High Art

The current drummer of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the original drummer of supergroup Damn Yankees—known for the ‘90s hit “High Enough”—draws inspiration from another set of stars, the most celebrated painters of the last 150 years.

The current drummer of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the original drummer of supergroup Damn Yankees—known for the ‘90s hit “High Enough”—draws inspiration from another set of stars, the most celebrated painters of the last 150 years.–Lynn Norusis

Lynryd Skyrnd's Michael Cartellone
Photo courtesy of Joshua Kessler ©2013 Michael Cartellone.

From the crowds’s perspective, it  looks like the drummer is having the most fun on stage: beating sticks against stretched skin. But it’s actually a mathematical game, balancing tempos and rhythms and holding the entire band together with a steady hand. Which is why it makes sense that drummer Michael Cartellone, of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Damn Yankees, is also an artist. Painting since the age of 4, drumming since 9, Cartellone has always meshed these two worlds. We spoke with the artist/drummer while he was in a hotel room in Nashville about his upcoming art shows at the Wentworth Galleries in Tysons Galleria (May 17, 6-9 p.m.) and Bethesda Westfield Montgomery Mall (May 17, 1-4 p.m.)

How have you managed to mesh both of the worlds of music and art?
Ever since I was a child, my life has always been music and visual art coexisting. It hasn’t been difficult dividing the time because it’s all I’ve ever known. Regarding how I continue to paint while traveling the world with a rock band, I carry art supplies with me while on tour. Several of the pieces that will be in the show were done sitting in hotel rooms. I’ve learned how to balance the two regarding just the physical hours of it. They are both incredibly important to each other. They both feed off each other, complement each other.

Where do you find inspiration?
Inspiration is from my life experiences. My wife and I went to Venice, Italy as part of our honeymoon. … Traveled south and went to Florence and went to see The David. I had a powerful experience of seeing The David for the first time and thinking ‘I have to paint this at some point.’ It took about nine years. When I did paint it I couldn’t just decide on one way, so we have “The Four Davids.”

Tell me about ‘The Four Davids’.
I knew I wanted to paint The David as a tribute to Michelangelo. I thought about what I would do, and I’m talking several years. I am not a spontaneous painter. I spend years thinking, researching, sketching, photographing … so by the time I put my brush to the canvas there is not a single question about how it is going to look.

Over those years of thinking about David, one thing led to another and I realized this statue is too important to me to just try and capture it one time, so I’m going to paint it more than once. I had already opened the can and knew this was going to be a homage to Michelangelo and I thought maybe it could be a double homage and maybe the paintings should have a tip of the hat to different art styles and different famous painters. The idea of doing four paintings, each four-foot square, set on the wall in a cube is all very kind of mathematical and that goes back to the drummer in me. I whittled down a list of 20 painters to four that I thought would really illustrate this arch over art history during that 100-year span: Van Gogh, Picasso, Roy Lichtensein, Andy Warhol. The four years that represented the era of their work that I utilized for inspiration were 1889, 1937, 1965, 1984.

What I intended to do—and I hope this is what will happen when people see them—I wanted the viewer to have an instant appreciation of all of those great artists I am tipping a hat to, but at the same time I want to then take them to a new place artistically that hasn’t been seen.


‘Carnevale di Venezia’ by Michael Cartellone.
Photo courtesy of Michael Cartellone.
‘Ronnie Van Zant’ by Michael Cartellone.
Photo courtesy of Michael Cartellone.

 ‘Carnevale di Venezia’
A mask, while picked up on his honeymoon in Italy, was the inspiration for Cartellone’s “Carnevale di Venezia.”








‘Ronnie Van Zant’
Working on the portrait of the original singer/founding member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Cartellone took pictures of the painting every day, showing the process but with different views outside hotel windows.









Did one of the pieces speak to you more?
What was fascinating about this was the learning curve I found myself in the middle of because styles I had chosen were all very unique and very different from each other. They were also very different from the way I normally would paint. Herein lies what was so satisfying about this: the adventure of learning those different styles and growing as an artist.

I really wanted to get inside the head of each painter to understand who they were as a person as well as an artist. [The painting process] was stretched out over a year. David 1889, was absolutely the hardest one and took the longest time to do.  

Lynyrd Skynyrd's Michael Cartellone.
Photo courtesy of Zildjian.

Tell me about the show.
The show will have everything, 70 works. It will cover everything, as well as a few new pieces that will be unveiled, one of which is a self-portrait.

How was that process?
Initially, painful. I have been painting portraits over the years and when it came time to paint my own, I just had the hardest time doing it.

Was it difficult to look at yourself in a focused way?
Initially, yes. The first time I did the self-portrait I repainted my face four times … I realized this is not going to work. About two years later, after doing all the movie star portraits I thought, ‘These portraits look exactly like the people did. Why am I able to paint those faces but I can’t paint mine?’ So I gave it another shot and I kept my brain out of the way. I just viewed it as the next face. I’m treating the face as more of a mathematical grid … and look at it scientifically, letting my hand do the work. It did take focus to stay unfocused.  I removed myself from the equation.
You started painting at age four. At what point were you fully into it?
I did my first show when I was 22 at the King Street Gallery in Old Town Alexandria.

Any connection to the area?
I do have some family there.

Your life seems to be on opposite sides of the spectrum: one part loud, crazy; the other methodical, calming.    
It is purposefully done for balance. It is also done because it is my expression … half the time loud and energetic and half of the time quiet and introspective, and that is the beauty of the balance.

(May 2014)