Hal Hembree runs his hand over the partitions of a vintage cafeteria tray, the kind school kids carried at lunchtime when he was growing up, and explains how he applied the vibrant zigzags of red, green and purple. To his left is an assortment of plastic cups bearing traces of multi-colored acrylics. To his right are quart bottles of liquid paints in neon colors.
He got the idea for the drip art after he and a handful of other artists at Chattanooga WorkSpace used a similar process in the second-story gallery, where they drizzled bright hues, layer upon layer, into a container, keeping the colors separated with an oil-based lubricant and swirling them with a stick before carefully pouring the striated, psychedelic mix onto the floor. After doing the same thing on a canvas about a year ago, Hembree saved the leftover paint to coat the segments of a lunch tray before preserving it with resin. His wife, who was already storing her jewelry in a plain tray at home, loved it and encouraged him to do more. “It’s funny that now all of a sudden if you look it up on Pinterest,” Hembree says, “drip art is the thing.”
Not one to follow the latest fad, the laidback, 68-year-old retiree is having the time of his life with his newfound creativity. A former tennis company owner from Atlanta, he had never taken a single art course when he accidentally embarked on his second career. What he did know about was guitars. He started playing at the age of 8, and as an adult taught lessons, repaired the instruments, and later accompanied the choir in his church orchestra. Then arthritis settled into his hands.
“At the very end of me playing when we still lived in Atlanta, I had to struggle because on the morning of a performance, I could be having a good day or a bad day,” Hembree recalls. “On a bad day, I could hardly hold a guitar pick, much less play. I couldn’t run that chance anymore, so I thought, ‘Well, I have always bought guitars because of the beauty of the wood.’ I always thought they were pieces of art. So I thought, ‘Why not do a little art with broken guitars?’”
First, he painted a slightly cracked ukulele for a little boy and a matching guitar for the child’s grandfather. Next he purchased a few acoustic guitars that had been damaged, some more than others, during the manufacturing process. Then he bought more. Sometimes he power-sawed them in half and decorated them with paint and unusual objects, from speedometers and pressure gauges to spigots and microphones. Old CDs and 45 rpm records prompted themes for pieces like the Yellow Submarine, which sported a periscope and a music box playing the popular Beatles song and, more recently, a Calling Elvis guitar named after the Dire Straits tune and adorned with a dial phone and a collectible plate depicting the King.
In 2013, two years after he and his wife relocated here because of her job, Hembree opened a studio in Chattanooga WorkSpace, mostly to keep his “mess” out of the couple’s basement. At first he kept the door closed, experimenting with new colors, stocking his shelves with odd parts to be used on a whim, and pondering what to do with electric guitars that couldn’t be cut.
One day, two of his fellow tenants wandered in and insisted he display some of the hidden treasures out in the hallway. “One of them even grabbed a drill and drilled holes in the wall and put up the hooks and said, ‘Here you go,’” Hembree says with a grin. “Had I not found this studio, I would never have had the camaraderie of all these people in the building, and their feedback. I get so much from them. Sometimes it’s like a playground.”
Still, he insists, he does this mostly for “selfish” reasons. “It goes back to my days of playing guitar with a small group and we would be in a nightclub or a hotel lobby or whatever. We would practice for months, and be out there playing and finish and then … nothing. People were sort of paying attention, but not really. Basically I’m a guy that’s retired and I found something that makes me feel good.”
At the moment, Hembree is crafting fewer guitar pieces to concentrate on smaller items, like his 12-inch-square wall art and drip-painted vinyl albums that resemble planets and moons. Some even glow in the dark. Outside his studio stands a kids’ ironing board transformed into a sculpture. Inside is a robot with a humidifier head and a green cylinder-shaped body made from an air conditioning unit. “I do it for the colors,” Hembree says. “The colors make me happy.”
It’s all about the journey, he adds. “There are days that I’ll just sit here and nothing clicks. And there are some days I wish I could call my wife and say, ‘Slide food under the door.’ Now I understand how the other artists get inspiration. I should be here. This is what I should be doing.”
For more information email Hal Hembree at firstname.lastname@example.org