Scott Avett: Born to be Visible

Scott Avett, of the band The Avett Brothers, pictured in far right corner of painting studios with the large artworks from his exhibit Invisible lining the walls.

This article was published in Coulture’s Fall 2019 print issue, Roots.

As the room erupted in applause, Scott Avett appeared polished in front of a sold-out audience sporting a leopard-print button-down topped with a burgundy blazer, dress pants, black boots, and with a trim, curl-free haircut. Though he wouldn’t be singing one of his Grammy-nominated songs, he was the special guest for an Artist Talk at the North Carolina Museum of Art – where one of his equally intimate creative passions would be unveiled the following day, on a scale that has never been showcased like this for him before.

“Scott Avett: INVISIBLE” opened Oct. 12 and is on view through Feb. 2, 2020 at the NCMA. You probably know Scott as the spirited, banjo-playing member of the folk-rock group The Avett Brothers – but in between going on tours and being a lead singer of a band with a dedicated, cult-like fanbase that has grown tremendously since their first album release in 2002, he is a husband, a father of three kids, a painter and a print-maker. This marks the first solo visual art exhibition at a museum for Scott, and consists of 45 of his works created over the past two decades, with the earliest dating back to 2001 and the most recent from this year.

The exhibit is divided into two thematic galleries: one showcasing the more personal, psychologically-charged, large-scale portraits of himself and his family, and the other representing the intersection between music and art, featuring prints and a sound installation. The exhibit also includes interview footage of Scott walking through the NCMA galleries with Chief Curator Linda Dougherty, photographs of Scott taken by longtime band photographer who goes by the name “Crackerfarm,” and the animated music video for The Avett Brothers’ song “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” created by Jason Mitcham, an artist and college friend of Scott’s.

Additionally, there is even a peak into some of Scott’s journals and sketchbooks – an element that I found to be one of the most confessional peculiarities behind his identity. Scott documents his fleeting thoughts, commentary on the visions of who he thinks he is, and accompanies these entries with scruffy illustrations of himself. All of this comes together to reveal storylines for both his music and visual art.

For Scott, it is the idea of pure motives, subject matter and relationships that unifies the parallel between writing songs and making paintings. This can especially be seen on the wall featuring several portraits of his wife, exposing the incredible truthfulness behind his artistry – from the nude “Tattooed Sarah” (2015) to the modern-moment captured in “American Rooster in Amalfi” (2018).

“That exploitation of personal relationships for me has always been my primary way of being spiritual, political, human, all of those things,” Scott spoke of these portraits. “If I can just try really hard and get to the root of that, a pure form of that, and reduce some of those selfish motives, then I think something good is happening – but there has to be a point of imperfection.”

Scott grew up in Concord, North Carolina, a place not far from the NCMA. However, his connection to the Museum stems back to his college days at Eastern Carolina University, where he graduated in 2000 with a B.F.A. in studio art. As a fan of 17th-century Spanish, Italian, and Flemish artwork, Scott would spend hours in the Old Master galleries. He loved the artwork so much, that one time, he even got into an argument with a security guard for getting too close to a painting – a story that he recalled in a positive, humorous manner. It is in the NCMA’s 17th-century Flemish kunstkamer (gallery) where Scott’s original painting for the “I And Love And You” (2009) album cover is now hung.

This reflects where some of his inspiration comes from, and we especially see his different influences come together in a self-portrait titled “Black Mouse, White Mouse” (2010), a piece that Scott identifies as a point of realization and spiritual crossroads for himself.

Scott Avett “Black Mouse, White Mouse” (2010). Image from North Carolina Museum of Art.

“The reason I say it was a moment of development is because I really look back on that time, very similar compared to the first seven or eight years of our band as, really just as an extension of school. I look back and there’s this large-scale practice, and large-scale learning for me.”

He then went on to describe his desire to take the contrast of lightness and pop seen in Wayne Thiebaud’s works, combined with the darkness and heaviness of Caravaggio’s works – two artists that have shaped Scott’s artistic vision throughout his pursuits. This aesthetic is then illuminated through the symbolic reference to “A Confession,” an essay by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy.

Following a tour of the exhibit at the media preview, I had the opportunity to discuss the theme of roots with Scott.

“Roots are uh, they’re good in salad, you know, like beets and things like that. Potatoes – are they a root?” Scott joked. “The idea of roots being a positive thing is a slippery slope. I think that they can be – really a hindrance to someone that’s growing, and I’m so aware of that. So roots, isn’t always, it’s not an automatic good word to me… Everybody is obligated to somehow cut those roots, you know. Eventually, at some point, somehow. If it’s metaphorically, or if it’s literally or physically, it has to happen.”

Severing your roots, rerooting yourself in new places, and acknowledging that your roots are still a part of you, remain constant at whatever stage you’re entering in life. Scott agreed that being “awake” to this is the point, especially at a young age.

Scott compared the discovery process of creating art to having a “conversation with an elder.”

“It’s one of my key tools that I use to look at myself, and be awake from the urgency you feel when you think you need to do something, and then realize – whoa, you don’t,” he said. “Or, to the reality that you do need to do something, or the reality that you can’t do something. All those realities are wound up in creating things. And if I’m aware and awake to them, there’s no better teacher than those realities,” Scott said.

To the world “Scott Avett: INVISIBLE” marks the end of a secret, but to Scott it was never a secret. According to him, he knows that he was born for this – and if you didn’t have a suspicion for that already, now its reality is undoubtedly visible.

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