Hebru Brantley, via Onasis
Chicago artist Hebru Brantley grew up in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood and operates out of Lacuna Artist Loft Studios in Pilsen. Despite his lack of formal training, he’s become one of the city’s country’s hottest talents, with celebrity admirers such as rapper-mogul Jay-Z and rocker-mogul Perry Farrell, who in 2011 commissioned Brantley to create artwork commemorating the 20th anniversary of Lollapalooza.
And while much of his music-inspired, often spray-paint-based work sells for thousands of dollars, the thirty-two-year-old Brantley also offers far less expensive items (starting at just $10) in the form of limited edition Hebru Brand merchandise. He’ll be on hand to sell some of it — and talk with fans — Friday, August 2 through Sunday, August 4 from noon to 8 p.m. at a pop-up shop dubbed “Penny Candy.” The storefront at 902 S. Wabash will feature Hebru hoodies, tote bags, iPhone cases, stickers and Giclee prints, as well as guest DJs to crank out the jams. Brantley, as you might know, loves his jams.
Question: You sold a piece to Jay-Z. Does that somehow give you more credibility in the art community?
Hebru Brantley: Honestly, I don’t even like to talk about it. It was something that happened and I’d like to just push forward. I’ve sold pieces to lots of famous people, but Jay-Z seems to be the one that sticks. It’s kind of one of those things: I’m very grateful that they have a piece from the collection, but Jay-Z didn’t make me and he didn’t break me.
Q: Did the Jay-Z sale lead to other celebrity sales?
A: Yeah. I get approached quite often to do certain things for [well known] collectors. Obviously that’s a bit more glamorous. But the nobodies — the doctors, the lawyers, the accountants, the money people — I still get them as well. I think I have a very broad group of people that collect [my work]. I think it’s really cool.
Q: How much classical training did you have?
HB: I had zero training. When I first started to paint and just wanted to know how to do certain mixtures and things like that, for probably about two weeks I snuck into my friend’s painting class [at] the Art Institute of Atlanta. I went and just observed one day and then kept coming back about four or five times. So they thought I was a student before I got the boot.
Q: You threw yourself a huge birthday bash in Pilsen a few months ago. Was that intended to be a showcase of sorts?
HB: I wanted to be selfish in a way and just have all of my favorite things in the same place for my birthday. I’d never had a bash. It was something to say, “OK, I’m here,’ and I guess test my celebrity a little bit — see how well it would be received and who would come out.
Q: In Chicago, do you get noticed more or less?
HB: I get noticed at the most obscure, weirdest times. I get noticed quite a bit. But I’m six-eight, so it’s kind of hard to hide it. A six-eight black man with curly hair.
Q: What are the origins of your name, Hebru?
HB: It came from my mother. My mother always knew I would be great at something. She always told me that as a little boy. So she wanted me to have a name that was different and very unique.
Q: Your girlfriend, Angela Carrol, is a model. Does she steal your thunder when she walks into a room with you?
HB: She steals my thunder every day. I wake up in the morning and it’s like, Beauty on one side, Beast on the other.
Q: Does she inspire your art in some way?
HB: Absolutely. I pull inspiration from anywhere I can get it, but she’s my muse… The pieces that she gravitates toward tend to be some of my stronger work.
Q: Have gallery shows changed a lot over the years?
HB: They’re constantly changing and evolving. When you first start out as an artist, it tends to be a core group of people that come to your shows, mostly, or friends and people supporting what you do. But it’s started to change. I still have a lot of that, but I also have a lot of people that are new to Hebru Brantley — that are familiarizing themselves with my work and want to see it, want to purchase it. And it’s all different races, colors, creeds, ages of people that tend to come out. It’s an experience.
Q: Are you finding that people who don’t have money are shying away from your art now, thinking they can’t afford it?
HB: No. People want to see what’s next, what’s new. I’m very loyal to my customers, to the collectors that have been with me since the beginning. I tell people, “You can make deals with galleries all the time for what you’d spend on a weekend out.” And on the flip side, I’ll have certain events — like what we’re doing at the pop-up shop — to basically have things at a lower price point. Merchandise that goes along with the brand but that is affordable for people on a budget — people that don’t necessarily have thousands of dollars in the bank to invest in a painting or who don’t have the space for a large painting but believe in the brand and appreciate what I do. I did a show a while back, sort of a pop-up event. This kid comes in. This was around Christmas. And the owner of the store was telling me he’d been in several times over the past two weeks, looking at my work. And he finally came back the last time for a very small piece I had — an etching on paper. And he pulled out all his money to buy it. The owner said the kid was literally counting quarters on the counter. To me, that’s super touching. The hardest thing to do is reach someone in a younger generation that doesn’t necessarily step inside a museum or gallery often enough to have a certain knowledge about fine art. But he still appreciated what I do and the message that I’m bringing forth.
Q: In a way, that must be just as humbling as Jay-Z paying 20 grand for one of your pieces.
HB: The fact that anybody wants one of my paintings [laughs]…Sometimes it’s like, “Damn, OK, these people actually like the s— that I’m doing.”