When vocalist and harmonica player Rodney Hatfield is playing a solo, he’s turned inward, touching something that transcends mere musicianship or performance.
“Painting is very much like the act of playing a solo,” says Hatfield, who has had extensive experience at being a successful visual artist and musician with bands including Tin Can Buddha. “It’s the same thing manifest on a different way.”
Folks can see the visual side of Hatfield’s talent at “Ordinary Madness,” an exhibit of Hatfield’s recent works that will open Friday night at Gallery Hop and runs through Dec. 23 at New Editions Gallery on West Short Street, near the Lexington Opera House.
The exhibit arrives at a point in life that the 69-year-old artist describes as “Terra Incognita,” invoking the name of one of his paintings.
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Like many kids, drew and paint while growing up, in his case at the upper right-hand fork of Blackberry Creek in Pike County. Yes, he is a descendant of the Hatfields — the family that infamously feuded with the McCoys.
As with many Eastern Kentuckians, the University of Kentucky drew him to Lexington, although he allows that his interest in academics stopped many years earlier. Music brought Hatfield his initial fame, and he was reluctant to initially step out as a visual artist.
He had been hanging his paintings in his home, where friends saw them, and eventually people at Alfalfa restaurant, in its original building on South Limestone, asked if they could exhibit some of Hatfield’s work.
“It scared me to death,” Hatfield says. “I was already a musician in the community, and that was my identity. If people didn’t like the art, I was afraid it could kill that deal.”
But people loved it, and Hatfield had parallel artistic careers, although he says it was sometimes hard to keep both going. He spent nearly 30 years as a touring musician, principally with the Metropolitan Blues All-Stars.
“After a while, I realized my painting suffered because it didn’t evolve,” Hatfield said. “When I’d come home, I’d go to paint, but when I caught a groove in the studio, it was time to go back out on tour.”
He tried to find balance, taking art supplies on the road and painting in hotels. But it wasn’t until he retired from the road in the mid-1990s that things opened up, he says.
“There was this immediate evolution in my work from regularly being in the studio,” Hatfield says.
New Editions owner Frankie York can see evolution in Hatfield’s work just from a few years ago, when his work had sharper, more defined lines. She says there are elements that endure from earlier works, like split faces — illustrating “the duality of man,” Hatfield says — but there are more works that are purely abstract and fanciful. That’s where Hatfield says his work is going.
“For a long time, I have realized that being free, letting go of the handlebars and being along for the ride, has become easier,” Hatfield says. “If I had an inkling what I wanted to do in a composition, and it went somewhere else, I’d jump on board instead of staying with the original concept.”
His main music outlet these days is Tin Can Buddha, a group he formed with keyboardist Lee Carroll and some other musicians that he describes as “an artists collective more than a band.”
Hatfield, Carroll and a few other musicians in the group will perform briefly at the Gallery Hop opening.
“It will be a puff of smoke; there and gone before anyone notices,” Hatfield says. “We’re going to improvise a piece of music. No forethought, no sketches — it will be just like trying to make a painting.”
The two endeavors, after all, aren’t all that different.