Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Chris Pyle

David Tanner

Whatzup Features Writer

Published January 1, 2000

Heads Up! This article is 22 years old.

I figure at least on some days illustrator/musician Chris Pyle awakens to a

universe populated by edgy, cartoonish musicians and singers. They appear floating against an opaque backdrop

colored by the sounds generated from improvised riffs. Adjusting his black, retro horn-rimmed glasses,

Pyle glides to his Pearl drum set and joins the jam session.

I haven’t figured out yet how Pyle responds in this little scenario

when he’s addressed by one of the be-bop characters. Does he

answer like Gerald McBoing Boing might with the soft sound of

brush on snare (ka-ka-chu, ka-ka-chu) or the muffled boom of pedal against

bass drum (ka-boom, ka-boom)? Or does he in fact respond, “Cool, man” in a Daddy-O-Hip


Whatever my bizarre projections, Pyle does view the world from a hipsterís perspective, minus any of the inferred skepticism. He has created a genre of work in a style which has caught the eye of art directors, earning him commissions from Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, Time and Sports Illustrated.

He’s also done covers for The Manhattan Transfer and their homage CD to Louis Armstrong, The Spirit of St. Louis, for Atlantic Records, as well as a half-dozen or more for Verve. His jazz portraits and images are closely associated with the Playboy Jazz Festival and most recently he designed the poster for this summer’s Indy Jazz Fest.

Aside from occasional student exhibitions or advertising-industry awards shows, Fort Wayne doesn’t regularly highlight the efforts of designers, typographers, illustrators and other practitioners of the applied graphic arts, so it’s nice to see Jody Hemphill Smith include a sampling of one of the most sought-after illustrators around. The Castle Galleryís exhibition, featuring a selection of Pyle’s gouaches and pastels, runs through September at 1202 W. Wayne Street.

It’s nigh-on impossible not to be derivative these days, but Pyle fights hard to make a rare case for uniqueness and originality. This self-taught, 45-year-old dual-careerist will tell you his graphic influences range from Picasso to Tex Avery to tire advertisements. Look closely and you can also find elements of Calder, Klee, Kandinsky and Matisse.

“You aren’t the first to suggest a connection with Klee,” Pyle said by telephone from his near-Indianapolis studio in Irvington. “And now, as when I first heard the comparison, I’m humbled. Even more so when I saw certain affinities and marveled at how two people separated by time and circumstance could come across a similar language.”

Made by chance or unconscious choice, the connection becomes stronger when you factor in a shared appreciation for music and color. Much of what Kandinsky and Klee (both accomplished musicians) taught at the Bauhaus established the linkage of color and musical harmony. Pyle’s color schemes appear to adhere to such theories, stimulating the ear as well as the eye, be it hue and pitch or saturation and volume.

“Gouache is kind of an obscure medium, used mostly by animators and designers, but it suits my color ideas and over the past 10 years or so I’ve developed some techniques that work for what I do,” explained Pyle, who was born and raised in Richmond where he remembers hanging around the Earlham campus and meeting people from around the country through his music.

The same child-like fantasy, surrealism and even metaphysics associated with the Russian and Swiss painters are likewise revisited in some of Pyle’s pieces. Others contain the fluid movement, organic construction, geometric patterns and pictographic imagery common to their predecessors.

“I actually began painting as a child. Encouraged by my mother, I took some classes alongside adults when I was 12 or so and really enjoyed it. Later, as I got into high school, I shifted my interests to music and played with rock bands. I pretty much continued to play until the mid-80s when the traveling got to me and after my son was born,” said Pyle, who still plays with various jazz groups around Indianapolis and finds work as a studio drummer, including a regular gig as the staff drummer for Bob and Tom.

“Once I left the road, I was forced to find a more stable revenue source, and I returned to my painting. I think I spent the next five years living at the library, researching and educating myself in art history and illustration. Eventually I got a few commissions through ad agencies and magazines and I’ve kept busy since then.”

Overall, Pyle’s work is less a take-off of any single painterly school or artist and more of an enchanting stage setting in which his subject some, brand-new creations, others, caricatures of real people enjoy a solipsistic existence. It’s difficult not to associate their mega swell, ultra-collio look with the animated cartoons of an earlier era, specifically those of the 40s and 50s and the work of the UPA artists.

Avery, one of Pyle’s favorites, was a key member of a talented pool of animators and artists who left the oppressive environment of pre-war Disney, then skewered its anthropomorphic characters and much of American culture. It was Avery, along with others, who gave us ‘The Wolf,’ ‘Daffy Duck,’ ‘Porky Pig’ and ‘Bugs Bunny.’

Even more of an influence has to be the later work of the UPA studio stable hands, who took Dr. Suess’ Gerald McBoing Boing from book to the big screen and won an Academy Award in 1954, followed a few years later with Mr. Magoo. Characterized by spare lines and a sleek, modernistic style, these classics are most undoubtedly wherein Pyle draws his inspiration and solace.

Pyle’s reputation for capturing the nuances of music, particularly jazz, in his illustrations and portraits has earned him a special invitation from the Richmond Art Museum, which is mounting a major exhibition of jazz and art scheduled for June 2002.

No doubt one of the 30 pieces he will show will be The Manhattan Transfer CD cover which celebrates Louis Armstrong. It was in Richmond in April, 1923, that Satchmo made his first recordings with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band for the Gennett label.

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