In Conversation With: Brad Kahlhamer

Multimedia artist Brad Kahlhamer explores his multicultural identities in the new solo exhibition 11:59 to Tucson at the Tucson Museum of Art. 

Kahlhamer, born to Indigenous parents and adopted by a German American family, still does not know his full background. That ambiguity has fueled his contemporary painting that spans decades and is now exhibited in 11:59 to Tucson. The works in this exhibition elicit Kahlhamer’s childhood memories, fantasies about the Southwest, and experiences as an illustrator and musician—a blend of dreams and nightmares that express the realities of the urban experience and a longing for his Indigenous roots.

Emerald Arguelles: Can you discuss your introduction to the arts?

Brad Kahlhamer: I was born and raised in Tucson and spent my very early years drawing horses, as I was told. I spent a lot of time visiting cousins in Marana, north of town, which was an agricultural area, so I had a lot of adventures in the surrounding desert which planted the seeds of my imagination. Tucson is also where I became familiar with Ted De Grazia, who is best known for creating mainstream and cliched Native American subjects. I heard that he drove an army jeep into the desert to paint, which always intrigued me. 

I kept sketching in high school, but I focused more on music when I discovered guitar playing until I entered college. In college, I was interested in oil portraiture and created several brushy, expressionistic portraits of friends and myself. 

I graduated from University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh in 1981 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, and after that, I loaded up my little pickup truck and moved to New York City. I immediately got involved in the downtown bohemian culture and found a job at Topps Chewing Gum, known for baseball cards, Bazooka bubble gum, and Garbage Pail Kids. It was there that Arty Spiegelman invited me to join the new product development team. Immediately, I met some of the top underground cartoonists who were working at that time. I also became familiar with Pee Dog, a gritty Gary Pantor zine, and other notables. At lunchtime, I often would draw in the alley behind the Topps loft building. I started putting together painted collages of the ephemera lying around the abandoned Brooklyn lofts. This expanded to much larger works I debuted at Thread Waxing Space in 1993. Soon after, the innovative art space Exit Art gave me my first solo show. These were my first major platforms and launched my career. 

EA: Can you discuss your upbringing and how it inspires your works?

BK: As I said, I was born and raised in Tucson and spent a lot of my childhood roaming the deserts around Tucson, Arizona. As a child, I often wandered through the desert, a wanderlust that continues today and informs my work. As I did when I was a child, I still do a lot of bicycling both through the streets of New York City and Brooklyn and in the desert of the Superstitions outside of Mesa. 

EA: Was there an eye-opening moment that made you feel like you were on the right path?

BK: Those early and massive openings at Thread Waxing and Exit Art were the first places where I felt I was part of a large creative community. Showing Jeffrey Deitch put me on a high-level trajectory because Jeffrey embraced my world vision and supported my practice.

EA: How has your work as a musician informed your work as an illustrator and painter?

BK: Early on, I would draw or paint bits of song lyrics that I was writing, and eventually, these became the titles of works. When flying, I would often scrawl at an altitude of 20,000 feet, imagining the wind sound and atmosphere through a barrage of guitars. I recently performed at Club Congress in the Hotel Congress in downtown Tucson to support my exhibition 11:59 to Tucson, currently at the Tucson Museum of Art. I find music is an immediate and collaborative creative outlet. 

EA: What has your work as an artist taught you about yourself?

BK: Art has revealed my passion for interpreting the world around me.

EA: What are you looking forward to?

BK: Soon, I will be leaving Arizona for New York for the opening of Fort Gotham U.S.A, a solo exhibition of new works at Garth Greenan Gallery in New York City. After that, I am looking forward to starting a new body of work in my Brooklyn studio.