Fascinating Rhythm
The Dead's Mickey Hart brings Grateful Vibrations to the Wentworth Gallery

By Lee Valentine Smith

Since 1967, Mickey Hart has been best-known for his drum and percussion duties with the Grateful Dead. But he's also an accomplished artist, writer and music historian.

From experimental audio installations to scientific explorations of brainwaves to a new series of abstract paintings, following his own erratic tempos has led the inquisitive musician to explore the many realms of rhythm.

As news was announced recently that Dead & Company, the current continuation of the Grateful Dead, would be a headliner of 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Art and Music Fair this August, Hart was busy prepping a solo art exhibit.

This weekend he hits for the road for a three-city art tour presented exclusively at Wentworth Gallery locations - with stops in Maryland on Friday, Virginia on Saturday and at Atlanta's Phipps Plaza on Sunday afternoon.
Hart spoke with INsite from his multi-media studio in Sonoma County, California.

The Vibrational Expressionism tour is heading to three cities this weekend. Is this the beginning or the end of this leg of the tour?

This is it. I just do a few of these so this will be the beginning and the end. This is just a weekend tour. It's not like a book tour or a music tour or something like that.

It's an incredible project, though. Very different from your brain exploration exhibit last year at the Museum of Natural History.

That was thunderous. But yeah, that was another kind of visual component to my sonic world, which is the same as the art I'm doing now. It's a good place to start. It's synesthesia. It's a moment when one can express themselves sonically and in life. There's a connection between the two because that's what I do all day. I'm in sound and it's affecting my brain sonically. These visuals are just a roadmap to higher consciousness. That's what the paintings are. It just has music in it because that's what it's all about. It's raising consciousness. It's pushing gamma waves - gamma and beta - that's what's happening in music and that's what's happening in these paintings. When I see them, I get the same feeling as I get when I'm rolling around in 40 cycles Hz, which is gamma waves. That's where you want to be in gamma.

As with your music, there's a lot of light and space in each piece.

That's what it's turned into, visual light. It rises to the consciousness as light and color, I guess. It's really a reality from another dimension. It's self-illumination mixed in with the physical world.

There's a definite fluidity to it.

It's flowing. That's what I do musically and that's what I do in these paintings, I improvise.

Part of that flow comes from the lack of a brush to the surface.

Right. It's a pouring medium as opposed to using the straight edge of a brush. I haven't used a brush in, I don't know how long. It's called Vibrational Expressionism because I vibrate them after the pour goes down. I use vibrations to bring out the detail and to do the final expression on the canvas, wood or plexi or whatever medium I'm focused on. That's what gives the great detail of the paintings. It's amplified by these incredible fluorescent and iridescent paints I use. That's how I go about it.

Tell us a little about the actual process.

I use a thing, a superstructure you might call it. I call it "Rainbow." It allows me to take the piece and finesse it all around, up and down, in circles. I needed motion so I created an instrument to be able to do this with. It's really a lot of fun for me.

Do you use certain rhythm patterns to create specific effects or is it completely freeform motion?

Oh yeah. It's all about the rhythm. I say to myself, 'It's the rhythm, stupid.' No matter what I do, it's there. Whether I play drums, whether I live life, love. All of that. Love is a good rhythm. Hate is a bad rhythm. I just see things in rhythmic terms. These paintings are all about rhythm. That's the motif. Seeing the edges and all of the detail, it kind of freezes the rhythm. And behold, a whole life force is in action. It's a dynamic moment, which is then frozen into a static image.

So it's all connected.

Absolutely. Painting feeds the music the music feeds the painting. It's two halves of the same experience. From that, you can see mountains, streams and rivers or whales, ice peaks or palm trees. It's just like the music of The Dead. You can hear anything into it and with these paintings, you can see anything into it. Everybody will be able to experience a different thing. That's what I like to do - stir people's imaginations and raise their consciousness.

It's circular, like a sound loop or a musical hook - or even a drumhead.

Yes! These paintings have no beginnings or endings really. Think of an ocean. You look at the waves and you can hardly tell the beginning and you can hardly tell the ending. So I use gravity, movement and the vibrations of the canvas and then I just drum it into life. Or vibrate it into life.

Thus, the title of the show.

Yeah, because people started calling it that. Gravity is my friend in these sorts of things. With the mixture of the paints, then one thing leads to another. It's a language I've really been learning over the years.

When did you start painting? It looks like years of experimentation went into the process.

Well it started innocuously enough. I was shopping for my daughter many years ago, for toys for Christmas or something. On the way out of the toy store, there was a little kid's kit, you know? Just a basic little art kit. I said, 'Oh great!' So I bought it and brought it home for her. But she never used it. Then I picked it up and started playing with it. Actually, I think that was the only time I ever used a brush, in the very beginning.

And so it began.

Yeah, it was gouache, you know? It had been sort of out of favor over the years, but I started painting and it just came to life for me. I starting moving it around and it was like, 'Wow! I can do this!' So just by accident I fell into it. Now I just love it. It's really cool and I'm getting so much joy from it. It's really healthy for me.

Some of your earliest images were, not surprisingly, skeletons.

(Laughs) Yeah, oddly enough! I guess they were sort of on my mind. I call them psychopomps. They're very much part of the living world, but they're also spirits or guides. They guide you to the other side, basically. It's very much a part of the living but they also signify the impermanence of life. The crossing over from life to death. That's one of the main purposes of music - or art - is to take you on that voyage. It tells a huge life story: Enjoy yourself now because life is impermanent. Hopefully you'll get a spirit guide - when it's time. My daughter, when she was young, she was like, 'Daddy, what are all these skeletons and skulls?' I was like, 'Well dear, you'll understand soon enough.'

The paintings are very personal, one-of-a-kind expressions. How do you select the pieces to sell through Wentworth?

Well I do them for me but then you want to get some of them into circulation. I like to share them with people and have them do good stuff from the feeling they get from them, just like with the music. It's what you take away from it. A painting just sitting there is doing nothing. It's all about what you get from it and then what you do with what you get. Or else you might as well not be doing anything, it's meaningless. Just throwing paint on a canvas? Any drumbo-head can do that.

You're releasing some very personal expressions out into the world.

It's hard to let them go. I've had to take some back. I sent them to Wentworth and put 'em for sale and then I think, 'No I can't do that.' So I do bring back some things that I send. Sometimes I'll wake up in the morning and go, 'Oh not that baby, that ain't goin' nowhere.' But I'm prolific, as they say. I paint a lot. Maybe half of them are in my vaults. You're very right on, because yeah, they're pieces of me. But you can't keep everything. I even give them to my friends to put them on their walls to enjoy. They'll give 'em back after a few years, but I don't sell a lot of them. Sometimes I give them as gifts to my friends. They know my music by now. You want to give somebody a gift, so instead of going to a store and buying them something, why not give them a painting?

It's the best gift.

Right. I don't want to give anybody a CD. I mean, Jesus Christ! (Laughs) Send somebody a Grateful Dead CD? I can't do that.

When you face that blank canvas, do you have in mind what you want to convey or is it completely an improv moment?

Not completely. Just like with music. There's nothing that's completely improvised. Remember, you've got to practice hundreds of thousands of hours just to get your skill to be able to improv. So it's the same thing. I've learned the language of paint over the years. Then you have an idea. I think, 'Ok, I want to use these kinds of paints today,' or 'I want to do this in the formula and make this formula do that.' Then you walk up to the painting - or up to the canvas as it were - then you take a deep breath. Then you improvise.

But like with any jam, eventually it has to end.

Yeah, you have to know when to stop. That's the big deal with this, knowing when to stop the creational moment. That's key. To me, it's a meditation. I don't see painting as entertainment, I don't at all. It's not that kind of fun. It's fun because it gets me high. It raises me, it makes me think higher. It rearranges my priorities when I paint. That's what music does, too. That's what all good things in life do. And that's why I paint.

Dead & Company play Cellairis Amphitheater at Lakewood on June 29.



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