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Painting the Vision of a Hip-Hop Musician

Painting the Vision of a Hip-Hop Musician. The collaboration between hip-hop MC Killah Priest and visual artist John Newsom merges mystical lyrics with vibrant natural imagery in an exhibition at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC).
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Painting the Vision of a Hip-Hop Musician

BRATTLEBORO, VT — Painting the Vision of a Hip-Hop Musician.  The hip-hop MC Killah Priest is known for his work with the Wu-Tang Clan and for writing mystical, almost psychedelic lyrics. Visual artist John Newsom is known for creating richly detailed paintings of the natural world. The two men joined forces for an exhibition currently on view at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC), which features the original artwork Newsom created for Killah Priest’s 2023 album “Forest of the Happy Ever After.”

In connection with the exhibition, which is titled “Painting the Forest of the Happy Ever After” and runs through June 16, Killah Priest will perform at Brattleboro’s Stone Church on Tuesday, June 4, at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at stonechurchvt.com. The night before – Monday, June 3, at 6 p.m. – Killah Priest and Newsom will take part in a meet-and-greet at BMAC. All are welcome, and there is no charge to attend.

The music of “Forest of the Happy Ever After” is layered with a wild variety of sounds and lyrics, and Newsom’s paintings capture the same mood, depicting colorful landscapes teeming with plants and creatures, each one taking its cue from the album. In one painting, a Tree of Life camouflages a gnome, a mythical spirit said to be the guardian of Earth’s energy systems. In another, a river represents the knowledge that Newsom sees flowing through Killah Priest’s rhymes, which are a “masterpiece of penmanship and lyrical wonderment,” Newsom says. A portrait of Killah Priest, which appears on the album’s cover, shows the musician surrounded by flora and fauna, like a natural deity or shaman existing in both an imaginary realm and the physical world.

Painting the Vision of a Hip-Hop Musician

“As a devoted student of hip-hop, Newsom connects deeply with the meaning of Killah Priest’s music, and his art reflects that connection,” says BMAC Director Danny Lichtenfeld. “His intricate depictions of flora and fauna represent primal forces, psychological states, and ways of being in the universe.”

In the museum gallery, Newsom’s paintings are complemented by walls painted two shades of green, a small library of books on nature and mysticism for visitors to peruse, a seating area with naturalistic wooden furniture handcrafted by Vermont artist David Holzapfel, and Killah Priest’s music playing in the background. “Rather than simply exhibiting the paintings,” Lichtenfeld says, “we sought to create a holistic environment, a multi-sensory experience.”

Newsom’s artwork is included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the New York Public Library, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and many others. He finds inspiration in other artists who have balanced the making of fine art and album art, such as Raymond Pettibon, who illustrated albums for Sonic Youth, Iggy Pop, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the late Mati Klarwein, who made album art for Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, and Carlos Santana.

While Newsom made the paintings for “Forest of the Happy Ever After” during the singular experience of the pandemic, it wasn’t his first time creating art to accompany a hip-hop album. In 2015, he contributed original artwork to “Fly International Luxurious Art,” a solo album by Raekwon, another Wu-Tang Clan musician, who ended up connecting Newsom with Killah Priest. When Newsom collaborates with musicians, he has a clear objective: “I’m like a visual scribe,” he says. “I look and I listen.”

Founded in 1972, the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center presents rotating exhibits of contemporary art, complemented by lectures, artist talks, film screenings, and other public programs. BMAC is open Wednesday-Sunday, 10-4. Admission is free, courtesy of M&T Bank. Located in historic Union Station in downtown Brattleboro, at the intersection of Main Street and Routes 119 and 142, the museum is wheelchair accessible. For more information and accessibility requests, visit brattleboromuseum.org, call 802-257-0124, or send email to office@brattleboromuseum.org.

BMAC is supported in part by the Vermont Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support is provided by Brattleboro Savings & Loan, C&S Wholesale Grocers, the Four Columns Inn, Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters, and Whetstone Beer Co.

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