Scott Avett hasn’t publicly showed his paintings in years.
Granted, he’s been in the public eye plenty since then. He is co-founder of one of North Carolina’s most prominent mainstream bands, The Avett Brothers, and shares lead vocal duties with younger brother, Seth Avett.
However, the paintings and prints Scott Avett makes largely haven’t left his Concord studio — not since 2012, when he was part of a pop-up show in an apartment. It was a good experience, Avett says, but at the end of the night, he saw that he had sold everything 6 feet tall or smaller. It didn’t feel right.
“I didn’t really make it just to sell it,” Scott Avett, 43, tells The News & Observer in an interview. “I thought, ‘I won’t show again until it’s perfectly right.’”
He wasn’t actively looking for that opportunity, but he found it. Avett’s new exhibit “INVISIBLE” shows at the North Carolina Museum of Art from Oct. 12 through Feb. 2. The exhibit comes after the Oct. 4 release of the band’s new album, “Closer Than Together,” and a publicity tour that includes a Oct. 7, performance on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
The exhibition has been in the works since 2015, when Linda Dougherty, NCMA’s Chief Curator and Curator of Contemporary Art, first visited Avett’s studio. Over four years and numerous visits and discussions, Avett and Dougherty selected the 45 works on display in “INVISIBLE.”
His paintings are physically larger than life — bursting at the seams, as Avett puts it — with many works 9 feet tall. Topically, they’re about small, intimate family moments — a screaming baby, a sick child, a boy eating lunch — a juxtaposition between size and scope Avett is comfortable with. He’s an internationally famous musician who plays to enormous crowds regularly, though his focus and imagination are locked on Concord — his North Carolina home.
“I always make [art] based on some sort of sincere relationship with life,” says Avett, sitting in front of a color wheel just outside of the East Building gallery, where “INVISIBLE” is on display.
In his denim overshirt, rolled-up cuffs and black leather boots, he looks the part of the roots musician. He speaks readily and easily about any topic, frequently flashing a crooked grin.
“Having kids and having a family, I was forced to be more aware of what was going on at my feet, right there at hand,” he said. “So interesting and so fascinating and so visually incredible. It just fueled what I was already doing.”
Avett’s artistic inspiration
Avett’s art career — both visual art and music — began at East Carolina University in Greenville, where he graduated with a bachelor’s in fine arts in studio art in 2000.
Avett draws inspiration from two artists who painted people of the street and others demeaned by high society: 19th century French Realist Gustave Courbet and foundational Italian Baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
Accordingly, Avett wants to glorify people that he knows and loves and is close to, he says, which he does by painting unvarnished scenes from his home life. These include nudes of both Avett and his wife.
“I don’t know if it’s exploitation or not,” Avett wonders. “It might be. I don’t know.”
And then he meditates on that: Maybe all good art is exploitative in some way. Maybe there’s a continuum with exploitation on one end and propaganda on the other. And maybe by presenting his own intensely personal vantage of very common experiences — being married, having kids — he’s able to make something akin to a universal statement.
“Whether we have children or not, we all relate to childhood,” he says.
Avett Brothers’ origins
In terms of education, Avetts draws upon what he learned at ECU’s School of Art and Design daily.
In terms of life experience, Greenville allowed a young Avett, who had just picked up the banjo, to experiment and make mistakes in a self-contained environment.
“The Avett Brothers really started there,” he says.
The Avett Brothers and Valient Thorr, a North Carolina metal band with a cult following, formed in and around the art school buildings. (Only a few years later, ECU’s art school would also spawn synth-pop trio Future Islands). They played off each other, did shows together and built up audiences. The streets were small enough, Avett recalls, that they could flier them and learn what worked and didn’t.
“It was messy, but it wasn’t messy on a big level that would destroy us. That was great practice,” Avett says. “There were some great nights there.”
The Avett Brothers’ new album
Twenty years later, and Avett’s art and music exist in anything but a self-contained environment.
The Avett Brothers’ latest album “Closer Than Together,” for instance, is out on Universal Music Group imprint Republic Records. As Scott Avett and as the band’s mission statement explains, it’s the closest the Avett Brothers have come to making a sociopolitical record. In describing how, Avett seems cautious about taking a stand one way or another.
“We speak about [issues] in an inclusive and unifying way, not in a way that points fingers and is judgmental and divisive,” Avett said. “If it is divisive, then I don’t trust it at this point. My personal mission is to be involved in a unifying current.”
“Closer Than Together” diverges from its predecessors, Avett says, by speaking directly to what he sees as differences of opinion on songs like “We Americans” and “A Long Story Short.” “New Woman’s World” is an “apocalyptic” view of a man’s world becoming a woman’s world, he says, capped with a rhetorical, “Is that better?”
In “Bang Bang,” Seth Avett sings: “Have you ever had a gun / pointed directly at you? … well I have twice, and I don’t recall / any heroes on the scene / just adrenaline and fear / and a few souls who have unfortunately seen / a lot of bang bang shoot ‘em up movies.” In the chorus, he insists on turning off such a movie.
Both Avett brothers have had loaded guns pointed at them multiple times, Avett says. His own worst instance happened in 1991, when he was in high school in Concord. He and some friends were stealing a stop sign when someone shot into their Honda CR-X. The bullet passed between Scott Avett, who was hunched up in the back seat, and the others in the car, piercing nothing but a Converse Chuck Taylor sneaker.
“There’s no doubt that you get shot at like that, there’s some PTSD that, whether you know it or not, you’re going to live with it,” says Avett. “There’s a different relationship with a firearm that you have.”
Still, Avett has no problems with guns. He owns several and believes that responsible gun ownership is possible.
The message of the song, he says, isn’t to blame gun violence on movies, suggesting instead a more literal read.
“The statement of the song is saying that the individual would like to turn the TV off and that there’s a lot of racket on the screen,” Avett says. “That’s all the song says in the chorus. It actually doesn’t say, ‘Gun violence is because of this,’ but it can say, ‘This might be something that is part of this.’”
Intertwined art forms
The questions raised in “Closer Than Together” are absent in “INVISIBLE,” with its focus on small moments and the realities of family life.
For a long time, Avett would say his music and his visual art never touched, even if they were parallel at times. Now, he understands that his two art forms are closer to each other than he thought. They stem from the same person, after all — a person who doesn’t even think of himself as a musician, but simply as an artist.
“I’m just a musician by default. Like [Victorian art critic] John Ruskin said, I see and I feel and for some reason I feel like I need to document it,” Avett says. “Maybe I won’t always. Maybe I’ll stop — I kind of doubt it. As long as I do, if music is the means for that, if visual is the means for that, I should do it. If something feels wrong or dishonest, I should check myself.”
What: Scott Avett: “INVISIBLE”
When: Oct. 12-Feb. 2. Tickets to the Oct 11 artist talk and opening party are sold out.
Where: North Carolina Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh
Cost: From Oct. 12-24 and Jan. 20-Feb 2, tickets are $12 for adults; $9 for seniors, military and college students with ID; $6 for youth 7-18; free for children 6 and under
From Oct 26-Jan 19, admission will be paired with the exhibit, “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and the Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection.” Tickets are $18 for adults; $15 for seniors, military and college students with ID; $12 for youth 7-18; free for children 6 and under. On Fridays in November and December, there will be a $5 discount between 5 and 9 p.m.
Info: ncartmuseum.org or 919-839-6262