Scott G. Brooks’ art is less Winnie the Pooh, more Smokey the Bear — if Smokey were a scruffy, sexualized gay bear, that is.
Though he started his career painting murals in his hometown of Flint, Mich., it was the works he created in his spare time during high school that shaped the artist he is today.
“When I went home and I would paint for myself,” Brooks says, “I wanted to do something a little more fun and edgy and a little more reflective of the kind of person I was.”
In the decades since, the 54-year-old’s pursuit of making art “that’s unique and will get people to pay attention” hasn’t been without controversy. But it’s also come with great success. Brooks has been one of D.C.’s most recognized artists since moving to the area 25 years ago. And his work goes beyond signature oil paintings to encompass digital work for clients (regular readers have enjoyed several of Brooks’ designs on our covers).
For the past several years, Brooks has worked out of his home studio in a spacious upper-level apartment, just north of the 9:30 Club, that he shares with his partner Mike Layton. His colorful, cartoon-inspired artworks often feature characters based on familiar faces around town, most recently Metro Weekly‘s 2013 Coverboy of the Year finalist Jared Keith Lee and folk singer-songwriter Tom Goss.
In December, Brooks will present works in a Star Wars-themed show at the Anacostia Arts Center, his first local showing in years. Right now, however, you can see his latest works in a solo show at New York’s Last Rites Gallery. “Inappropriate Nature” features 11 large-scale paintings that playfully pivot on serious concerns about the nature of humans. “There’s irony in these works,” Brooks says in his official artist statement. “Much of what is considered natural, such as nudity and sexuality, is deemed inappropriate by contemporary standards.”
METRO WEEKLY: “Inappropriate Nature” is your third show in the past decade at this gallery in Hell’s Kitchen. Tell us more about the gallery.
SCOTT G. BROOKS: Paul Booth, a really well-known tattoo artist, is the owner. The main floor of Last Rites is where the show is, and in the basement they have a parlor — they call it a Tattoo Theater. It’s always very dark pop, and very edgy themes, so it’s a really good fit.
This is my first solo show since 2011, which is kind of a long stretch for me. It spans a couple years of work. I’ve been working on including more natural surroundings in my paintings. Just more nature and landscape elements. But there are always people in the paintings. All my work can sometimes get a little edgy, so “Inappropriate Nature” seemed like a perfect title for the show. A lot of people look at my work kind of suspect. I think it makes people uncomfortable, and they look at it as odd.
MW: Because it’s too playful in depicting serious concerns?
BROOKS: I don’t know. I’ve always just painted what I wanted to paint. I didn’t really worry about whether it fit other people’s ideas. Stylistically and technically, I do strive to get better, and make it as technically accurate as I can.
I just kind of have a good time with it and put in whatever I want to put in. There are gay references from a lot of pop culture and politics in all of my work, but in the newer work as well. There’s one called Monsters of War. And there’s a lot of nudity. Although they’re figurative. All of my work starts with a model and a figure, and then I work around that. I embellish and create a tableau.
MW: Is this the kind of work you’ve always wanted to do?
BROOKS: Yeah, pretty much. I didn’t quite have an idea of this type of art. I grew up in Michigan, and I was surrounded by either wildlife or religious art. We had the sad-eyed puppies, and the Keane prints. Children’s books or comic books or cartoons, Disney — that was kind of what I thought about. I got into murals when I was in high school. I was invited to work and do some murals at the local school. And I ended up painting more than 100 murals all over Michigan, the Flint and Detroit area.
When I went to college I expanded my view of what was possible. And right away I just started doing stuff that was a little odd, and a little darker. I grew up watching science fiction, and monster movies — the same as most kids. So it didn’t really seem odd to me to start painting stuff with monsters and things that were a little bizarre. Because that’s what was fun for me to watch. I never was really interested in just painting landscapes or wildlife. I do have some straight-out wildlife paintings of bobcats and deer from when I was really young. And there is a lot of wildlife in my work. The “nature” part of the “Inappropriate Nature” comes from that. It’s still interesting to me — but to focus and just become a wildlife artist, I knew that wasn’t going to work for me.
MW: Were your parents encouraging of your artistic pursuits? What did they do for work?
BROOKS: My mom was a nurse, and my dad was a barber. My dad kind of got me going in art. He would draw. And he thought of cutting hair and drawing as very similar, because you had to visualize the haircut. Before you started cutting you had to know what you were going to cut. And we would sit down and draw.
They were supportive, but I think they were more supportive of me playing hockey and hunting. I’ve played hockey since I was young. I had two older brothers and a younger sister and we hunted and fished. It was much easier for me to just go along with the crowd. They bought me paper, they bought me pencils, they bought me canvasses, but they didn’t really know — you know, we don’t come from an art background. And I don’t think they really knew what was possible. My mom is still around. She’s very proud. I’ll have a show up in Flint in April. My first show in Flint since I left 25 years ago.
MW: What’s the theme of that show?
BROOKS: It’s called “Unfinished Business,” which is kind of appropriate. You can take it a couple different ways. A lot of the work that’s going to be in the Flint show will be work that’s already done — some pieces that I finished, but I wasn’t quite happy with them, so I’m going to be re-working them a little bit.
I left 25 years ago, and a lot’s changed. I wasn’t really out back then. I mean, I did go out and I lived with my partner at the time, but it was pretty low-key.
MW: This isn’t your first show in Flint?
BROOKS: Well, I showed in Flint a couple weeks before I left. And in that show there were some pieces that were banned. It was a public space. People who had the space came over and saw my work and they asked me to not put in a few pieces because they were inappropriate.
MW: So you took them out?
BROOKS: Yeah, I understood. It’s a difficult position for both of us. It was a bank lobby. I’ve shown in galleries, which isn’t really an issue. But this was a public space. They were just figurative sculptures and paintings. Papier-maché sculptures, which had breasts, and animal/people hybrids.
MW: Have you dealt with censorship at other points in your career? Or other episodes where there was interference or pushback displaying some of your work?
BROOKS: I don’t recall any problems. I don’t really think about it too much. In galleries, you don’t really have to worry about it. And certainly in this gallery, Last Rites, it’s pretty much a free-for-all. And that’s why I like it. I don’t ever have to worry about them being offended by something I paint.
Two decades ago, I had a sculpture in the HRC auction. And it was called “An Allegory of the GOP.” And it was like a little fat Buddha/bald eagle-ish kind of character — a Buddha with a big belly, and then in his claws was a cross. And he was maybe sitting on a Bible, I don’t really remember. People at the auction — there was a struggle back and forth whether to leave it in. There was the sculpture that I had made, and then right next to it was a box of porn videos. And yet my sculpture was the one that people were disgruntled about, because of the Republican angle on it.
One piece, Monsters of Medicine, was in the restaurant area at Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum. We had it up for a couple days, and then they decided it was just too much, and so they had to take it down. People were complaining.
If I rack my brain I will think of others. It happens on occasion, where a piece doesn’t work. I don’t take it personally. I’m not doing this to be controversial.
MW: When did you know you could make this your living? When you were commissioned to do the murals in high school?
BROOKS: Yeah. I started working for myself right away. And part of the reason I started doing kind of the bizarre weird stuff was because — for work, for the murals, I was doing Winnie the Pooh and Big Bird, and elementary school characters. So when I went home and I would paint for myself, I wanted to do something a little more fun and edgy and a little more reflective of the kind of person I was. I learned early on that I could make a living from it. And I sold stuff early. I used to do a lot more commissions. I don’t do commissions too much anymore.
MW: I understand you once gave Smokey Bear a makeover, on commission from the United States Forest Service.
BROOKS: That never really took off. I did Smokey Bear, and I did a bunch of them. But the forest service never really — they used it a little bit, but I don’t think they really got into it. Because I think he was too big and he was burly and he was hairy. I don’t know where the artwork is. I know they printed a few of them. It was kind of when the bear culture was just coming up — 1996 or 1997. I was aware of the bear culture. I had some friends who were very self-identified as bears. But I didn’t think I was quite there yet.
MW: And now?
BROOKS: [Laughs.] I’m pretty close now. Recently, I did a take off on it called Spanky Bear for a friend’s birthday. Which is basically Smokey Bear in Daisy Dukes and nipple rings and leather, a paddle.
MW: Is that the type of benefits your friends get: special artwork for their birthdays?
BROOKS: Not very often. [Laughs.] It’s so personal. Even my family, I don’t give them artwork very often. Because I think it’s a very personal thing to have hanging in your home. It seems a little presumptuous of me to say, “Here, you need this piece to put in your home.” If they like a piece and I know they like a piece, then we can talk about it. It’s kind of expensive just to give away as gifts. [Laughs.] I’ll give prints away. But I don’t give original artworks away.
MW: What are the average costs for your artworks?
BROOKS: The smaller pieces go for $2,800. And then it goes up to $15,000. The most expensive was $16,000.
MW: And people can buy older artworks, those no longer represented by a gallery, through your website?
BROOKS: Yeah, people contact me all the time to buy. And we have open studios twice a year through Mid City Artists. Within the neighborhood, there’s about 20 to 30 of us. So people come through and I’ll sell stuff that way.
MW: These days you’re creating more work digitally, though I understand that’s strictly for commissioned commercial work, such as the occasional Metro Weekly cover.
BROOKS: I’ve always done both commercial illustration and fine arts. It was always this weird kind of split-personality thing. The stuff that I do in digital is for commercial clients, children’s books. It’s a way for me to separate — okay, now I’m doing fine arts, now I’m doing work for myself. I turn the computer off, and this is my work now. And again, that’s why I can kind of let myself go and not really censor myself. I don’t restrict myself. I just kind of do whatever I want to do and not really worry about an audience. They’re not created for the public, they’re created really more for me.
MW: Who do you work for in the children’s book realm?
BROOKS: The last one I did was in 2013 for the Imagination Stage up in Bethesda. It was called Mouse on the Move. They created a book based on a play that they did. So that’s for sale up there. It’s got cute kittens and mice.
It really throws people off when they find out I do children’s books. My work has got a lot of characters, and there are a lot of fun aspects to it, so it’s not much of a stretch for me to go from something like that to this. And I’m incorporating more illustration elements into my work. The new pieces — you can see the little monsters and little characters. So I can see the crossover pretty easily, but some people have a hard time. And I think people assume that, if I’m doing a children’s book, I’m going to sneak stuff in. I just have no desire to do that.
I think next for me would be to work on my own. I have some ideas for my own children’s books. It would maybe be a little more twisted and dark than your typical, but it’s not so unusual. I would be careful and I would be sensitive to the age group, like Grimm’s Fairy Tales, or Roald Dahl. I mean, there are some really dark children’s books out there. And the kids, what they’re seeing these days early, early on is pretty, pretty dark.
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