The drummer of the Grateful Dead is a multi-Grammy winner, the author of four books on musicology, and a member of revival band Dead and Company (followed by former deadheads and John Mayer fans alike). He’s also a painter—but instead of, say, brushes and pallets, he prefers drums. Hart actually beats paintings into existence with musically-conjured vibrations. Now the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is exhibiting his visual art for the first time on a North American tour, with stop no. 1 at Wentworth Gallery in New Jersey.
Fascinated with science, the musician cites the cosmos and neurology as sources of his inspiration. “The original impetus for my work was cosmic in nature,” he tells The Creators Project. “I wanted to find out how to listen to the sun, earth, moon, Saturn, and Aurora Borealis, and translate them into visuals. Then I realized these things cannot be born without vibrations. So I started using vibrations to create the paintings one by one. Or rather I should say, I birthed them. They were born by vibratory methods. That’s the baseline of my cosmic art.” It’s also an art he taught wholly to himself. Over several years, he adjusted and developed his form until he arrived at the highly-refined method involved in Vibrational Expressionism. “I went into this totally open, not knowing much except that I had a lot of paint around me, ready for use.”
At first glance it looks like the artist uses sweeping brushstrokes to produce the mesmerizing swirls, but Hart lets vibrations do that work. He sets drums and other instruments in motion to create rhythms that vibrate the canvas as he releases paint onto it. As soon as paint hits the surface, the vibration process unwinds a mirage-y maze of color and light. He times it, turns it, and uses specific formulas, knowing where and how long the paint can glide before it sets. The result is reflective of the chaotic, cosmic wondrousness he consistently seeks to unlock.
According to him, he’s using one of the most fundamental ingredients there is. “Vibrations are one of the essentials to life,” he says. “It’s like water. The world is built on when the universe first exploded into being with a vibration of sound and light. I wanted to hear what all that sounded like, and translate that sound into spacescapes.”
Since the innovator spends all daylight hours playing with Dead and Company, creating a new album, and making a little time for gardening (another unexpected hobby), he paints by night. “I enjoy the stillness of it,” he tells us about his regular moonlit practice. “It’s very much a spiritual thing. Day and night I live a vibratory life. I drum on everything. It has sensual and exoctic overtones, because the universe is constantly vibrating, and everything that moves in it is vibrational. In a sense, so are we.”
To add a personal twist to the project, Hart incorporates his love for neurology. Hart regularly visits the lab of Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a leading neuroscientist at UCSF. Gazzaley images Hart’s brain, who in turn reworks those impulses from registrations to sonifications. In other words, he makes the beats of his brain into pulses, with which he paints. Part of this is for the art, another part for science. Hart works with Gazzaley regularly to study rhythm’s effect on the mind, hoping to push music therapy into the realm of hard science. The hope is to administer music like medicine to damaged brains.
Until then, just looking at Hart’s art should have some effect on regular brains. “It should get you high,” he tells us. “They’re psychedelic, iridescent, all kinds of little things are hidden in the paintings. And I hope that it lights up people’s consciousness. They should feel happy. It’s meant to uplift the spirit.”
When asked if he’d teach someone else his craft, he told us, “Oh yeah, maybe someday. I’d love to see this form live on. But right now I kind of have a day job.”