Tim Kerr’s studio, a generous space with 12-foot-high ceilings, feels like a holy chapel where the practiced religion is built on the pillars of art, skating, music-making, punk, and friendship.
Tacked on every wall and surface, Kerr’s figurative portraits — on skateboard decks, on pieces of cardboard or paper — and their neologisms act as leaders of the congregation, imparting wisdom and optimism through their loose, fluid lines.
During a recent studio visit — both Kerr and I were masked — music played from an iTunes playlist on an old computer, among the songs “Rock Island, 1931” from the “Road To Perdition” original motion picture soundtrack.
An outbuilding behind his North Loop neighborhood home, Kerr’s studio is a visual cacophony. A rafter above displays a hand painted slogan “Proud To Play The Same Song All Night Long.” Messages such as “The Rich Write History, The Poor Write Songs” and “Don’t Follow In The Footsteps of the Masters, Seek What they Sought” are casually written in black on the walls of the studio, surrounded by other works on paper and scribbled inspirational notes. A large grey file cabinet displays drawers labeled “Paper,” “Friends,” “Band,” and “Art” with the dogma “I do not wish to be an artist, I only wish that art enables me to be.” A long list of traditional Irish tunes dons the large back wall alongside portraits of politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk and photographer Lee Friedlander.
Kerr represents a previous Austin era, when attitudes around art and music in the city were more casually subversive and accessible.
Among the pastiche lies a stack of portraits for Kerr’s forthcoming book, commissioned by Alix Books in Spain. The volume will feature 50 portraits of, among others, cowboy musician Sonny Curtis, Sippie Wallace aka “The Texas Nightingale,” and street photographer Garry Winogrand — who Kerr studied under as an undergrad at the University of Texas. Kerr is also fond of drawing objects, particularly cameras. Photographer Spider Martin’s Minolta camera is depicted in one sketch, as equally characteristic as its human counterparts.
Kerr paints on colorful construction paper with paint markers and a mix of paints, mostly the cheap stuff, he says, like tempura, gesso and acrylic, sometimes blended together. For this book, he’s creating three to five versions of a portrait, but ultimately only his favorite of the bunch will make it into the book. Mono/Rhetorik Press in the Netherlands is also working with Kerr on a book of paintings and photographs, hopefully coming out later this year. And he recently illustrated “Ghost Notes,” a book by veteran music writer Michael Corcoran about pioneering Texas musicians. It was released by TCU Press in March, just as the pandemic shut things down.
Along with his trio of book projects, Kerr says he’s surprisingly been receiving a lot of requests for commissions during quarantine. He always keeps his artwork reasonably priced, around $500, depending on the size of the piece.
“Most of our friends don’t have jobs anymore. All the clubs are shut down, the restaurants all this stuff, so nobody’s got money,” Kerr says. “You’re barely gonna have enough money to get your groceries and stuff. I can’t believe anybody’s even wanting to buy art.”
The coronavirus pandemic forced Kerr to cancel a trip to Los Angeles for a music and mural project at an elementary school in East Los Angeles. Likewise a trip to Germany for a pop-up art festival was crossed out. His work would have been included in a photo show Recspec Gallery was hosting for West Austin Studio Tour.
Nevertheless, Kerr has kept up painting every day per usual, and he has been experimenting with alt-process photography, putting together objects around the house to make a DIY enlarger using a camera and iPhone to make Caffenol prints.
Kerr said he and his wife, Beth, were recently discussing the result of the quarantine on their day-to-day activities: “We started realizing what it is, is your head isn’t filled with all this stuff that’s coming up. It’s fine because nothing’s coming up, so you basically can do all these things that were on the back burner all this time.”
Austinites might recognize Kerr’s work from his prominent mural commissions on downtown buildings such as Stubbs, East Sixth’s Volcom Garden, his mural memorializing Willie Wells behind South Congress, Pease Elementary, Clown Dog Bike Shop and Leona Gallery, to name a few. He has also worked on a handful of murals in the Red River Cultural District, namely the “We Are All Making History” mural on Elysium and the mural commemorating early Austin musicians at 9th and Red River streets.
Kerr signs his murals, and many of his artworks, with the moniker ‘your name here.’ It’s meant to act as an agitation for people to pick up the spirit of DIY and make something for themselves.
“I sign everything ‘your name here.’ And the idea is, if you look down at the bottom of this picture, and you’re wanting to see who did this and you see ‘your name here,'” he says. “It’s like, come on, do something, you can dance, you can make clothes, you can do art, you can make music, do something.”
Kerr, whose work centers around untold histories and Civil Rights issues, drew a sketch in reaction to recent protests against police violence with the message “If you really are a good cop, it’s time you call out the bad ones.” The sketch will be printed on T-Shirts in collaboration with Chicago company Threadless, with proceeds will go to BLM related charities.
With his interest in untold histories, Kerr’s work often features people of color, their stories and their backgrounds. He says he’d love to get a coalition of artists of all races together to do murals around town on the history of Austin’s Eastside.
Kerr recently posted to Instagram a painting he did of Fredrick Douglass along with Douglass’ quote, “It’s easier to build strong children than repair broken men.” Kerr added: “There have been a couple times where I was accused of appropriating cultures. From day one of doing these portraits, it has always been about celebrating these people and maybe getting the viewer to educate themselves on the particular person they are looking at.”
Claudette Colvin, known for refusing to give up her bus seat years before Rosa Parks, was the subject of one of Kerr’s murals, painted on a wall in Manhattan.
“The idea is to show that every single one of these people, for the most part, how they started was DIY, it was them deciding that something needed to get done at that point in time,” he says.
Kerr, 64, moved to Austin in 1974 from his hometown of Lake Jackson, Texas, to attend UT’s art school, where he received degrees in painting and photography (and a Ford Foundation grant). He jokes now he doesn’t understand why people attend art school, where you “don’t learn anything but bullshit and an attitude.”
He grew up surfing and skating, remembering that urethane wheels for skateboards didn’t emerge until the year he moved to Austin, revolutionizing the sport. He grew up in an education-steeped household, his mother a librarian, his father a principal. Even his two brothers ended up becoming coaches. But Kerr always did things a little differently.
“(My parents) were both really supportive but I think that my dad really thought it was cool that here came a boy that wasn’t doing football but was doing something else,” Kerr says.
Kerr delved heavily into Austin’s DIY punk rock scene post-graduation in 1978, drawn to the community-based and accessible aspects of the culture. He worked at a record store and frequented Raul’s, a popular live music venue on Guadalupe Street that became known for punk rock music in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“The music was secondary,” says Kerr. “To me what was so frickin amazing was there wasn’t a barrier between the band and the crowd, which at that point in time, there were always barriers when you went to shows. Everybody in that crowd was just as important as the band that was up on stage,” says Kerr. “I thought, this is the greatest thing ever.”
Kerr performed with his band Big Boys, which started in 1979, and many other notable Austin groups including Poison 13, Bad Mutha Goose, Lord High Fixers and Monkeywrench. While he spent the 80s and 90s primarily immersed in music, Kerr continued to make art, mainly political and band posters and record covers. His contributions to punkfunk, skate rock, grunge, and garage music led to Kerr and Big Boys being inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame in 1996. These days he is performing old time tunes with a friend, Jerry Hagins, in their duo Up Around The Sun.
Kerr’s musical career had already started to slow down when a fire destroyed Sweatbox Studios in 2006 where Kerr was recording. He began to pick up larger-scale art projects and paintings again.
“Every once in a while in this lifetime, there’s that one big step where you’re just like, ‘Look, now things are shifting, what are we doing now.’ And that was one of them,” Kerr says. “We had stopped going out as much, we were going out at least a couple of times a week. All of a sudden now I’m starting to play Irish music and old time so we’re doing that at people’s houses and we’re not going to clubs anymore.”
Kerr reflects on the interconnectedness of people, art, and how inspiration can be transferred in a variety of ways.
“I don’t think a lot of artists realize all the different levels that that self expression has,” Kerr says.
Kerr has always kept up with his art practice but requests for commissions and shows increased in the last 15 years or so. He says he always likes to incorporate a “friends wall” when he has an exhibition, a chance for other people to display work. But he’s found the notion is not often reciprocated like it used to be.
“There’s that whole generation in the ‘90s — graffiti artists, bikers, skaters, all kinds of people decided that, ‘Well, we can’t show art here. Nobody’s letting us sit at the cool lunchroom table. So we’re just going to do this over here. And if you want to come, come on’,” Kerr says. “I realized with the art (world now) nobody shares or at least most people don’t share. They hold their cards so frickin close that… you say there’s a community but there’s not.”
The pandemic and recent Black Lives Matter movements have forced museums and galleries across the world to rethink their missions and pivot to alternative programming. Kerr says this time is a good opportunity to reassess the value these organizations bring to Austin — or don’t bring.
“If you have that switch switched and you realize that art is everywhere, you really don’t even have to step into a gallery or museum. I mean, art is everywhere,” Kerr says.
Like many artists, Kerr has experienced the art world’s insularity first hand. In his way of thinking against the grain, he hopes art institutions will open up more in the future and give artists their due while they are still alive, as opposed to honoring them in their absence. Kerr says he’s been promoting Austin for a long time nationally and internationally, but it has never resulted in much traction in the local arts community.
“You would think at this point, I would have been asked by some of the people here, like the UT museums or any of these people, because I’ve had three or four museum shows elsewhere, and I’ve had shows all over the world,” Kerr says. “Nobody’s interested at all. And I’ve even written to one or two and nobody even writes back.”
He’s weary of sounding egotistic, but makes a valid point. It’s no secret that Austin’s lack of affordable housing and creative venue space posits challenges for young creatives. And today’s more diffusely-identified generation does not have the solidified cultural movement like Kerr did back in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Whether it is due to the collaborative nature of music and the more singular nature of art, or recent changes in Austin, Kerr says there is a lack of widespread inclusion in the arts.
“It’ll come around again, something’s gonna happen and hopefully coronavirus is really gonna spark something to come around again,” Kerr says. “Something that’s broader and more universal.”