The protean artist

Artist Tim Hussey works on a mural commissioned by Enough Pie. After the slayings on June 17, 2015 at Emanuel AME Church, Hussey used his feelings of anger to guide his work. File/Staff

His life is a little like his painting. He just goes with it.

Tim Hussey knows the rules well. He is a trained illustrator and graphic designer. He also knows how to break the rules, which he does constantly when he stands before his large canvases and dips wide brushes into containers of color.

He does not prepare the canvas with charcoal sketches or geographical outlines. He does not conceive of his images ahead of time, then replicate physically what he composed first in his head. He does not explicitly try to represent anything or anyone, not even a particular idea.

Hussey just goes with it.

He makes sweeping lines and thick splotches of color; he draws the form of an animal or a person, then half-obliterates it. He adds words, pieces of paper and found objects to the image. Hussey cannot know in advance what will happen.

Then came his first outdoor mural project, commissioned by Enough Pie to celebrate the way art and entrepreneurship intersect on the upper part of the Charleston peninsula. In June, he confronted a large brick wall shimmering with heat and light. Then he began to develop his latest image.

In the middle of painting it, he had to step back. Something terrible had happened a mile or so down the road, a mass shooting in a church on Calhoun Street, in his hometown, in this conflicted city of culture and art.

Heartbroken, he did what he knows how to do: use the feelings inside to guide his hand.

Into the mural went a large cameo of a black man, with nine tears falling from his face; Hussey embedded the phrase “Oh no not us” within a single large teardrop. Into the mural went the anger of a two-headed dog, hints of mental illness and an egg covered with colorful decoration to hide the chaos within.

“I didn’t know I was doing a memorial,” he said. “Starting out, I knew the mural had to do with covering up basic truths, glossing over racism, homophobia. ... That’s what we do, the glossing over of what makes Charleston human. And when we hide our feelings, then when we get mad, we get really mad.”

So his mural, which occupies a prominent place on the corner of Huger and Hanover streets, is more a reflection of inner turmoil than outward politics.

Hussey has moved back home after three years in Los Angeles making art and furthering his career. He his wife, Elise, are renovating their Bull Street apartment and will soon settle in for the long haul, though Hussey hopes to split his time between Charleston and L.A. He wants to add a strong voice to Charleston’s contemporary art scene, he said.

He was born in Dover, Del., in 1970. His father, Charlie Hussey, a Florence native, was in the Air Force and took the family to Guam for three years before settling in Charleston, his wife Pamela’s hometown.

Tim Hussey grew up in the Old Village of Mount Pleasant, then moved downtown at 14, six years after his parents divorced. He attended Bishop England and then Porter-Gaud School, skateboarding with schoolmates Shepard Fairey and Ted Lee.

He followed Fairey to the Rhode Island School of Design where he concentrated on illustration, then spent a junior year abroad at Parsons Paris with buddies David Miller and Arturo Aranda.

At the time, he assumed he would pursue a career as an illustrator, he said. And he’s glad he spent years in that field, and as a graphic designer, both of which required discipline and imposed clear boundaries, Hussey said.

Ted Lee, a celebrated food writer raised in Charleston, remembered building a half-pipe on South Battery in the mid-1980s that got lots of use from Hussey, Lee and Fairey during their rebellious teen years. Hussey was already getting his illustrations published in Porter-Gaud’s Watch Magazine.

They knew each other in New York City, too, when brothers Ted and Matt Lee were trying to get their boiled peanuts business off the ground and working at MTV. Hussey was working as a production assistant at VH1 and MTV, eventually painting sets live on the air behind the VJs. It was his first experience with large-format media.

He worked briefly with Kevin James and Jon Stewart; he developed four characters for Mike Judge’s show “Beavis and Butthead.”

There were Lower East Side parties, art gatherings among friends and late nights at the ad agency where Aranda often worked until midnight and where Hussey could surreptitiously develop his skills as a graphic designer.

The MTV job lasted about a year and a half, after which Hussey turned his attention full-time to illustration, soon realizing that working as a freelance and earning a couple hundred dollars here and there for a picture was not going to pay the bills.

“We were all trying to figure out our identity, style, how to make a career out of this,” Aranda said. “Tim, very early on, was much more than any of the other art and illustration majors that I knew about. He was very hyper-aware about wanting to have an alternative career path.”

So Aranda would work on the agency’s logos, movie posters and nascent digital portfolio while Hussey sat at a free computer terminal and learned how to use the unwieldy Quark Express. He’d come with a page he admired from Rolling Stone or another magazine and spend hours re-creating it from scratch.

“He’d ask how to do this or that. I’d show him simple commands. He just figured it out,” Aranda said.

Soon, Hussey was employed as associate art director of Musician Magazine, followed by a stint at GQ. A first marriage took him to Santa Fe, where he worked for Outside Magazine. All the while he continued to produce illustrations as a freelancer, receiving some notice by securing a spot in the prestigious “American Illustration” book for 10 years running.

At the turn of the millennium, Hussey was 30 and determined to unshackle himself from the business world in order to make fine art. Friends helped. One recommended he go big. Now divorced, he returned to Charleston and got to work painting large-scale, quasi-abstract, expressionistic pictures noteworthy as much for their ambiguity as for their bold style.

In 2002, the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art mounted a show of his work. “It meant a lot to me because it put me on the map here,” he said. Soon he forged a relationship with a local gallery, participated in other, smaller shows, secured two short residencies (one at Winthrop University, the other in Barcelona) and became the subject of a documentary by Adam Boozer.

When the film was screened at the Sottile Theatre in 2010, one of the people in attendance was Elise Cobb. A year later, they were married. A year after that, they moved out west, where she became involved in nonprofit agencies that served at-risk youth.

Hussey continues to work on two magazines as art director: Weston, a community magazine published in Connecticut, and Dishing, a food magazine based in Jackson, Wyo. He helped start The Local Palate, a Charleston-based food magazine, and worked on it until about six months ago, he said.

Terry Fox, a local art advocate, bought one of Hussey’s paintings, which he keeps on the fireplace mantel. He’s known the artist for a decade or so.

“One of the most interesting things to me about Tim is his past life as an illustrator and his career in magazines,” Fox said. “He’s just a talented, crazy man. ... I think there’s a great deal of mystery and message in Tim’s work. The piece I have,” called “Onesies,” “is figural, written on, with a little collage. It’s just so multifaceted and thoughtful in the way it’s come together.”

He has made two murals to date, one inside the L.A. office building used by TV star Larry David and one on that brick wall in Charleston. He’s also made four large paintings for the Charleston Music Hall.

For Enough Pie’s Awakening II Solstice project, the nonprofit got 15 artists involved to create eight murals, a sound-light installation and dance pieces.

For Hussey, the project forced him out of the studio and into the sunlight. The setting afforded him a chance to break free of the canvas and go really big, Enough Pie founder Kate Nevin said. “It doesn’t feel like Tim’s work done for a brick wall, it just feels like Tim’s work.”

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