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From Punk Rock to Folk Art

How a surfer turned skater turned musician turned artist pays tribute to his subjects with a paintbrush.

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Tim Kerr

Three years ago Tim Kerr was featured in the inaugural art show hosted by Third Man Records, Jack White’s music operation in Nashville. It was a huge breakthrough for the Austin painter: with a little help from social media, one of his pieces earned him a brush with history.

“I had a pull-down map that had a bunch of women on it who had not gotten out of their bus seat before Rosa Parks made history doing it,” Kerr said. “A friend of mine bought it and didn’t tell me that he bought it—he probably knew I’d just give it to him—and then posted it on Facebook. A little bit later in the day, I’m tagged, or linked—I’m horrible with all the lingo for this stuff—and it’s the Rosa Parks Museum. And I’m just like, holy shit. People who know me realize that kind of stuff to me is a bigger deal than the Museum of Modern Art.”

That led the Rosa Parks Museum, on the campus of Troy University, in Montgomery, Alabama, to invite Kerr to host a solo exhibit there last year, titled “You Can Color Outside the Lines: The Work of Tim Kerr and Friends.” The show commemorated the sixtieth anniversary of the bus boycott. During the lead up to the show, Kerr befriended Parks’ former minister, Reverend Joseph Rembert, who was retired and driving a student bus at the university but has since passed away. The two collaborated on a mural memorializing minor characters in the boycott.

Kerr is better known as a music producer and the guitarist in the early eighties DIY band the Big Boys, whose funk-inflected punk, fronted by the flamboyant Randy “Biscuit” Turner, inspired acts ranging from Fugazi to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But Kerr has been making art since he was drawing with crayons.

His work from the past dozen years makes full use of the color wheel to create vibrant portraits of cultural innovators, many under the radar, from John Trudell, the Native American writer and activist, to Vivian Maier, the photographer masquerading as a nanny. “People that did stuff because it needed to get done,” Kerr said. “Not to be famous—they just did it. And look what happened?” The portraits, rendered on nontraditional canvases like plywood, cardboard, and skateboards, are often accompanied with painted text reminiscent of folk art—perhaps a quote by the subject, or words of Kerr’s to help put the subject into context for the viewer.

Kerr is bringing more than one hundred of his paintings to Saturday’s one-night-only show at Hardy and Nance Street Studios, in Houston, including some from the Rosa Parks collection and others by his artist friends. Among the pieces he made exclusively for the show are portraits of people associated with Houston, like the artist Reverend Johnnie Swearingen and the musicians Archie Bell, Washington Phillips, Mance Lipscomb, Nathaniel “Pops” Overstreet, Frankie Lee Sims, and Conrad Johnson. “I’m always trying to tie in where I’m at, because the idea is, if you show up and you see Archie Bell, it’s like, ‘Oh man, that’s my uncle.’ Or ‘I used to go to those shows.’ It’s just getting that connection going.”

There’s also a painting of Harvey Milk, the gay rights activist, made specifically for Houston Pride Week, with this message: “If a bullet should enter my brain let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country.” Billed as “Your Name Here: Tim Kerr & Friends,” the pop-up show and artist talk is the culmination of Kerr’s residency with Paper and Space Collective, a Houston group of independent artists. “We selected Tim because he fits our mission perfectly,” said Brandy Black of Paper and Space. “As an artist and person his focus has always been community, what he can give back and how he can inspire or teach people.”

Kerr, who is sixty, grew up surfing in Lake Jackson. When he went to the University of Texas to study painting and photography, he traded the waves for the pavement and gravitated toward skateboarding. It was the dawn of a new era in skating, even before the Big Boys helped birth the Thrasher scene.

Kerr used his hobby as a platform for his art, taking photographs of his friends pioneering new moves. His subject matter was so foreign at the time that his teacher of three years, Garry Winogrand—the great New York street photographer who taught at UT in the mid-seventies—thought he was trying to pull one over on him. “I would take skateboarding shots from the pools—this was like ’75, ’76, so it’s kind of hard for people to comprehend now that people back then could absolutely not comprehend skating in swimming pools—into Gary’s class, and he’d literally just give them a look and be like, ‘We’re not doing trick photography in here.’” Kerr had to convince him he wasn’t manipulating the skaters’ never-before-seen maneuvers.

Earlier this month, the former producers of Fun Fun Fun Fest, the eclectic Austin music festival, announced their new festival, Sound on Sound Fest, in November. Both titles are aped from songs by the Big Boys. There is also You Can Color Outside the Lines, a documentary in the works on the Big Boys, by the Austin filmmaker Joe Salinas.

Graham Williams, one of the former organizers of Fun Fun Fun now working on Sound on Sound—and an interview subject in the documentary—has essentially staked his career on the legacy that Kerr and his bandmates left not only for music but the counterculture in general. “The Big Boys were, sort of, the main band in the early eighties in town that were moving the underground music scene forward,” Williams said. “They put on the shows, made the posters, brought bands from other cities to Austin to play, and drove the whole ‘start your own band’ mantra to the scene. I’m not sure if I’d be doing this if it weren’t for bands like the Big Boys in the beginning of the Austin punk community thirty-five years ago.”
Hardy and Nance Street Studios, in Houston, June 25, 6 p.m., paperandspace.com

Other Events Across Texas This Week

AUSTIN
Barking Frenzy
A homecoming show for the Austin rock band A Giant Dog in support of their album Pile might inspire frontwoman Sabrina Ellis to push her stage antics to Iggy Pop-ian levels when she sings songs like “Sex & Drugs.”
Beerland, June 24, 9 p.m., agiantdog.com

ARLINGTON
Wet and Wild
The only gun we point at each other should be of the water variety, and at the World’s Largest Super Soaker Battle that will be the name of the game, with the aim to break the Guinness World Record for “largest water pistol fight,” which included 3,875 participants.
Maverick Stadium at UT-Arlington, June 25, 6 p.m., recordbattles.com

PECOS
Buck Up
The West of the Pecos Rodeo has been keeping the tradition alive in Texas since 1883, and with age it just gets better, having earned two high honors in 2015 from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association: Top 5 Large Outdoor Rodeo nominee and Bucking Horse of the Year.
Buck Jackson Arena, June 24–25, pecosrodeo.com

HOUSTON
Peace, Love, and Understanding
The Orlando massacre happened just seven days before Houston Pride Week began, prompting an ugly tweet threatening a “massive shooting” at the festival, but this Saturday’s culminating parade will likely draw record crowds in support of the LGBT community.
Downtown, June 25, 12 p.m., pridehouston.org

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  • Jesse Sublett

    I love Tim Kerr’s art. Great article on a fine artist who definitely deserves the recognition. I’m also grateful for Graham Williams’s contributions to keeping Austin rocking, but I have to say that all those bands (my own, the Skunks, included) and fans who were at Raul’s and Continental Club and everywhere else in Austin in 1978, as punk rock was shaking off the 1970s progressive country doldrums, would be very surprised to hear that there was no “punk rock community” here until 1981 when the Big Boys started their cool band. Maybe it was just a mathematical oversight.

    • T Kerr

      Big Boys were playing Raul’s in 79 .

      • Jesse Sublett

        Well, OK, sorry about that. Nobody wants to lose a few years, but we all have trouble sorting it out, me included. Time, it’s a funny thing. Kind of like trying to eat peas with a fork.

        • T Kerr

          no worries (smile) and thanks for the kind words