Chad Anderson has a clear memory of one of his early drawings — a “graphic struggle,” he once called it. He may not have been even 5 years old, growing up in Starkville. He was listening to music, something from his parents’ record collection, Willie Nelson’s “Stardust.” On a different day, it might have been his dad’s Booker T. and the M.G.’s, or his mom’s piano concertos.
“I loved the music, and the only way I knew how to respond to it at that time was to draw the artist,” Anderson says, recalling his crude effort to replicate Nelson’s image from the album. It’s probably the same way a lot of kids begin to draw, copying characters from a comic or an illustrated book. “As an only child I spent a lot of time at a very young age with headphones and my parents’ music. I would listen to records — all kinds of stuff, and I’m thankful for that — and I would draw.”
So that may answer the question of which came first — the music or drawing. The two passions have occupied most of Anderson’s first 40 years, at times even pulling him in divergent directions. They intersect in his exhibit, “12 Bar Bridge: Rhythm in Portrait.” The 30-plus works are on display through January at the Columbus Arts Council’s Rosenzweig Arts Center in downtown Columbus.
Masters and mentors
Through charcoal pencils and pen and ink, Anderson, an accomplished drummer and composer, pays homage to past and present masters of jazz music, “a tip of the hat to my own musical inspirations,” he says. The collection might, at first, stump the casual observer into thinking there is more than one artist at work. Three distinct styles are featured, each expressive in its own way.
There are large charcoal drawings on toned paper that capture jazzmen like Gregory Hutchinson, Brian Blade and Geoff Clapp with nuanced insight and flow.
“They’re more traditional, a visual language I think the public can grasp,” says the Mississippi State University alumnus. Anderson was also an assistant professor of art at MSU.
Then, there are more abstract pen and ink portraits of musicians like Sam Rivers on saxophone and Boris Kozlov on upright bass, dramatic in stark black and white.
“And I also include some of my blind contour drawings. I like to show them in contrast with the charcoal portraits because, in reality, all of them — even the pen and ink portraits that are kind of abstracted — are all related,” the artist says. “You can’t have one without the other.”
Seeing, without looking
Blind contour drawing is an exercise to train the eye. The artist doesn’t look at the paper as he works; there is no shading, only lines. Anderson made most of these drawings at live music performances.
“You have to be very aware of feeling where the pen or pencil is on the page,” he explains. “Students sometimes don’t like it because they think it’s a failure, because it doesn’t look realistic. But really, it’s one of the best workouts you can give your eye and your hand in terms of hand-eye coordination for drawing.”
The connection between art and music came about for Anderson through blind contour drawing. He used to sit in the drum room of his musical mentor, Arthur Fielder, as the influential jazz musician instructed him and played. Instead of taking notes, writing down rhythms or patterns, the pupil drew.
“I never really thought about this ’til later, but when I did that, it allowed me to become aware of his motion, how he moved his body, the way he hit the drums,” Anderson says. “I started to draw really fast and gestural, because he was moving all the time. It took me a long time to realize it came from absorbing his playing through those drawings.”
The artist extended the blind contour practice to other musicians’ performances. It wasn’t about how the finished product looked; it was about the feeling. “That’s why I like to have those little square [blind contour] drawings in the show. Drawing students don’t believe they’re important, but it’s just as important as a realistic portrait.”
Anderson’s roots in Northeast Mississippi fueled his leaning toward art and music. Influences including high school art teacher Nelle Elam in Starkville and MSU art professor Brent Funderburk are among them. Early drum instructors like Jay McArthur helped inspire his fervor for music.
There were times Anderson struggled with which career path to pursue. He was told he’d never reach a certain level in either one unless he chose which to concentrate on. As one of his recent influences put it, “Chad, you can do it all, just not at the same time.”
When the moment came to declare a college major, he selected art.
“I had a lot of mentors at the right time, mentors who guided me in an incredible way to what I needed to do to kind of move ahead,” he says.
The music, though, was of great importance, too. He found a way to meld the two by coordinating public happenings where artists created canvases to live jazz. During the premiere of “12 Bar Bridge” at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College in 2013, he set up easels and encouraged attendees to try their hands at blind contour drawing as he performed with other musicians.
As an assistant art professor at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama, Anderson currently has his focus on the visual. He lives in Jacksonville with his wife, Patrice, and 6-year-old son, Max. He’s not active musically.
“I don’t own a set of drums right now. I don’t play music, and I’ve come to terms with it. I’m trying to deal with this grown-up life,” he laughs. “Having a child and all those things you have to do with work and life … I can’t travel like I used to. I used to be gone every weekend to somewhere like Atlanta, New Orleans or New York.”
But he’s not done with music, not by any stretch.
“In my head, I’m always still working out music. I’d go crazy if I didn’t,” he smiles. “I’m not ‘retired.'”
He takes Mississippi with him wherever he goes. His old running grounds in and around Starkville and Columbus — he lived in Columbus twice — yielded “incredible creative productivity.” Something in the water, he says. During his time in Columbus, Anderson completed his first album recording under his own name, “People Here.” He also created the “12 Bar Bridge” body of work.
“There is a groove that Mississippi has, and it seeps into the visual and musical work I create. It’s not something I try to make happen, it just seems to be there,” he says.
Also there is something his musical and life mentor Alvin Fielder used to tell him.
“He’d say, ‘Hey man, you’ve got to tell your story … with whatever kind of art you make,'” Anderson shares. “I’ve always carried that with me. I even tell my younger students that you always leave a trail of stuff; whether you want to or not, you leave a legacy. So you need to be aware of what you leave behind you as an artist.”
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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