W. C. Hemming: Creating a Legacy
By Jeff Bell
The passing of a close friend and the onset of middle age have a way of slamming home the reality of one's mortality. Suddenly there is an urgency to get things done - to leave your mark, to make a difference or at least pursue a long-held dream.
Columbus artist W.C. Hemming had such an epiphany about five years ago. Shaken by the deaths of several close friends and about to turn 50, Hemming decided it was time for him to become fully engaged in his painting.
"Since about '96, I've been extremely productive," he says while sipping a cup of coffee and glancing at the paintings scattered around the studio in the attic of his Clintonville home. "I just lit a candle under myself.
"A couple of close friends died, and that reshaped my philosophy of creativity. Life is very temporal, so you have to create all the time. As an artist, I want to create as much beauty as possible and share my perspective of the world. I want to create a legacy."
For Hemming, that legacy will be his edgy caricatures of some of the most important figures in history, literature, art and music – Einstein, Freud, Twain, Poe, Hemingway, Thurber, Yeats, Renoir, Monet, Bernstein, Fats Domino and Miles Davis. It will also include his gritty depictions of roguish characters who prowl the bars and streets of our times, from Columbus to Paris and Prague. Then there are some landscapes and nudes he has painted in recent years.
In sum, Hemming has completed more than 220 paintings and now averages about 35 new works a year. He sells about half of them. "As a starving artist, that's pretty good," he says. "I've sold more than Van Gogh, but of course I'm not as good as him."
A devotee of acrylics, Hemming calls his painting style "Boston expressionism and Mad Magazine with a healthy dose of color." "My colors are unusual," he explains. "They are real weird and strike you as being different."
Awash in hues of moody blue, intense red, burnt orange, luminous yellow and royal purple, his insightful, witty caricatures have caught the eye of gallery owners and art admirers. Since 1997, Hemming's work has been exhibited at Roy G. Biv, the Lanning Gallery, Acme Art Company, Utopia, No Attitude Bar & Grill, Ohio State University's faculty and staff art show and Noah's Underground Art Gallery in Ann Arbor, Mich. His art has also been featured on the cover of this publication.
Currently, the Dublin Arts Council is featuring eight of Hemming's caricatures of famed musicians in its "Class Acts of Columbus" exhibition series. They will be on display through Feb. 6 in the old buggy works building at 440 Nationwide Boulevard in the Arena District.
Hemming is also showing five pieces at Noah's Underground in Ann Arbor through March. And beginning Jan. 3, 13 of his works will be on display at the Short North Tavern. That show will run through February 3.
Asked what he would have said 10 years ago about the chances of his art someday being featured in three shows at the same time, Hemming shakes his head in disbelief and replies, "I would have listened to that and said, You must be out of your mind.'"
He credits his wife of 17 years, Soon Ja, for providing much of the inspiration and leg work for his recent run of success. A tireless promoter of his work, she helps coordinate his shows and markets his art to gallery owners.
"She has had a moderating effect on me," Hemming says. "I was a typical wild person before I met her. Soon Ja has been a prime mover in my creative process, and she really stands up for my work."
As an admirer of paintings that reflect an artist's talent and honesty, Lanning Gallery owner Ursula Lanning says she likes Hemming's paintings because they are unspoiled and funny.
"He has a way of looking at the world in a humorous way," she says. "His pieces are always witty slices of life. He is what I would call a pure primitive artist. I think he is sincere. Some who do primitive art are out for sale reasons only. He does it because that is the way he see things. It's a natural for him.
"Talent [in art] is a given today; there's a lot of it out there. But art has to be something that is immediately identifiable as you. That's what W.C. Hemming's work says. It's him."
Hemming describes himself as a person "swayed by my moods, the full moon or whatever else is on my idea list at the time." The results, he notes, are a "weird brew of the worst relics of a classic education mixed with hillbilly bars, strange landscapes, funny people doing goofy things, huge protrusions of noses, street scenes, sea scenes, bar scenes, the glory of the human figure distorted beyond measure, and ordinary scenes of madness from history, literature and creatures that walk the night."
Hemming credits his late mother, Audrey, for opening his eyes to the beauty of art. Raised on Columbus' East Side, he remembers his mother taking him to the library and helping him choose books on art. "My mother was very good about instilling values as far as the respect for art," Hemming says.
Later, as a student at Whetstone High School, Hemming started scratching out what he remembers as "crude cartoons &endash; Davy Crockett-in-a-coonskin-cap kind of stuff." But his etchings showed enough rough promise to earn him entry to the Columbus College of Art and Design.
His stay at CCAD was short-lived (one year) because he was drafted into the Army at the height of the Vietnam war. His artistic talent earned him a position as a draftsman, sparing him from combat duty.
Once his Army hitch was up, Hemming returned to Columbus and began pursuing a bachelor's degree in history at Ohio State. After graduation, he worked 11 years as a social worker for public welfare and mental retardation agencies in Columbus.
Burned out by the pressures of such high-stress work, Hemming decided he wanted to work with data instead of people. He returned to Ohio State, this time as an employee working with computers to coordinate room scheduling for classes. He did that for 10 years before landing his present position, appointments secretary and building coordinator in the psychology department, two-and-a-half years ago.
Through it all, Hemming continued to draw and paint. He liked to go into bars - Dick Den's, the old Jury Room and Beck Tavern – and work on caricatures of the customers. He learned to draw fast, scratching out images of boozers and bar flies before they moved on to their next nightspot of choice.
During this period, he developed a keen connection to the styles of expressionist painters Jack Levine and Moses Seymour. "I looked at the expression in the faces of the people they painted and said, 'Wow! These guys really convey feeling to me,'" Hemming recalls. "When you show spirit and life in a painting, then you have succeeded."
At the same time, he was drawn to caricaturists such as Charles Bragg and Thomas Nast. He liked how they exaggerated their subjects' physical features - a bulbous nose or- eyes -in a way that revealed some deep-rooted truths about them. And in revealing those truths, they weren't afraid to rub people the wrong way.
"My paintings can offend anyone," Hemming says with a mischievous grin. "That's okay, at least they are alive and telling a story. They are the kind of paint-ings you either really like or you really hate. Either way, I know I'm on the right track. The only thing that hurts is indifference."
So, with his trusty dog Ogie at his side, Hemming heads to his attic studio evenings and weekends and works on paintings that he hopes will educe an emotion in those who view them. And at times, he dreams about the future and how wonderful it would be to see his paintings exhibited in a world-class gallery, especially one in Toronto or New York. "Then I can beat my chest," he says.
Jeff Bell is a writer who lives in Bexley.
W.C. Hemming's paintings can be viewed www.wchemming.com