We had the good fortune of connecting with Brett Hall and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Brett, have you ever found yourself in a spot where you had to decide whether to give up or keep going? How did you make the choice?
To know whether to give up or to keep going you have to know where you’re trying to go. So I distilled the goals that artists typically set for themselves into a Venn diagram… you know, those three overlapping circles to determine which one is most important to you. I came up with goals of Recognition, Reward, and Achievement. “Recognition” would be winning awards at art shows. But that is ceding control of my success measurement to judges whose choices are always subjective at best and arbitrary or irrational at worst. I have enough ribbons. They mean little. The “Reward” portion of the diagram would be defined as sales but I refuse to have my art defined by the almighty dollar. “Achievement” is something I can control. To me, the achievement is the impact your art can have on the viewer. I do historically accurate Native American portraits to bring attention to their plight. At an art show in Albuquerque, an elderly Native man in a wheelchair came into my booth and froze in front of a portrait of a young Hopi girl. He didn’t answer me when I asked if he liked it so I let him be. He was soon wiping away tears. When he finally spoke he said it reminded him of a girl he knew in Indian Boarding School when the government took Native children from their parents with the justification that they had to “kill the Indian to save the child.” They cut their hair, burned their clothes and beat them if they spoke in the Native tongue. To think the paint on a canvas could evoke that emotion humbled me. That was the ultimate achievement. Why would I ever “give up?” My mantra is “to give a voice to those who have been silenced, to give eyes to those who do not see and to give a heart to those who just don’t want to care.” Giving up is not even a faint option. I will not give up based on the measurement of others. Rather I will rely on my heart.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I have spent 40 years in advertising, commercial art and marketing. An art whore, a mercenary for hire who can use words and pictures to get people to buy something they don’t really need. You see, the purpose of advertising is to make people unhappy… if you just had that cologne, those cool shoes, that new car then surely you would be happy. It’s an empty promise that doesn’t last loing and you have to come back for another dose. Kind of like the corner bar or the church on the hill. (Have you ever noticed that every small town, no matter how small, has those two instituions… a church and a bar?) So six or seven years ago I had that epiphany and I had not drawn anything… other than ad layouts and logos… for over fifteen years. So I went back to the drawing board… or the easel as it were. But I was all over the map. The curator at one of my first shows told me I needed to focus because “if I did everything, people would remember nothing.” So I tried to find that focus and remebered a time when I was selling high school yearbooks to Indain schools on reservatons. I met some outstanding people living in squalor. That’s when I embraced the idea of being an artist/activist. It’s about indigenous peoples, social justice and the environment. I let the portraits speak for themselves.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
When I lived in Colorado I would have answered this question with “the mountains.” While we were in California the answer would have been “the beach”. You go with what the locale is known for and in Houston that’s the arts. So, in Houston, that would be the theatre, the galleries or a small music venue. There’s a rich cultural landscape here and that landscape rivals the mountains and the beaches in its own special and, perhaps, more memorable way.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
So when I was an 18-year-old kid I left high school in Great Bend, Kansas two weeks early to go to Colorado Institute of Art in Denver. I left a self-stamped, self-addressed envelope for my diploma. It was a two-year course in commercial art. I never even considered college. I was just that cocksure… or stupid. As I neared the end of the course I took off early again. An art school buddy and I had cooked up a plan to go to Europe. We had Eurail passes and a guide to youth hostels and I had $150 a month to live on. At the last minute, my buddy backed out. But, still as cocksure, I took off on my own. I backpacked around for 3 months while I waited to hear from Art Center College of Design in L.A. and Rhode Island School; of Design where I had applied. In a Paris train station, some fellow travelers gave me directions to Salvador Dali’s home in Spain, my idol at the time. And off I went. It was said he would meet any art student that came to his door. And he did. It was a quick introduction and then I was shown upstairs to meet his wife, Madame Gala, because her English was much better than his. After sitting alone for some time she flew into the room and asked: “where are you from?” Denver I answered. “And what are you doing here?” Hoping to impress I told her I had come to see the great art museums of Europe. She looked at me for a moment and said: “It is better you go back to Denver, look at one painting and go walk in the snow.” So here’s a shout out, across the cosmos and the heavens to Salvador and Gala who showed me that the heights of meeting my idol and then offering some sage advice that brought me back down to earth again.
All images provided by Brett G. Hall