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THE ART OF ROCK

Hugh T. Williams has been one of the best drummers in the Tampa Bay area music scene for 25 years. He was part of the legendary punk band Voodoo Idols in the late 1970s and, in the mid 1980s, the Barons of Love.

Now he sits behind the kit for the bands Sparky's Nightmare and Mariola, a side project for which Williams also sings.

But these days Williams, 48, is getting more recognition for a new passion: painting.

Although he has no training, he's sold his cartoonish paintings of music figures for as much as $1,000 and was written about in the prominent British music magazine Mojo. After that, he had to set up a Web site (www.hughtwilliams.com) and gained some notable clients.

Plenty of musicians before Williams have turned to the canvas, including Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, crooner Tony Bennett, folky rocker John Mellencamp and the late John Entwistle, bassist of the Who. Like them, Williams has no art school background.

The St. Petersburg resident started to paint more than six years ago after a car accident immobilized him for six months. He couldn't play the drums, so Williams began to toy with a few paints and some thrift-store canvases.

His first piece was a portrait of blues legend Howlin' Wolf. A musician friend wanted to buy it the moment he saw it.

"I got really excited by that," Williams says, laughing, "so right away I started doing another one. It was instant gratification."

Williams describes his colorful, cartoony images of famous folks in music history as "real simple."

"It's like a comic book, basically," Williams says. "I don't know much about art."

His portraits include Bo Diddley, Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls.

Williams' only influence, he says, is bad-boy comic illustrator R. Crumb.

Despite his success, he says, "I'm much more nervous about showing a painting to someone than I am about playing the drums in front of people. But I do feel like my painting is getting better as I go along."

The flip side to this, of course, is the visual artists who step into the music world.

Some of pop music's most innovative acts got their starts in art school, including Devo and the Talking Heads. John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The Rolling Stones' Ron Wood and the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia.

Before joining Sonic Youth, bassist Kim Gordon was a painter. Members of Franz Ferdinand and the rapper Kanye West attended art school.

The local music scene, too, features musicmakers with art school backgrounds, including rapper BC of Red Tide, who studied art at the Ringling School of Art and Design.

Chad Mize is a visual artist without a musical background _ unless you call three months a musical background.

Mize, 30, lives in St. Petersburg. He and a group of friends including St. Petersburg visual artists Andy Hawthorne, Phillip Clark and Anna Sauer spent their weekends this summer "making noise" on instruments in the house shared by Hawthorne and Sauer. Mize took to the drums.

What started as a fun creative outlet has changed the artistic mindset of Mize, who has a degree from the University of Mississippi in visual communications and works as a graphic designer. His artwork has won him a solo exhibit at the Music Spot in Tampa, and his work is featured at Cherie's Eclectica in St. Petersburg and other local galleries and clubs.

"I love playing the drums. I love to dance and I love rhythm, so it makes sense," he says of his summer of discovery. "I just never knew before that I would love to play, too."

Mize is glad he has no formal training in music. It allows him to do things his way.

"I stand up when I play, so I can dance," Mize says. "I guess that's unusual, but I have to dance." That means his drum set must be high off the ground, which he admits, "looks pretty funny."

He has no interest in a conventional drum set, prefering to prowl thrift stores and pawnshops looking for old drums, synthesized drums, anything that catches his eye. "I want to collect different size bottles, too" Mize says. "All shapes and sizes. You can get a lot of cool sounds and different tones from them."

Music also allows Mize to create art in a group setting. He enjoys the improvisation, the give and take of it, listening to what other people do on their instruments, and filling in the spaces.

Now, Mize is venturing into video. He and Clark this summer recorded the group's experimental music. Mize edited the video into artistic pieces using a program on his Macintosh computer.

"Making video to my own music is like a dream come true," Mize says. "It's such a thrill."

Some day, he may exhibit his video with his other artwork. Maybe he could have his band play at the show?

"That's dowm the road," Mize says, "Definitely."

Artists moving fearlessly, and playfully, between the worlds of painting and music makes perfect sense to Richard Beckman, an associate professor of sculpture at the University of South Florida.

"The art world is about nonfunction and play," Beckman says, "It's about doing everything that is the opposite of what the so-called academy is about and what the academy expects you to do."

Beckman adds that art bands generally aren't concerned with getting record deals as much as they are expressing themselves.

"Artists are interested in process and experimentation. We're not worried about results."

He says many of his sculpting students are in rock bands, and he encourages all kinds of artistic pursuits. Despite his own lack of musical training, he sat in with a USF colleague's band this summer in Paris, where they were both teaching as part of the university's program there.

The setting: in front of Notre Dame. The event: the annual Fete de la Musique, a sort of dada happening of street art and music. The band members were playing typical musical instruments.

Save for Beckman, who was banging away on a, ahem, typewriter.

Gina Vivinetto can be reached at (727) 893-8565 or ginasptimes.com.

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