Arts Profile: The Care and Feeding of ArtSnake, Rodney Hatfield

Arts Profile: The Care and Feeding of ArtSnake, Rodney Hatfield

The Care and Feeding of ArtSnake,
Rodney Hatfield

…the light yellow mamas are gone
the garter high on the leg
the charm of 18 is 80
and the kisses,
snakes darting liquid silver
have stopped:
no man lives the magic long
…if you were El Greco
or even a watersnake
something could be done.
this is the gift,/this is the gift…
certainly the charm of dying/lies in the fact
that very little
is lost.

-Charles Bukowski, “The Gift” 


Bukowski’s Roominghouse Madrigals fell open to “The Gift” when I picked it up from the floor of ArtSnake’s studio. It’s the one of the artist’s favorite poems. I’m not too up on Bukowski, but I figure any poet who can inspire one of my more urbane, sophisticated (but nameless) friends to sit on a curb and drink scotch from a paper bag is all right by me.

Far be it from me to explicate poetic texts, but the reference to El Greco seems as good a place as any to begin this profile. The parallels are positively uncanny (if you reach a little).

El Greco was an artistic pseudonym for Kyriakos Pheltokopoulos-probably adopted for phonetic considerations (or maybe he was just on the run from the law). ArtSnake is an artistic pseudonym for Rodney Hatfield-probably adopted to distinguish between artistic and musical careers (or maybe he’s on the run from the law, too). El Greco emigrated to Spain; Hatfield is planning a trip to New Mexico (where many people speak Spanish). El Greco struggled to express Spain’s “yearning spirituality” (according to Art Throughout the Ages); Hatfield grew up in an area where speaking tongues is not uncommon. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

We began the interview by deciding not to try to come up with any definitions of art, or Hatfield’s conception of art, or any empirical summaries about art’s place in the universe. I said those kinds of discussions usually make the artist profiles sound pretentious and pompous. (I’ve found that sort of statement usually puts and interview subject right at ease.)

Fortunately, he agreed with me, saying, “Anytime I try to sum up how I feel about art, [it] sounds overblown, rambling, or trite.” It’s one reason he avoids having “artist’s statements” at his shows whenever possible. One critic actually came to a show and reviewed the statement, instead of the work. Hatfield continued, “I don’t know the meaning of art. That’s part of the appeal to me-its mystery.”

We walked around his studio, and he pointed to various pieces that may or may not make it into his upcoming one man show at ArtsPlace (October 18-November 29, 1994), which is untitled at press. He said the studio is a bit more bare than ususal, a lot of pieces were at his current show (at the Swanson Cralle Gallery in Louisville until October 11, titled “Monkey Dreams”.)

I commented on one piece which stood out as a marked departure from what I knew of his work-a sort of abstract infant in blues or pinks. It used to be called “the baby”. He said nobody likes it ; everyone takes a look at it and says “ewww, an abortion.” While it does have a sort of fetal quality, the stage of development is really pretty ambiguous. He said he renamed it “the newborn”; so now “it’s at least implied that it made it.” We talked about another piece which had recently been covered over, He said, “As determined as I was to paint it, it was just as determined not to be painted.”

Aside from the ArtsPlace and Swanson Cralle gigs, Hatfield also recently participated in Folk Fest ’94 in Atlanta. The festival features art in the categories of folk, outsider, southern self-taught, and visionary. I asked him where he fit in, and he said he had “no idea”; he left that up to the organizers. Participating in Folk Fest was, for him, like being a “kid with something shiny.” He especially enjoyed the outsider art, which was often the work of artists in mental institutions, prisions, and from “way back in the woods.”

While in Atlanta, he made contacts that results in his being invited to participate in a show which will be held this winter at the Puck Building in New York-“the granddaddy of all outsider art shows.”

Hatfield’s work is also featured in several outstanding private collections, one of which is that of actor Liam Neeson. They met on the set of Partick Swayze classic, Next of Kin, parts of which were filmed in Kentucky. Although Neeson’s role was a little larger than Hatfield’s, I think the line that best captures the essence of the film was, “”Where do you want us, Truman?”-uttered by Hatfield in his memorable portrayal of (I think) Cousin Hoss. After the film, Neeson used to periodically leave messages, in various dialects, on Hatfield’s answering machine-he just liked to practice. (So a little bit of credit for last year’s Schindler’s List Oscar bonanza can be traced right back to Kentucky.)

A couple of years ago, Hatfield participated in an artist exchange program, “Partners of the Americas,” which sent him to Ecuador. He said the great thing about the program wasn’t just that he got to exhibit his art there, but the cultural immersion he was able to experience. While there he met a fellow artist, who was shaking noticeably as they were introduced. Through an interpreter, the man told Hatfield, “I’m not shaking because I’m nervous. I’m shaking because I’ve been drinking for thirty days straight.” He explained that his doctor had told him that if he didn’t quit smoking and drinking, he would die. The artist said, “If my body won’t do what I want it to, I don’t care [if I do].”

Many profiles on Hatfield have a way of casually sliding by his music career, currently (and for the past thirteen of so years) as harmonica player for the Metropolitan Blues All Stars. Not this one. The art and music seem inextricably linked to me; one informs the other.

When we sat down for the interview, the band had only recently returned from a gig on a reservation in Cherokee, North Carolina. When they played there last spring, they witnessed a stabbing and a strip show which featured acts of such feminine anatomical precision that they would bring a tear to the eye of fine Christian women everywhere if I were to recount them here. (I was appreciatively characterized by the band as “an evening of degenerate sex and violence.”)

This show passed pretty much without incident, unless you consider some amputee running around waving his stumps in the air, shouting “Laverne! Laverne! I can’t go home, I can’t find my arms,” an incident. Laverne being a large Native American man who had some sort of management responsibilities at the all where they played… Drummer David White also pointed out that the recent gig featured a wet t-shirt contest, which, on this particular reservation meant “totally nude.” Not there’s something you won’t encounter at the Puck Building everyday.

Talk about the “underbelly of the beast”. Hatfield said one of the perks of being in this particular band is their constant exposure to a “cross-section of society that would make Harry Crews or Cormac McCarthy blush.”

The trip to Cherokee came the day after Hatfield’s opening reception at the Swanson Cralle gallery and guitarist Frank Schaap’s record release party with another local band, the Yonders. They had been “hobnobbing with the hoi polloi.” When they stopped to get gas, Hatfield said, “Frank, last night we were big shots. Now we’re hunkered down in some gas station in Lake City, Tennessee watching the moon reflect in an oil slick.”

Hatfield’s roots in Eastern Kentucky are something he discusses with great affection. For example, I learned a lot about his Uncle Alan during the interview. He used to do lounge style singing (as in “Glow little glow worm/glimmer glimmer/shine little glow worm/ shimmer shimmer”). His efforts ultimately landed him on the “Ted Mack Amateur Hour.” The family trooped down the road to watch his debut on a neighbor’s television. Hatfield said they may have even broken in or something. Uncle Alan’s now a holiness preacher…who does bird calls. Another uncle says, “you oughtta hear him. He can call the birds right down from the trees.” Hatfield concluded this anecdote with the statement, So as you can see, showbiz is in my blood.”

If you want to see “Monkey Dreams,” you’ll have to head on up to the Swanson Cralle (it’ll still be in Louisville when the ArtsPlace show goes up). The painting is loosely based on an idea that David White had about how, during the Truman administration, a truckload of radioactive monkeys jackknifed in Eastern Kentucky, turning the cargo loose on the countryside. From there, Hatfield extrapolated that one of the monkeys had bitten his mother before he was born-and now, as a result, he had these monkey dreams. Hence, the painting. Gee, and I used to think I had a vivid imagination. And as for just how Harry Truman figures into all this, I guess we’ll never know.