Ahead of his exhibit at the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County, artist (and former Metallica bassist) Jason Newsted takes us on a tour through his studio and his process.

 

Jason Newsted comes outside to greet his guest smiling and barefoot. Inside the 1950s-era home, music is playing softly—Sigur Rós at the moment—and the space is bright with sunshine. There’s no AC cranking, despite the 90-degree late-May afternoon, just a gentle breeze coming in through the screen door. There’s an old tube TV, VCR, and stacks of VHS tapes in one corner. And then there’s art. Lots and lots of art.

A quick scan of the wide-open studio results in an unexpected discovery: On one side, there’s a remarkably bubble-gum flavor going on. Everything’s pink, and yellow, and either pastel or neon. And perched in this cheerful environment are a couple of beaming, plush Care Bears, showing off the cupcakes and rainbows on their tummies. So, wait… This guy was in Metallica?

“Oh, that’s my wife’s side,” Newsted offers, sensing the confusion in the air. “My side is over here.” Newsted, and his wife, fellow artist Nicole, live in Jupiter for part of the year, and this is the space where they make their art. There are paintings and drawings everywhere, finished and unfinished, in stacks, on easels, on walls; cans of paint spilling onto tables and floors…. It’s very clear that art is always happening here. “I probably did 20 pictures already since Sunday afternoon,” he says. (It’s Tuesday.) “Nick showed up three months ago, and here we are.”

Nick is Art Miami founder Nick Korniloff. The two met back in February and hit it off, so one night Newsted invited his new friend to his home to hang out and play music. Inside the jam room, Korniloff saw some of Newsted’s artwork hanging on the walls and pretty much said, “You’re going to Art New York, and you have six weeks to prepare.” At the time, Newsted hadn’t been painting much—those pieces were from a decade ago. Instead, he’d been focusing on playing music he enjoys with different musicians he knows, mostly for charities like Little Kids Rock and the Perry J. Cohen Foundation. Still, he accepted the challenge.

He arrived at Art New York with zero expectations. “A common thread with any artist who’s a real artist is self-doubt,” says Newsted. “It’s always there. I didn’t think I’d sell anything. I mean, there was a Basquiat across the hall 15 feet away!” But people did buy his pieces. Some of the quickest sellers were those depicting the “creatures” that have been prevalent in his work since he first got serious about painting more than a decade ago. While recovering from two shoulder surgeries in 2005-2006, he couldn’t play bass as hard as he’d like and instead turned to painting to channel his creativity. Unable to hold a brush well with an arm in a sling, he improvised, grabbing whatever was around to splatter paint on canvas. It was a process derived out of necessity that aligned perfectly with his natural approach to music and art. “I learned very little music theory on purpose,” he says. “I always want there to be wonderment in what I do. With painting, I don’t ever have a plan; the subject chooses itself. I pour all this paint on, sand and all kinds of crazy [stuff], moving the canvas while it’s wet. Then I stand back and let it reveal itself. When it shows up in front of me, it’s like, that was inside me? Most cool songs happen the same way. If you do it too long, it’s just enough time to ruin it.”

 
The creatures that have “shown up” on canvas are likely the byproduct of Newsted’s background as a metal guitarist combined with images floating around in his head of some of the artists he admires—Basquiat, Picasso, Pollock, Joe Coleman. “The skulls come from Basquiat’s skellies, but before that he got it from Picasso’s skellies,” he says. “I’d pour through books when my brain was tired and let it go into my gray matter. When I spit it back out, that’s what stuck.” When waiting for the subject to reveal itself, Newsted says he “chases the face,” seeking out eyes, bones, a figure in the abstract work, much like people see faces in clouds. “It’s a simple, childlike clairvoyance; it’s how you perceive it,” he explains. “That’s what I do…. And when it’s finished and someone sees something I didn’t intend or didn’t see myself, I love, love, love that.”

Newsted’s work has evolved over the years, with maybe five or six distinct styles that have transpired. In what he calls his tapestries, he uses two hands simultaneously to write a sentence, or a verse from a song, over and over again, forward and backward. He spins the canvas one quarter each time to create layer upon layer of the verse, upward of 300 times. The end result is an abstract piece reminiscent of Pollock whose lyrical basis is no longer apparent. The only people who know its true makeup are Newsted and the buyer: “I take pictures of it at every stage and give them to the buyer so they can see what it says. And once you live with it for a while, if you focus on one color and let your brain zombie out, you can find the letters or words.”

He has also made small sculptures and lately has been working with collage a lot, spending hours clipping words and pictures out of magazines while watching the news or Jeopardy. “It’s time consuming and labor intensive, but I love that it’s about what can be created out of something that wasn’t intended to be that,” he says. “It’s the same principle as the paintings and drawings: I never know what’s going to show up.”

Among the breadth of his work, some of Newsted’s personal favorites are homages he created in tribute to friends and inspirational figures he has lost: Alice in Chains vocalist Layne Staley, film director Akira Kurosawa, and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. “The best ones come from a deep, deep place where I’m paying someone respect,” he says. “The same for music: The deeper the song and what it means to me, I put that much more love into it.”

Newsted’s many styles and phases as an artist will be on display November 30 through February at his show at the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County. The exhibit will also include some of his guitars, a video installation, and an occasional musical performance by Newsted himself. It’s his first solo show, but he’s not sweating it. “There’s a Buddhist saying: ‘Every bird has just their song,’” he says. “There are many artists greater, more advanced, than me. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m going to go for it the way I’m going to go for it. Only I can sing my song.”

 

More with Jason Newsted

The former Metallica bassist is impressing collectors from New York to Miami with his paintings. Learn a little more about him, in his own words.

Photo by Harry Benson

Breaking the Ice
“I invite people over to jam. It’s kind of important to me that people who don’t play taste what I taste and feel what I feel because once you do taste it, it’s the most beautiful thing. I just put on a loop, and I’ll have couple of people who actually can play in the room, and I’ll put them in front of the microphone, and I’ll put up the stand up, and I tell them to turn to a page and… Go! It doesn’t matter if it’s punk rock or whatever, I have the pitch corrector on there, and the echo, so it sounds awesome no matter what you do.”

Landing in Florida
“I chased a girl here. It was the end of the Nineties, and I met her while I was on tour [with Metallica]. So I came to visit her here one weekend, and I was digging the vibe. Her mom was a real-estate agent, and she showed me some places. I ended up getting a place on the water—that was 1998. I’ve shifted five houses [here] since then.”

Process and Motivation
“My thing is, if you don’t show up to the studio, you can’t be there to meet the magic man. You have to be in front of the canvas, or in the vicinity of it, but you just have to be there. You have to be available. It’s the same thing with music: You have to put your hands on your instrument every day and keep the perishable skills from perishing.”

 
Soundtrack to His Art
“I have to have tunes while I’m painting a canvas, and the mix has to be varied—all languages, all styles. Of course, there are certain [musicians] that particularly help: Cypress Hill, Sepultura, Tom Jones, Los Lobos, John Coltrane…. And there’s usually an old VHS tape like Reefer Madness running on a loop.”

The Importance of Art
“Art represents civilization. It represents civilized beings having and allowing themselves enough time to enjoy beauty, rather than just having to work and feed themselves all the time…. There’s a German term, funktionslust, that means “enjoying the talents you have.” Too many people are afraid to. I enjoy my functions every day—whether it’s on guitar, painting, or singing. The few things I can do, I try to do them every day, just to prove that I’m alive, and to prove that I’m here, and to prove that I breathed that day. So, art is important because it can give people enjoyment, it can take them to memory mind places, it can take them to new places they didn’t know existed.”

Who He’d Love to See Hang His Art
“If Shepard Fairey bought a picture, that would make me very happy. I have great respect for his capacity. Continually chasing it no matter how much success you’ve already met—I know how difficult that is. He’s busy, and he keeps at it. I appreciate his gumption and his ambition. But I have [a piece] I want to give him already…. A musician person, somebody who’s a big Basquiat collector, really would make me feel good. People I look up to, who are steps ahead of me with their collection—Jeff Bridges and Tom Waits are two great examples. In my eyes, they can do no wrong. So, for them to recognize my work in that way, my paintings? I’d be over the moon for sure.