The hard-driving Southern rock of Lynyrd Skynyrd rarely allows drummer Michael Cartellone to use the jazzier approach of brushes instead of sticks. He spends plenty of time with brushes, though — paint brushes. Between nights spent performing “Sweet Home Alabama” in arenas, he has become an artist of such note that he’s featured in two area galleries this week. And he will show up at both of them.
Like Ronnie Wood, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop and a few others, Cartellone spends as much time before an easel as he does onstage with his band and has managed to make a dual career for himself.
For Cartellone, 51, they’ve both been passions since childhood.
“I started to paint when I was 4, started to drum when I was 9,” he says over the phone from New York. “And basically have done both simultaneously my entire life. There have always been these two halves of a whole, as it were.”
One career, involving paintbrushes, is quiet and solitary; the other, with drumsticks, loud and performed before thousands.
“It’s really hard for me to imagine one without the other,” says Cartellone, who was also drummer for the band Damn Yankees before he joined Skynyrd in 1999. “They absolutely enhance each other, they motivate each other. And I’ve learned how to find the time to do both simultaneously, literally carrying a canvas with me in and out of hotel rooms, painting in the afternoons when I’m performing at night.”
Not exactly the stereotype of a rock star on the road — staying up all night, sleeping all day and partying hard.
“I’m not throwing TVs out of the window,” he says. “I’m sitting by the window, painting. . . . I realize I might be bursting some bubbles.”
Through the years, the two careers have intersected, as when he painted classic album covers, from Jimi Hendrix to Michael Jackson, on drumheads.
But that was before he turned to Michelangelo.
After experiencing the master’s famous statue of David in Florence, Cartellone has made a large homage to it in the style of four other historical artists he admires in “The Four Davids,” a centerpiece to his shows at two local Wentworth Galleries.
“When I saw that statue, it was just so powerful and overwhelming, I thought, I need to paint this just in tribute,” Cartellone says. “It took several years of thinking just how I could actually do that. And I simply couldn’t come up with just one way to do it, which is why it turned into four.”
The four were in the manner of different artists whose unique styles contrast with one another. “In essence, I found myself creating 100 years of art history,” he says. “They are the culmination of several years of research, of planning, sketching, and then a full year of painting.”
The results are not just in the distinctive styles of van Gogh, Picasso, Lichtenstein and Warhol, they’re drawn from specific works — for Van Gogh, an1889 self-portrait; for Picasso, a 1937 portrait of Dora Maar; for Roy Lichtenstein, a variation of his 1965 “Girl With Hair Ribbon”; and for Warhol, one of the colorized portraits of Michael Jackson done in 1984.
“One of the things I had intended to do with this project is to choose four styles that I was not familiar with, and in essence, to deconstruct myself as a painter and put myself in a position where I was going to walk into a very unknown learning curve, and that turned out to be an amazing experience,” Cartellone says. “I found myself having to almost start over, and push aside the techniques that I had been using all these years. But what that did — it enabled me to grow as artist, and it was just a wonderful experience that I feel has informed the way I will paint the rest of my life.”
He was so pleased with the results, he’s now planning a second series of “another famous statue and four very famous artist versions of it.” He does not elaborate.
His art exhibits can have the aura of a rock show, with Skynyrd fans among the art crowd; it may be the only time you might hear someone yell “Freebird” in a gallery.
“There are people who may not have had an interest in visual art, but know of me from my night job,” he says. “Then there’s a vice versa. People who have purchased paintings of mine in the past, who have no idea I was a drummer in a rock band.”
Best of all, he says, was “one person who hadn’t heard of the band, which I thought was fascinating. It was an important moment for me: He saw my painting, and purchased it, and it only had to do with appreciating art, nothing else.”
He’ll embark with Lynyrd Skynyrd for another big double-headlining tour with Bad Company this summer that stops at Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow, Va., July 19 (Cartellone also has family in the D.C. area – his in-laws, who include former Army chief of staff Gen. Edward C. Meyer, live in Arlington).
And though Cartellone is sitting in the seat once occupied by Artimus Pyle and a slew of other drummers, he is, after 15 years, the longest-running drummer in the band, which currently features just two original members, Gary Rossington and Rickey Medlock.
In a journeyman career where he’s drummed on tours with artists as diverse as John Fogerty, Cher, Peter Frampton and Adrian Belew, Cartellone has had to tailor his drumming style to fit the artist – just as he has been doing on canvas adapting visual styles.
“I never really thought about it that way before, but that really is key here,” he says. “The maturity as a musician of learning how to adapt to styles is exactly what I then started to do as a painter.”
In his role with Skynyrd, Cartellone says his job is to replicate the sounds fans know from the classic albums and not impose his own style.
“When you are playing songs that are so iconic, like ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and ‘Freebird,’ you really simply can’t take liberty. Because these are songs that are so well known and ingrained in the listener, it wouldn’t sound right if you didn’t follow the tried and proven recordings. There are times when one can interject their musical personality, yes, but it’s very obvious when you should and when you shouldn’t.”
He’s still the one Yankee in a band of determined Southerners — a Damn one at that.
He was a founding member of the band Damn Yankees from 1989 to 1996 alongside Ted Nugent, Tommy Shaw and Jack Blades.
He was the only unknown quantity in that band at the time. “The unknown kid from Cleveland,” Cartellone says. Shaw had been in Styx; Blades in Night Ranger and Nugent in the Amboy Dukes and fronting his own bands.
Cartellone had earlier gotten a job drumming for Shaw in a New York audition where he was one of 25 applicants. At the time he was working in the art department at a children’s’ clothing company.
“I was literally painting what was probably a bunny or a ducky at the children’s clothing company,” he says, “and there was a phone call telling me I had to get a leave of absence from that job because I landed the gig with Tommy, and we were going out on tour.”
Shaw and his band were booked to open a four-month tour for Rush.
“I was painting a bunny, and the next week I was playing Madison Square Garden,” he says.
With both bands, Cartellone has been at the edge of controversy. The politically conservative Nugent delights in making outrageous statements about gun rights, women in government and liberals. And Skynyrd made headlines in 2012 by announcing it was removing the prominent Confederate flag that had adorned its shows since the beginning, then made headlines again by reinstating it following protests from fans.
Cartellone tries to keep above the fray, on his drum stand. “It’s not my position to speak to something that was decided 40 years ago,” he says about the flag. “For me it’s always been about the music.”
And when it’s not about the music, it’s about the art.
“I would not be a very happy person if I were doing just one or the other,” he says. “They completely are two halves of a whole.”
Roger Catlin is a freelance writer.
Michael Cartellone: The Four Davids The artist appears at Wentworth Gallery, Westfield Montgomery Mall, 7101 Democracy Blvd., Bethesda, May 17 from 1-4 p.m. Call 301-365-3270. He appears at the Wentworth Gallery at Tysons Galleria, 1807U International Drive, McLean, May 17 from 6 to 9 p.m. Call 703-883-0111. www.wentworthgallery.com.