a conduit to say whatever I want,” he explains. “It makes it a lot less harsh and more palatable. The fact is, I don’t necessarily know how to speak or jive well with every individual person — it’s easier for me to speak to them through these characters.”

One of Brantley’s recent pieces, designed in collaboration with Artpentry for Soho House Chicago’s pre-launch party

One of Brantley’s recent pieces, designed in collaboration with Artpentry for Soho House Chicago’s pre-launch party

As for what he’s trying to say? Much of Brantley’s work is aimed at children growing up amid the South Side’s gang violence and poverty, just as he once did. “Kids feel like there are only a handful of ways out: selling drugs, being a rapper, being an athlete. To say, ‘I’m a black kid who grew up on the South Side of Chicago and I created this,’ that gives them another option,” he says. “When you travel through the South Side, the only art you see is Chester Cheetah, somebody selling kids a product that’s really terrible for them. I want to relate to those kids that have never set foot in a museum or seen art. … I want that to be my mission and my purpose.”

After some prodding, the modest Brantley admits to some progress. “Kids all the time say things like, ‘You’re my hero, I wanna be just like you when I grow up.’ ” At “Parade Day Rain,” “I saw all of these kids that got up to the Cultural Center on their own,” he says. “I’m watching them look at the work, digesting it. And seeing me, thinking, ‘Man, he looks like us.’ ”

It’s not dissimilar from Brantley’s own origin story: Growing up in the 1980s, he channeled his creative impulses into compulsive comic-book reading, spray-painting street art onto abandoned buildings with his friends (which he calls “the base of everything I do now”) and “taking apart my toys and reassembling them.” In high school, after his mother introduced him to fine artists (and current role models) Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, art became Brantley’s refuge from the gangs outside. “It was just me, walking my a** home, doing homework, art and TV,” he says. “That was my day.”

In college, he sold hats and T-shirts bearing his designs, but wasn’t convinced he could channel his creative powers into a career until a good friend bought one of his paintings for a significant sum. “I realized, ‘This is where my heart is,’ ” he recalls. That was in 2002. Today Brantley still holds tight to that passion — and his healthy dose of artist’s angst. “There’s so much more to accomplish,” he says. “I have so much that I want to say, and there’s only so much time. … I feel like I’m forever doomed to chasing the idea of the perfect painting.” He pauses, then laughs. “I’m a happy person — I’m not like Snuffleupagus — but I just strive for greatness.”

Brantley and his fiancé Angela Carroll
Brantley and his fiancé Angela Carroll

Fortunately, Brantley has plenty of people in his life that help relieve that pressure. He’s a father to son Jayden, 11, from a previous relationship, and he’s parented his younger sister Shea since she was 9 (his mother and stepfather both died of cancer five years ago; he lost his father to cancer last month). “All of her friends and their parents, they’re like ‘You’re the strictest parent and you’re not even [Shea’s] parent,’ ” he laughs. In September, he’ll marry his longtime girlfriend, model Angela Carroll, whom he calls his “muse.” “She’s always inspiring me to be better,” he says, smiling.

In that vein, he’s planning his next work, which he’ll start this summer. “I want to go through Englewood and just put art up, break up the space and the groupings of absolute nothing in hopes that it strikes a chord with one or two people in that community,” he says. And like a superhero plotting his next exploit, Brantley is keeping the details to himself. “It’s not even something I want to publicize,” he says. “I just want to do it because it’s something I’m close to. I want to give art to them as my gift.”

                                  VIDEO OF THE PHOTO SHOOT 


State of the art

Brantley’s recent work, in his own words:
‘Parade Day Rain’ exhibit, 2014

“When I initially started planning for this show, I had no idea how it would parallel my life — dealing with the notion of somebody raining on your parade, when things are at their highest and then their lowest. While I was [preparing for] this show, I found out that my father was sick, that he had cancer. A month before the show, his health really took a turn for the worse. I had to force creativity while being just depleted inside, because I’m watching my father die. He passed two weeks before the show opened. I didn’t realize at the time that a lot of the work — and I don’t expect anyone else to pull that from it if you don’t know me — directly correlates with what I was going through.”

‘Negro Mythos’ series, 2013

“I’m a huge fan of mythology, and the biggest form of that now is through comics. Within my culture, we don’t really have a true mythology, but [this series] is spinning that, presupposing that if these characters were people of color, how they’d fit into that mythos. As a showpiece, in making these characters people of color, it changes the lore and the mythology of everything.”

‘The Watch’ exhibit, 2014

“It’s intended to be sort of an infectious movement, something that can grab people’s attention and say, ‘Hey, this is a problem that exists.’ The whole purpose of ‘The Watch’ is to draw your attention to that elephant. Just sort of be in your face, be infectious. It’s like a gang in a sense, or a cult, where you have one person convincing another person, and everyone’s signing up slowly but surely.”

Shoot credits
Photographer: Maria Ponce
Stylist: favia, Ford artist
Shoot coordinator: Katerina Bizios

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