The portrait of a young artist, man

Hunter Payne stares into cold bands of water falling into a rust-stained tub.

"Why am I doing this to myself?" the 21-year-old asks.

"Because it'll be totally freaking worth it," he answers and steps in. The mania that pushed him far into the night comes back in a rush of ideas:

Play tennis on top of a zeppelin over Kansas. Have a wine party while parachuting. Dress 20 friends in animal costumes and hang out in the Lowry Park Zoo parking lot. Draw underwater.

Draw underwater? Underwater archaeologists draw under water all the time. They use Mylar and pencils. Whoa. Pencils write underwater? Something has to write underwater.

After five minutes of cold-fueled mental mayhem, he steps out of the shower and stands, goose-bump naked, in front of dozens of lists taped haphazardly to his bathroom walls. He writes the ideas down as quickly as he can before he forgets.

He stands back, towels his blond mop and rubs the crown of his head with his palm to be sure it is sufficiently disarranged.

A few years back Hunter thought it would be fun to hang handmade swings in random places. The idea was a guerilla-style act of spontaneous community building. People should have a place to meet and hang out the old-fashioned way. No texting, no technology. Just people talking and swinging.

He and his best friend, Reuben Pressman, put the idea into action and won a $1,000 grant from Creative Loafing's 10-100-1000 Challenge. Now they host events that let people paint their own swing to be hung wherever Hunter and Reuben feel it is wanted.

"If it doesn't seem like it's possible, that's the project I need to do," he said. "That's where life's fun. The ideas that scare me, the ones that I know will most likely be a failure, those are the ones I want to put my energy towards. Drawing underwater? Florida Keys? That's an idea, man."

Hunter knew he'd need snorkel gear, waterproof paper, something that draws underwater, a charter boat, someplace to stay. He wanted to video it. How much is a cheap underwater camera? And how would a struggling artist pay for all that?

On Aug. 20, Hunter posted a video on Kickstarter.com, a website dedicated to funding creative projects. Imagine Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High combined with the ShamWow pitch man and you get Hunter's pledge drive video. But Hunter is no Spicoli. He does not drink or do drugs. He has a plan, he is disciplined and he follows through.

"A lot of people get crazy ideas. Hunter is always doing something with them," says his father, Craig Payne, 48, who is an assistant director at Cardno TBE, a civil engineering firm in Clearwater, "and he has always had a strong work ethic."

On Aug. 24, Hunter logged into Kickstarter.com to see how his pledge drive was coming. He had charmed the public into donating $1,292 in less than four days, nearly $300 more than his goal.

"I just started crying like crazy, like hysterically," he said. "My body couldn't handle it."

• • •

His dad understands why Hunter takes cold showers he doesn't enjoy, why he uses art to push himself out of his comfort zone, why he chooses projects that he fears will fail. He's been doing it since he was a toddler.

"Our kids are cursed with shyness from their parents. But Hunter has always forced himself into an uncomfortable position rather than avoid it," Craig Payne said. "In preschool he was uncomfortable in groups, but would invent a game to see if the other kids would play it with him. He would push himself into that uncomfortable zone, and try to take everyone with him. I think that's how he has always dealt with being shy."

When Hunter was in high school at East Lake in Tarpon Springs, art was a refuge .

"I was always ridiculed: 'Oh, you're the kid who always draws in class. You're weird. You never talk to anybody.' And now I suddenly get all this support from all these people who are understanding what I'm doing. It's so unreal. "

Hunter has found his place — where weirdness is a calling card, not a drawback — but he has also found that the creative process is hard work.

Before he left the University of South Florida to work on his art full-time, he preferred to stay in his room and draw rather than go out for beers with friends. He is disciplined, but he is also philosophical about an artistic temperament that sometimes swings without warning.

"I have unreal highs on life. A lot of people have asked me if I crash, and I just tell them honestly, 'Yeah, I get really, really depressed some days and I don't want to move and I just sit in my room all day.' But that's a blessing in itself, to be able to experience life at both extremes all the time," he says.

"Honestly I don't know if I really believe in disorders. It's a normal thing to be in a black state sometimes. Yeah, some days I just sit there in my bed and I just hate the world. Some days I wake up and I'm like: 'Yes, I'm here on this big ball of water floating through space. Let's go freaking do something.' "

• • •

Hunter is looking down from a boat in the Florida Keys into clear water. Dozens of pink jellyfish float around the stern. Waterproof sketch pad in hand, he is ready to draw underwater.

"Don't worry about the jellyfish. Just don't get one up your trunks and you'll be fine," the boat captain tells him, and he splashes down.

He discovers these jellyfish are friendly enough, and easy to swim around. He sketches one and holds it up as if to show the jellyfish his handiwork.

And so the day goes, diving and exploring like a strange little blond-haired otter. He loves the calm and the way the afternoon sun looks underwater. For awhile he just holds his breath and listens to what he describes as a "deafening awe." He melts into it, lets his body curl into a fetal position and completely relaxes. The salt is magical, he says, cleansing.

A tuna hovers in front of him, like it's staring. Hunter starts drawing fast enough to scare it away. Under the sketch he writes A/S/L — the acronym for Age, Sex, Location that people used on AOL Instant Messenger before Facebook caught on. He keeps sketching: a fish head with human legs, a school of fish in a crystal ball, fish in a shopping bag labeled Abercrombie and Fish, a Christmas tree, a boy flying a kite on a boat anchored in the sea.

After two dives and thirteen sketchbooks, Hunter has all the material he needs. He leans against a buoy, and closes his eyes as the boat churns back to the dock. The wind blowing across the stern just hints at an October cold front, and an easy, sleepy smile creeps across his face. For a rare moment, the young artist finds a small space between manic inspirations, and rests.

John Pendygraft can be reached at (727) 893-8247 or jpendygraft@sptimes.com.

Let's Draw Underwater!!!

Hunter Payne's underwater sketches and a video
documenting the process can be seen at Studio@620. The free exhibit opens Jan. 27 from 7 to 10 p.m. and runs through Feb. 18. 620 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. (727) 895-6620.

The portrait of a young artist, man 10/28/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 28, 2011 6:48pm]

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