A tall figure in a Shrimp Records T-shirt greets me at the door to City Gallery at Waterfront Park.
"Hey, come on in," he says, a broad smile disguising worn-out eyes.
I follow Tim Hussey, his scruffy beard and cuffed jeans leading the way. We enter the two-story white space, and there are hundreds of his pieces learning against the walls, waiting to be hung. The show exhibits 10 years in the life of the painter, from 2000-2010, 10 years of moments and relationships, explorations and reflections, something a lot of people have been calling a retrospective.
"This is me looking back, and in that way it is retrospective," says Hussey, "but not in the classic sense. I'm only 40, and I feel like I just got started."
So scratch that. The term "retrospective" belongs to Methuselah-aged rock stars one tour away from the grave. That's not Hussey. This show is a recollective. Something he's calling Drown Then Swim.
"It's about surrendering to being yourself and shaking off all that you thought you were supposed to be," Hussey says of the title. "In other words, you have to drown the you that society wants to build and really look at what it is you want out of life."
For Hussey, the "you" he uncovered was a serious painter hiding behind the shadow of a successful commercial artist. See, 10 years ago Hussey was an influential and sought-after illustrator.
"When he decided to leave New York, he was kind of at the top of his game in the illustration world," says Adam Boozer, owner of Jewell & Ginnie and director of Running by Sight, a documentary starring Hussey that debuted this year.
"Tim was doing stuff for everybody," Boozer says, and he does mean everybody. Hussey's illustrative work was regularly featured in Business Week, Forbes, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. By all accounts he was what any Rhode Island School of Design grad could hope to be: a working and successful artist.
But, Hussey explains as we walk upstairs to the second story of the gallery, "I was never even meant to be an illustrator. I was meant to be a painter." A bold statement considering his former career.
Feeling creatively frustrated, his building sense of discontent became harder to ignore.
"That gut feeling of dissatisfaction creeps up through you eventually, and you can decide to let it destroy you or you can turn and move with what it's asking for," says Hussey.
So he escaped. He left the Big Apple and moved to the South. "He wanted to get away from it and moved to East Tennessee in the middle of nowhere," Boozer says.
As Running by Sight documents in a short vignette, Hussey found himself playing the role of gentleman farmer in an unassuming rural community.
"It was about as far away from New York as you can get. He had this little cabin where he would paint," says Boozer. There, in the small shack, Hussey began to shake off shackles of his illustrative training.
In the film, Hussey explains that it wasn't the quaintness of the shack that drew him, but rather the fact that everything he needed to create was already there, like deteriorating pieces of wood and so-called "man" paints, liquids used to seal floors or paint tractors. Hussey explains in a Running by Sight interview, "I wanted that feeling to go into my artwork. I didn't want the tender acrylic color pieces I'd been doing for so long."
The painter also says in the film that he would hide his work in a small barn, afraid visitors might come upon it and be confused. But confusion was hardly the reception he received when someone noticed his work online a time later in 1999 and asked him to join a group show at the Zeitgeist gallery in Nashville.
"I was nervous. They said, 'We like your work, but you should go bigger,' " Hussey remembers.
So he did, and his large piece titled "Du Calme" ended up being the image from the show featured in the Nashville Scene.
"Because of that the gallery took me on," says Hussey. A few months later he had his own show at Zeitgeist and his first taste of life as a painter.
"Matisse described his early days working in his attic studio apartment as a perpetual state of anxiety," says Bo Joseph, a contemporary painter and a friend of Hussey. "He was constantly wondering if he was as crazy as he thought he was."
Hussey himself has been no stranger to thoughts about madness. "I always worried that if I went into my mind for that long and that often I wouldn't be mentally stable," he says laughing.
Joseph says the feelings the famous French painter experienced at the turn of the 20th century are the same universal conflicts artists such as Hussey and even himself face every day.
"It eats you up," Joseph echoes a few days later on the phone, "this insecurity and fear."
Although Hussey has experienced his fair share of anxiety and self-doubt about his skills, those days are behind him — but just barely. He says, "I'm just starting to believe in myself as a solid painter."
Drown Then Swim is a vivid graphic timeline of Hussey's own metamorphosis. Guests to the City Gallery will begin at the beginning, the first few years of Hussey's self-imposed exile from illustration. There the power of his illustrative training and earlier work is still vivid in scalloped details and intricate, though deteriorated lines. But as you move on through the gallery, the narrative becomes more and more abstract and you can actually see Hussey's psyche separate itself from the demands of a client.
"I don't feel responsible for the viewer anymore. I can produce an intriguing enough image, and I don't have to spell it out," says Hussey.
There's an air of relief about him as he looks at his early pieces and then around the gallery, absorbing his prolific second career.
"It's nice to look back at 10 years and say, 'God, now I feel like I'm really confident,'" he says. "Even though I still see merit in these old pieces, now I'm really in touch with my tools."
That's relief, not vanity, mind you. If there's one thing that comes through in both his images and his personality, it's that Hussey's a down-to-earth guy.
"A lot of people that I know in the fine art world take themselves incredibly seriously. And they're so full of shit," says Boozer. "But Tim has a level of realness about him. He respects the work and it's valuable and it's supported. It's a big deal, but come on, you know, it's fun. I've never caught Tim taking himself too seriously."
Hussey's humor is something friends and contemporaries often point out.
New York-based artist Joseph met Hussey freshman year at RISD and remembers him as always having a great sense of the absurd. "He has a very dark, dry wit. He's very silly," Joseph says.
While walking through the City Gallery together, Hussey's puckish nature emerges. Discussing his process and how a painting can take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks to produce, he stops mid-sentence and asks, "You know the feeling when you're sick of hearing yourself?"
The Husseyian personality, made up of equal parts farce and talent, is described best by San Francisco illustrator Ward Schumaker.
"His work is surprising, scary, and weird. And the guy is equally surprising, scary, and weird," says Schumaker. "That Tim's work and self are one and the same means there is no fakery."
Schumaker got to know Hussey through his wife, illustrator Vivienne Flesher. "As an art director, Tim frequently gave my wife illustration jobs, and we were blown away by the risk taking we saw in his design work. Next, we started noticing the illustrations he did himself, and to us they seemed more like art than illustration, and a hell of a lot more interesting. What you see in Tim's art is what you'll see in his heart: They are of one piece."
Joseph agrees. "The greatest thing going for Tim is that the process itself is the reward," he says. "Tim's real success is not measured by approval from collectors, but instead by the integrity he brings to his work."
Authenticity, of course, is at the crux of what Hussey is trying to convey. "My work is supposed to look like a real stream of consciousness. I'm not trying to fake you out of thinking."
Using found objects, bits of old notebook paper, graphite, coffee, irons, and blow dryers, Hussey doesn't paint for a particular celebrity-style Bono-backed cause, but works instead to uncover the fundamental feelings expressed in any given moment of life.
As we look at his work most recently shown at the Rebekah Jacob Gallery on King Street, Hussey explains, "This is not bullshit. It's not about the saving of the environment or racial issues or money, even though all that stuff does form me. I, in turn, am more interested in how those things affect daily relationships — people aging, how love falls apart, can any love last forever? You want it to so bad. It's the same stuff I worried about when I was really little."
Those feelings, taken in and reflected through his expertly trained yet idiosyncratic eye, give way to large paper mats covered in layers and line drawings and paint that are designed not to speak to one particular audience, but to speak to many over time.
Joseph says that what people will see in Hussey's work is "a very accomplished vocabulary in illustration, developed into a very authentic, brutal, dark-humored, sometimes erotic, usually surreal, personal language of pure painting."
Years after they first met as 18-year-old art students, Joseph says he's happy to see his friend finding success.
"I was impressed when he stepped back from what had become an impersonal lifestyle in New York to dedicate his efforts fully to his painting," says Joseph. He was even more flattered when Hussey called to ask if he could include a few of Joseph's own pieces in the exhibit.
Even though they've been close for more than 20 years, Joseph never realized his own artwork, which involves layering and washing and scraping paint and other media, had, in fact, been one of Hussey's biggest inspirations.
Visitors to Drown Then Swim will note the influence, and Hussey isn't embarrassed to share.
"To pretend like all this came from nothing would be a lie," Hussey says, looking around the gallery.
I look too, trying to absorb the paint, textures, strokes, and decisions, and I know that no amount of art history instruction could give me the vocabulary necessary to accurately describe Hussey's work. Or maybe I could and I just don't want to. Like a shaky shot of Novocaine to a swollen tooth, I know my description would only dull the real feeling evoked in his paintings. Therefore I have no way to describe his work, each one stranger than the next. I just know the feeling I get when I look around the gallery: I want to linger a little longer because I know that I haven't seen enough.
"The fact that he's weird gives Tim a unique vision to share with others, a vision of the world we'd never see on our own," says Schumaker.
Drown Then Swim is that vision, 40 years in the making from a man who's only just begun.
"For years I've been an illustrator, designer, photographer, painter, and I've always mixed up all of them and I still do. But this is the thing that I am now."
He shrugs his shoulders.
"Hey," Hussey says. "I've decided what I want to be."