Chris Mantle’s controlled-chaos style is well known around town. Still, whenever I drive by his Cherry Street gallery and see something new in the window, I get a thrill: it’s always a refreshing surprise, whether it’s a subject matter I’ve never seen him do, or the stunning monochrome of “The Amethyst Bison” that was on display earlier this year.
Over a year ago Mantle announced a $2 portrait show on Facebook that became more popular than he anticipated. Now he’s working to finish portraits of the hundreds of Tulsans who signed up.
The $2 Portrait Show will tentatively be held Thursday, Oct. 28, at Chris Mantle Gallery, 1307 E. 15th St.
We discussed that project and of course his ongoing series of bison. He also discussed how he developed as an artist while growing up between Oklahoma and Louisiana.
Tell me about your portrait show. You made a post on Facebook that all people who commented you would paint their portrait for two dollars?
It's just me trying to raise people's spirits during this COVID time. I didn't realize that I would get such a great response. And really...hundreds of people coming in all at once. And so next time, if I ever do this, again, I'll have to say, "Hey, the first three people that comment I'm going to do your portrait"... not where it’s like the first 400 people or something.
You’re doing 400 portraits?!
It's somewhere in there. I've looked at the comment thread it’s like almost 600 comments. But that's not all pictures. It's one picture, then maybe two or three comments, and then another picture. I've done about 90, and I have about 110 left, so it looks like 200 plus portraits in there. I did intend on creating them in five or 10, or 15 minutes. But once I started doing it, I developed new techniques and inspiration that I just couldn't stop. Each one got a little better. I wanted to put more of that style into it, sometimes it would take an hour, two hours, sometimes I wouldn't work on it for another week or two, and then put another 10 minutes into it.
You know, sometimes I get burnt out, and it’s a few more months before I work on another one. And then I might do at 20 all at once. I've been going over how I'm going to present the portraits. And I'll have larger bodies of work available as well.
How fast do you work?
I can create pieces very rapidly, if needed. And a lot of times it's influenced by the audience. You know, whether you're singing in the shower, or you're singing in front of four or five people or singing in front of 500,000 people...some people never change what they do. But around people who are hyped up and sometimes they're more motivated. I noticed if I'm in front of more people, I can find the balance more quickly, it comes out easier.
If I'm left to my own devices and a gallery with nobody in there, I can get sidetracked. I can start developing other techniques. I'll sometimes have people call me several times and say, “Do you remember my piece?” Sometimes I'm working on 20 to 300 pieces at a time. Yeah, and I'll kind of load my brush up and I'll walk around my studio gallery and paint a little red here and there's too much red there and move on to the next painting. Where does red need to go? OK, right here on the ear. I’ll do this until I don't have any more paint on my brush and then I start over.
Then I'll have to step away sometimes, walk through the woods, spend a month talking to my grandma or something to recharge my spirit.
Tell me about your artistic development. I had been developing different styles since before I can remember. I used to receive letters from my father at Mingo trailer park when I was living there as a small boy, maybe four or five years old. He would send them from Louisiana...Envelopes with pictures that he drew of the swamps and things in Louisiana and the south coastal regions where he was doodle bugging, seismographing...I remember being fond of the bald Cypress knees sticking out of the swamp water and the moss hanging from the tree branches. They were all inspirational to me.
I remember a friend of mine worked at Blockbuster or the Family Video....He was always bringing these movies back and we’d watch these movies all the time. One movie he showed me was “Basquiat.” It kind of showed me the process of coming from scratch and making a masterpiece. He called it “stupid art.” He tried to sell it and he found Andy Warhol in a restaurant, and the movie just goes on to show how their friendship blossoms and he sells his artwork for $10 or $20 or $500.
I remember being so inspired after watching it and wanting to run out to Lafayette, the biggest city around at the time for me. I didn't know anything, so I just started asking people in groups on the streets. “Hey guys, do you know people that sell art? What do you do if you have talent to make art?” They would tell me, “Oh, yeah, you know, there's an art walk here First Friday at this certain location.” They started giving me hope that things would happen. I never did show there in Lafayette because I didn't have the gas money to stay there. I was with a friend. But I did leave with hope and inspiration.
I was rocking out in this little shed I kind of lived in, in Louisiana, and some rock and roll people came and wanted me to join their band. I jumped in the truck and went to Claremore, Oklahoma, where we tried to play music, and where I'd lived when I was a small boy.
We were there a couple of days...and then the band ended up selling their equipment. I had them drop me off in Tulsa where my mother was staying on 8th and Birmingham. I went to stay with her for a little while… I remember passing through Cherry Street and seeing Bourbon Street Café and all these kind of New Orleans things–a Louisiana kind of vibe. I took a little briefcase full of my pen and ink drawings and my art and started walking up Cherry Street. The first gallery I went into was Joseph Gierek.
He looked at a book that I had put together. When I turned 16 my mom took me to get a present. All I wanted was a blank book that I could put my own pictures and words in, and we took a bus to Barnes and Noble and found a blank book. That was the happiest gift ever received. I filled all the pages front and back for many years.
So I had this book filled with all these images, and that's one of the things I showed Joseph Gierek, and he said, “You know of all the things you're showing me this is probably one thing worth buying.” And I was excited. Oh yeah. 50 bucks, 100 bucks. He kind of chuckled. He's like, “No...you don't want to do that. I'm saving you right here. You don't want to sell it for that cheap. Don't worry, you'll make it. Here's a bottle of water, it's summertime,” then he gave me a bottle of water and I went on my way.
Then I ended up at 15th and Delaware where the Bead Merchant was. There’s a little apartment on top and there's little stores around the parking lot. In one of those stores was a lady named Nannette running a gallery called Seekers Art Gallery. You didn't have to have any sort of talents...you just had to pay for the square footage to get on the wall. She took me in, and I started selling off the walls.
I remember the first piece was a piece of ripped out cardboard I found on the floor. I drew a picture with my finger with maybe dirt or brown paint...just kind of drew an abstract figure kind of like Picasso or something. A lady saw it hanging on the wall on a piece of twine and asked how much. I think I told her $12 and she paid for it. I went and bought some Taco Bueno, I think, and then a new art set, new paint, and did it again. And I think this painting sold for $20 and then $30, eventually $100 and then $500. There was a market and people were enjoying my work.
All along I was inspired by Picasso. Picasso was very refined at first and the older he got the more simplified his pictures became...He would try to find the pure state of a figure or a subject. If you look at a horse, it may be too complicated...but Picasso will help you break it down into simple shapes. So it's firstly a rectangle and maybe a triangle for the head. You get these real basic shapes. That helped me create a lot of my work is sort of breaking things down into simple shapes.
Tell me about your bison paintings: You know, I used to be known as the tree artist, “Oh, you're that guy that draws all the trees.” For a long time, I just drew lots and lots of trees. And then I was a cello artist, I painted cellos for a long time. I’d paint them playing chess against each other. So many times over, I would develop a subject matter and people would know me for that, and then I would retire it and move on to something else. The Buffalo. People flock to it quite a bit.
I remember Vanessa Summerville had one of those little galleries on 11th Street. After several years of me having small independent shows, I had a buffalo show. I did 12 buffalo. People came to the show, and they loved it, they enjoyed it, they wrote about it, I was invited to do more. Most of the things sold. I went to Fassler Hall and they had a very large wall. So I could put more than 12 buffalo on it. And I could rip these buffalo out in 30 minutes, two hours. At first, it was a very, very primal expression of just sort of scribbling the figure out on the canvas, and the more I would do it, there was more and more details that people enjoyed. Oh, I love the feathering here, I love that color there. I love the way you can see both horns or one horn. I would take that information from all the people, and I would add it to the next piece and just keep developing it...OK, you want a little more red and blue on this piece and just keep adding and adding and every piece just develop further and further. Sometimes it would develop too far, and people would go, “I don't want that, I wanted this original version over here.” So I'd go back and be primal again.
Check Chris Mantle’s Facebook page prior to the show for updates