With music now accessible to us anytime, anywhere, most of us have become accustomed to using it as a distraction. Sure, we may stop and really zone in on a song every now and then, but more often than not, it’s just something just to help pass the time or drown out our surroundings.
For local cartoonist and illustrator Jeffro Kilpatrick, however, music is and has always been creative fuel. “From Merle Haggard to Rakim to Billie Holiday … they keep me company when I draw,” he says. “It’s like music works hand in hand with my line. It pushes my hand across the page.”
This process has certainly served Kilpatrick, one of Philly’s most prolific and sought-after illustrators, well. Now on display at Masthead Print Studio in Northern Liberties, Kilpatrick’s latest solo exhibition, Norris Street MixTape, serves as a tribute to the songs that have so heavily influenced him as an artist.
Whether referencing a specific lyric or just a feeling the song evokes, each of the 30 or so featured illustrations focus on one of Kilpatrick’s favorite pieces of music, a collection that spans the musical spectrum—from rock and country to jazz and classical.
Needless to say, this yields an interesting array of imagery.
In one piece, a downtrodden, furry brown creature with big teeth and horns captures the essence of English singer/songwriter Nick Lowe’s 1994 cover of Johnny Cash’s “The Beast In Me.” In another, a crocodile dances to the tunes of Little River Band’s ’80s hit “Lady.”
Due to the inherit whimsy of Kilpatrick’s colorful cartoon characters, most of the illustrations force you to see the songs in a different light, offering a visual element that you may never have conjured up on your own.
But the most telling illustration in the bunch is one with no creatures at all. Rather, it’s of a young, freckle-faced boy lying on floor next to a stereo, doodling away with headphones on his ears and a smile on his face.
As the title suggests, the show is first and foremost a tribute to the place where Kilpatrick’s love of both music and cartoons first sprouted roots: his childhood home on Norris Street in Fishtown.
“My dad always had records on when I was a kid,” explains Kilpatrick, 36, who is one of the founding members of the Philadelphia Cartoonist Society and a teacher at University of the Arts. “And my grandpop had this extensive record collection of old jazz, country and big band music.”
As for his lifelong fascination with monsters and beasts, Kilpatrick says it all started pretty much the moment he picked up a copy of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are and when he tuned into an episode of The Muppets.
Although MixTape may be his first collection of strictly music-inspired artwork, over the years Kilpatrick has actually had a great deal of success combining the two passions, having created posters and fliers for several local clubs and groups including Nate Wiley & the Crowd Pleasers, Black Landlord and Ween.
His work even caught the eye of Grammy-winning producer and Philly native Aaron Levinson, who asked him to design and illustrate the cover of his 2001 album Philadelphia Experiment, the collaborative project including Uri Caine, Christian McBride and ?uestlove.
“I was amazed when he said he was a fan of my work,” says Kilpatrick. “I was also amazed he pinpointed that I’d love to draw images for blues and jazz albums.”
Still, Kilpatrick’s biggest (and most serendipitous) connection in the music biz is to veteran rocker Tom Waits. “When the Internet was new, a friend found a P.O. box for him from an online autograph seeker site,” he explains. “Back then, I think he was a little less busy and more accessible.”
After Kilpatrick sent him some copies of his work, the two established a brief correspondence. He was even lucky enough to score himself a jar of Waits’ homemade spaghetti sauce one Christmas.
“I guess I’m kind of a star-fucker,” Kilpatrick jokes. “But not for any reason except trying to get my work affiliated with musicians who feed into my work and inspire me.”
“I don’t care if I don’t make a dime for it,” he continues. “I just like having my work feed back into theirs in some way.”