Portrait of a punk-playing painter
You’ve likely seen his work: the fences surrounding the House of Blues recording studios in Berry Hill, covered with smiling, mandala-like images of Nashville’s musical DNA; Hieronymus Bosch-esque album covers for Galactic and Hurray for the Riff Raff; the oh-so-Instagrammable mural on the side of Fanny’s House of Music in East Nashville, depicting a panoply of women taking the rock ’n’ roll lead from Sister Rosetta Tharpe forward.
What you may not know: The artist, Scott Guion, lives among us, and we’re getting to see what he hears.
Guion moved to Nashville over a decade ago, after a short-lived, post-Katrina return to his native New Orleans. He and his family now live in Inglewood and count among the proud creative contributors to the area, with Guion’s Tomato Art Fest submissions — surreal portrayals of usually disparate characters and elements joined together in a way that somehow makes sense — garnering high praise from attendees and judges alike. Take 2017’s “Best in Show”-winning “That’s all Folks,” which shows Barbie riding atop a Monopoly bill like a flying carpet, alongside G.I. Joe, MC Hammer, and Vanilla Ice, holding trays of food in front of a Piggly Wiggly grocery whose namesake mascot inexplicably watches television with Archie Bunker while Jesus, holding an automatic rifle, looms in the air. Not only does Guion take it all in, he has a way of making a statement that addresses all the world’s ills and ridiculousness simultaneously.
It might come as a surprise, after taking in his meticulously detailed work, that Guion happened into a field that has given him national renown by accident. Early on, Guion considered himself a “band guy” — he started playing in bands at 16, before he was old enough to get in the bars of late-1980s New Orleans.
“The art happened accidentally,” Guion says. “The flyers and cassette covers became an art form in itself.”
He always liked to draw, but “never gave a thought to it at all” as a career path, he says. Guion’s love of/involvement in live music led him to a job selling T-shirts at the House of Blues in the French Quarter, for both employment and steady access to some of the most vibrant musicians of the time.
Guion was fascinated with the establishment’s reputation as having the largest collection of Southern folk art in the world (really — there’s a Trivial Pursuit question), and their street-side chalkboard gave him an avenue to express his own creativity and enthusiasm for the incoming HOB acts.
“You know, art is part of the whole music thing of working here,” Guion says. “And it got really fun. And I got more and more into it. And I would come in to work in the morning before my shift and make this really cool chalkboard. I would be thinking about it a lot.”
At the House of Blues, he also met Brett Spears, whose decorative and scenic painting at the venue left a lasting impression. (He’s “still one of my favorite artists,” Guion says.) Spears, blown away by Guion’s fastidious chalkboard visions, invited the 25-year-old to the HOB in Chicago to create alongside him.
“Do you know how to paint?” Guion was asked. “I said, ‘Well, yeah,’” he remembers. “But I had never painted a day in my life.” A quick study, Guion said they found his style to be a perfect fit for the franchise.
He found the side trips to create art fulfilling but was still gigging as a musician in a “’90s monosyllabic metal punk rock” group called Rigid, with hopes of playing outside of New Orleans.
“No one ever came to New Orleans to look for bands that weren’t funk, weren’t Dixieland,” Guion says. Regardless, like many musicians here, he persisted: “I never made a dime playing gigs. You know what I mean? We would make, like, a hundred bucks and it would go into making flyers and T-shirts. . . . it wasn’t like a job, but we treated it like a job, for sure.”
Guion went on to marry (his wife, Melanie, is a musician, artist, and teacher) and start a family while still playing music, painting for the House of Blues and freelancing for companies including Tabasco. Although the Guions returned to New Orleans after being evacuated, they had a child on the cusp of beginning school in a city struggling to rebuild its collapsed infrastructure, and their neighborhood’s recovery had degraded. Existing in that city had become untenable, and Nashville, with its rich musical culture, called.
“I couldn’t get any kind of gigs, you know playing, doing art there, and playing in a very heavy metal band,” Guion says. “I was really into that. I really thought we were gonna do something with that. But, you know, Katrina really broke us up, and even for a while after we moved [to Nashville], I was trying to do that with them, and driving eight hours to do gigs and stuff. It just wasn’t working.”
Over time, Guion’s focus shifted from music to art. In Nashville, work with House of Blues locations around the country continued, along with other individual commissions (including some whimsical work for an 18-yearold Taylor Swift), while Guion began to familiarize himself with country music.
In his hometown, where radio offerings in the genre were scarce, his exposure to country music had been limited to weekly viewings of Hee Haw.
“It was like watching Soul Train,” Guion says. “I may as well have been watching Martians, you know. And it was like another world that didn’t even occur to me that it was what it was, you know what I mean?”
Here, Guion discovered something in the classic country players that resonated with his punk-rock sensibilities.
“The very first thing that I did was go to Ernest Tubb’s record store and buy Hank Williams — it was probably like 50 Hank Williams songs,” he says. “Well, yeah, that’s a good primer. I’m thinking, ‘This is the best music I’ve ever heard.’ Then I went and bought Merle Haggard, Buck Owens … then eventually I got into Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and more offshoots of traditional country.”
He was so impressed that calling himself a “guitar player” in Nashville began to feel uncomfortable, given the mastery of classic players and newer players such as Kenny Vaughan and Jack Pearson. “I think people just take it for granted,” Guion says. “And it’s in the air, you know what I mean?”
Today, the music itself allows Guion to create iconic homages to these musical heroes.
“I am addicted to music. And I don’t like to paint without it going on,” he says. “You know, even when I’m out there painting on those fences, I’m listening to the artists that I’m painting. It helps me to see them just beyond the representation of their face.”
Guion also researches his subjects before he paints them — the artist getting to know the artist, as the subject helps create the timbre of his portraiture. It’s made him pause to look at how we view our musical past, through the perspective of his hometown.
“If you’re a punk-rock kid growing up in New Orleans, you don’t know about James Booker or the Meters or the contribution of Louis Armstrong to the creation of a whole genre of music,” he says. “You just know there’s a park and an airport named after him.”
Guion has revisited many classic New Orleans haunts and figures in his work, and now brings a fresh eye to classic country in Nashville.
“You know that bumper sticker, ‘Visualize Minnie Pearl’? You need to visualize Merle Haggard, you need to visualize George Jones, even if you’re just driving through the neighborhood,” he says. “I meet the nicest people just sitting on the side of the road. It’s like, meditative, you’re in another zone and people will honk or they’ll stop and roll the window down and tell me that they dig it. Or they take a little detour on their way to work. And it’s like, that’s the coolest thing in the whole world. You put your art out there, and it’s a little piece of you when it’s anonymous, and you get to stand back and watch people enjoy it.”