Some of the biggest names in music appeared at the Lancaster Roots and Blues Festival this past weekend. If you looked around you may have noticed Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, Dr. John, Honeyboy Edwards, James Cotton, Frank Zappa and more. They were all on display at Exton-based artist Dane Tilghman’s booth.
Dane Tilghman’s ‘Zappa’ painting at #lancrootsblues With his outre “pop” arrangements and subversive and highly sexualized lyrics, people might not immediately think of Frank Zappa as a patriotic symbol. But Zappa was an outspoken advocate of free speech and strongly opposed Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center (the committee that planted those Parental Advisory stickers on albums). Zappa was an energetic participant in the political process and used his celebrity status to draw attention to issues like freedom of speech in public debates, Congressional hearings and other forums. And though, to the best of my knowledge, he never had green hair, he was probably one of the weirdest, most creative and unique artists of his or any other time. I asked Tilghman what he thought of his ‘Zappa’ painting. “People were asking ‘When are you going to paint Zappa?’ But I don’t like this piece. It didn’t work for me. I looked through a whole bunch of photographs [to base the painting on] and finally came up with this one. And it works for people who love Zappa, but for me this is like a failed experiment. The green hair doesn’t fly. This happens a lot. When I’m painting it’s a present moment experience. I’m right there in the creative process and for the most part I’m happy – then there are those times you hit that wall and here comes frustration. And you press through it and finally finish. Then someone will see it at a festival and say, “Whoa, I love this!” And all I’m thinking about is my experience of painting it.” I love this painting. Maybe that’s because I’m a fan of both Frank Zappa and Dane Tilghman. If you’re at the @lancasterrootsandblues festival be sure to check out Tilghman’s booth at the Convention Center. #lancrootsblues #flyrootsblues #danetilghman #art #zappa #creativeprocess #interviews
Tilghman has been a professional artist for more than 30 years and has produced more than 6,000 paintings. One of his paintings hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
“The first painting I sold was in college. I sold it for $25,” says Tilghman. “I considered myself a professional artist at that time.”
He’s a big, friendly guy, quick to share personal stories, talk about his art, talk about the blues, talk about history and have a few laughs. A CD player at his booth plays “Wang Dang Doodle” by Howlin’ Wolf. Tilghman’s been listening to a lot of Howlin’ Wolf lately, because he wants to learn how to sing his music. People recognize him from other blues festivals and stop by. A couple from his church come by and introduce themselves, another acquaintance stops by the booth and comments that Tilghman has tried to bring him to church a number of times but hasn’t made progress. They talk instead about the blues. Which is kind of a religion to lots of people. People aren’t really buying his big pieces, which sell for thousands, but they’ll pick up a print, a postcard, a mousepad or a magnet – or just look at the art and talk.
Tilghman graduated from Kutztown University with a degree in graphic arts. He was the first member of his family to attend college. A string of 26 different jobs followed while he tried to make it on the art circuit. He worked in a restaurant (his longest job, at four years); a funeral home in North Philly, where he swept the floors, moved bodies and made grocery runs for the owner in a hearse; and worked a number of security guard jobs.
“I liked the security guard jobs because they were night jobs and I could paint,” says Tilghman.
He quit working for other people after his 26th job, when he was almost run over by a train. “It seemed like a good time to quit,” he laughs.
He set out to make a living strictly from his art. “In the beginning it was just about paying rent,” he says.
He hustled around selling a collection to a gallery in West Chester, but the money didn’t stretch as far as he hoped. He kept hustling. He created lines of post cards, greeting cards, fans for funeral homes, small prints and, of course, kept painting. He started with pencil and watercolors, painting meticulously detailed nature scenes of dry rocks or rocks and leaves under water – things that could take up to 150 hours. Blues musicians might call it woodshedding. Tilghman was in the process of mastering his craft.
And like the legends of blues music and the flashy stars of Negro League baseball, whom Tilghman idolizes, his art comes first. He’s truly passionate about his work.
“I was going up against the Chester County artists, the Peter Sculthorpes, the Andrew Wyeths,” says Tilghman. “I really wanted to put myself on that level in terms of skill.”
Tilghman’s style is an amalgamation of realism, impressionism, cubism and folk art. Tilghman is adept at each of those styles, but his work is most alive when all of those elements are at play. Certain figures are distorted – hyper-elongated and appearing larger-than-life and otherworldly. He’s developed a style of his own. He calls it “Tall Tale” art. It’s a perfect match for his favorite subject matter – old bluesmen and legends of the Negro League baseball days. Larger-than-life figures who glow in the blue light of myth and mystery.
Stories are what really fuel Tilghman’s art. He enjoys nothing more than hearing stories – and when he hears stories, vibrant images begin to appear in his head and he needs to put them on canvas. It’s obvious that Tilghman loves history. When he first came across images of Negro League baseball players, he was amazed by the rich tapestry of stories he came across. He knew he needed to paint them. Tilghman collected every book he could find on Negro League baseball. He tracked down players like Double Duty Radcliffe – who was known as the black Lou Gehrig. Tilghman once drove 100 miles out of his way to visit Radcliffe, who was in his 90s at the time, just to try to hear a few stories. Radcliffe wasn’t in the mood to talk, but allowed Tilghman to snap a few photos. Stories are like gold to him. He needs to tell those stories through paint. He takes the sepia tones of history and brings them to life in vivid splashes of color.
“It’s about the history, honoring their existence on Earth, honoring the contribution they made to the blues and society,” says Tilghman. “Even though [the musicians] became famous they all had hard times at some point, which keeps it real. Just like with me. Nobody becomes an overnight success. You gotta pay your dues.”
Fittingly, the mysterious Robert Johnson was the first blues musician that Tilghman painted. But it wasn’t the music that inspired Tilghman to immortalize the bluesman, it was a photograph. Tilghman works from black and white photographs as he paints.
“I look at an image and I want to connect with the soul of that photograph,” says Tilghman. “I have to make that connection, because when I paint them, I want to be able to tell a story through that painting. It’s sort of like folk art.”
He shows me a piece called “Wisdom.” The painting is of an old grandmother figure sitting on a wooden rocking chair on her porch, her thick legs enlarged and elongated. The vantage point is from someone sitting at her feet, absorbing all the homespun words of wisdom she extols. The image came from a photograph that Tilghman came across. But the story takes on a magical twist when it’s told through Tilghman’s brush; it becomes surreal and dreamlike.
A few years ago, before my wife and I were married, we saw a painting of Tilghman’s in a gallery in Rehoboth Beach, Del., and were mesmerized by the color and silent dignity of the sleeping seated man, napping in a purple twilight. We would visit the gallery when it was open and look at it. We would stare through the windows when the gallery was closed for the night. We weren’t able to buy that painting, but we started saving money. My wife would put aside some from her paycheck; I’d save some tips from my job as a bellman. If I managed to win a few dollars at the racetrack, they went into the jar. Eventually, we saved enough to buy this painting, “Boy on the Run.”
The subject here isn’t famous, He’s a young man – a drifter, a hobo who hopped freight trains during the Depression and followed the harvest. He’s anonymous. Tilghman told us when we bought the painting that he got the image from a PBS documentary called Riding the Rails. I found the movie online and the boy from the painting materialized on the screen in my living room, directly below the painting. As I sat with Tilghman during the Roots and Blues festival I pulled out my phone and showed him the original image that he had used to paint “Boy on the Run.”
Tilghman laughed. “That’s him. Who knows whatever happened to him, but at that moment in time there he was and I felt obligated to immortalize him in paint.”
Visit Dane Tilghman’s website to check out more of his work.