Local artists worked with Dane Arts Mural Arts to create the large-scale, stylistically varied pieces.
Photo: Details of three portraits of musicians Kilo Skitl’z, Raine Stern, and Rob Dz. Photos by Steven Spoerl.
Madisonians love music but, for better or worse, rarely put their hometown musicians on a pedestal. The different pockets of local music here lend themselves to approachable, informal relationships between artist and audience, not to the creation of towering icons. Even the artists with big personalities and tremendous creative gifts are often taken for granted. In a new set of large-scale portraits, five painters ask us to pause for a moment and appreciate six of the musicians in our midst with a sense of quiet awe.
Dane Arts Mural Arts, a privately funded spinoff of the county’s Dane Arts agency, developed the project from a mural-painting workshop it hosted this past spring. An out-of-town artist had reached out to DAMA with a proposal for a mural of multi-faceted guitarist and songwriter Raine Stern, explains Alicia Rheal, DAMA’s mural production director. “DAMA doesn’t find walls for other groups,” Rheal says. “We kind of do our own stuff.” This provided the spark for a different approach: DAMA would pair locally based visual artists with Stern and a few other artists with Madison ties, and instead of painting them on walls, they’d use 4′ by 8′ panels that can travel around a bit.
“Madison is rich with musical talent and folks that don’t often get the spotlight they deserve,” Rheal says. “The nice thing about having different musicians and musical styles is that it lends itself to having different artistic visions for each musician.”
None of the visual artists involved work in murals as their main focus, and some had never gotten much opportunity before to do large-scale works. Rah Gerg, whose paintings and drawings range from abstraction to intimate portraiture, painted Stern and rapper/spoken-word artist Rob Dz. Angelica Contreras, best known for rich and complex mixed-media works, took on guitarist and songwriter Angela Puerta, who also works on music and arts issues in her role as a planner at the City of Madison. Lincoln Rust, a full-time tattoo artist, portrayed saxophonist and Café Coda owner Hanah Jon Taylor. Painter and collage artist Keysha Monique portrayed another MC, Kilo SkitL’z. Chele Ramos, who largely focuses on portraits, took hip-hop producer DJ Pain 1 as a subject.
Except for Contreras, who has seen Puerta perform at festivals around town, most of the painters didn’t go into this knowing much about their subjects or their music. Rheal provided each artist with some reference images, and they all did some research and listening. The painters didn’t actually meet the artists until the portraits were unveiled at an Art Party happy-hour event this August. So the musicians portrayed didn’t necessarily have an active, collaborative hand in the portraits. But having a little distance from the subject isn’t always a bad thing. What the painters found in the musicians’ faces and work pushed them all to take some stylistic chances.
DJ Pain 1 has produced beats for artists including Public Enemy, Young Jeezy, and the late Nipsey Hussle. He’s also built a following as a source of insight on the business of hip-hop production, and has released a series of signature drum kits and sample packs for other producers to use. His DJ drop is a raspy voice yelling, “DAMN, THAT HURT!” Ramos didn’t focus on the rugged power of his music.
“I saw a real gentleness behind his eyes,” Ramos says. “I wanted to portray the gentleness in his eyes, and also I wanted to show him as this successful artist.”
Ramos’ portrait shows DJ Pain 1 very much in his zone—he’s looking up from his mixer, making a gesture toward the viewer, but one senses that his attention is still very much at the controls.
“I think part of the challenge there was also deciding where to draw the focus,” Ramos says. “I knew the face needed to have a lot of that focus, but I kept wanting to make everything really detailed, and so I had to stop myself from doing that and really try to draw people into the face as opposed to the whole picture.”
Ramos’ portrait of Pain 1 was the first of the bunch to be finished, so it was under his intense gaze that the other four artists worked on their portraits at DAMA’s warehouse space, just off Stoughton Road. Gerg, who sometimes spent 10-hour days working on their portraits and serving as a “hired brush” for other DAMA projects, jokingly refers to Pain 1 as “my biggest critic.” At times, multiple artists got to work in the space at the same time, trading feedback and ideas. The resulting pieces do seem to really fit together as a body of work, while still giving each artist room to take a distinctive approach.
The painters found that this process also made for a roundabout but powerful way of getting to know the musicians. “I’d never painted a portrait of a person who I had never met before who lived in my community and who I was going to be meeting,” says Monique. “I felt a lot of pressure, even though it hadn’t been laid upon me.” As a visual artist, Monique found a natural affinity with Kilo’s interest in color—the rapper titled her 2018 mixtape L.I.A.R. (Living In A ReignBow).
“I thought it might be nice to bring that element of color into the piece, to flavor her very vibrant personality, from what I gathered of her, as well as her interest in the colors of the rainbow,” Monique says. “So, combining that to make a statement that’s really up to the interpretation of the viewer is really what I was going for.”
Monique portrays Kilo in a three-quarter profile, gazing calmly off into the distance amid a densely textured patchwork of oranges, greens, yellows, and pinks. The effect is both very contemplative and very tactile. Monique also wanted to make the portrait a nuanced statement about the racial diversity of the arts world, aiming to capture “the sentiment of being out there in the world as a woman of color, expressing yourself in the arts scene, as well as in a scene that’s very male-dominated,” she says.
Rah Gerg felt similarly drawn to Raine Stern, reflecting that they’re both “queer young people in their early 20s, and so it happened to work out really well that I [worked] on their piece.” The two ended up hitting it off after the portrait was done, and Gerg has even gone on to create some merch for Stern.
“When I was painting them, I got a sense that we were similar people, and when we actually got to talk, we really were just on the same wavelength with a lot of the things that we’re passionate about, but also our sense of humor,” Gerg says. Stern even ended up “signing” the headstock of the guitar in Gerg’s portrait. The piece portrays Stern standing on what might be a stage or a massive tree stump, set against cascading plants and a full moon. And fittingly, both artists are in the process of moving on—Gerg is working on an undergraduate degree at the Rhode Island School of Design, and Stern is moving to LA to pursue the next stage of a music career that has already included a brief run on the NBC show The Voice. Completing this circle of art and music feeding off one another, Stern recently released an instrumental piece called “Forking Paths,” which draws inspiration from murals and street art around Madison.
As nicely as all the six portraits fit together, Gerg produced something of a show-stopper with their portrait of Rob Dz. And this gets at the heart of the project. If you’re out and about in Madison, it’s pretty hard not to run into Rob Dz, and for all his contributions as an artist and organizer, he’s an easygoing, friendly presence. Gerg paints him like a king. Against a lush, flowing background, Dz looks out from the painting at an angle, projecting serene, stately confidence. His right hand is holding up a piece of paper, which DAMA has used to frame an infographic about the Greater Madison Music City project.
“The way that I view these people that I’m painting is in sort of this devotional, awe-striking way, where I’m so impressed by the work that they’re doing and the things that they stand for that it just sort of automatically is translated into the composition that I put together and the way that I have the light situation in the pieces,” Gerg says. “I want it to feel like the environment is built around them, in a framing way, that is supporting their power as people.”
For the portrait of Angela Puerta, Angelica Contreras started with some observations from seeing Puerta perform live. Contreras surrounds Puerta with concentric circles of softly textured color, and captures Puerta blissfully swept up in the moment. “I knew there was a strong connection with her instrument, the guitar, so we wanted to add that,” Contreras says. “I noticed she makes these gestures. When she is singing, she closes her eyes a lot. I tried to reflect that.”
The project also pushed Contreras to branch out technically, both in terms of scale and materials. “There was a learning curve there,” Contreras says. “They use housepaint, so that was the most challenging thing, just the use of the material, in my case, because I’m an oil painter.” Among other things, housepaint dries faster. Oil paint gives an artist a bit more time and flexibility to work with it on the canvas, something Contreras often harnesses to create intricate and fluid layers. In the painting of Puerta, a microphone cable seems to drip and dissolve away into the fretboard of her guitar.
Lincoln Rust also set out to capture an artist fully bound up in the music. “I’m a jam-band, Grateful Dead sort of guy, but I love jazz and blues as well,” Rust says. He combined his own psychedelic leanings with the traditional iconography of jazz to show Hanah Jon Taylor powering through a moment of heady improvisation. Patches of color appear to fly right off of Taylor’s scarf. His fingers warp and bend around the body of his tenor saxophone, which takes on a glossy, liquid texture. Rust explains that he wanted “really just for his style to come to life, to bring a little bit of motion to the [painting].”
Currently, DAMA staff and Dane Arts head Mark Fraire are working on getting the paintings set up in the lobby of the City-County Building downtown. “My goal eventually is to place them permanently on the outside of the Dane County transportation building at Fish Hatchery and Badger Road—they would fit perfectly on the side wall there of that building,” Fraire says.
There’s more where this came from.
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