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Brian Hester Has Taught Some of Charlotte's Best Artists, But Now He's Out to Make His Own Name

The Fish Whisperer


Brian Hester after finishing up at a recent live painting event at Coffey & Thompson.
  • Brian Hester after finishing up at a recent live painting event at Coffey & Thompson.

When I saw Brian Hester sitting at the bar at Hawthorne's Pizza on Monroe Road, looking up at the televisions with one hand on his Hoppyum IPA, he looked nothing like the countless artists I've met around the city in my years with Creative Loafing. And he's cool with that.

Hester calls himself an amalgam, and prides himself on standing somewhere outside the stereotype. He's never quite fit into any one scene he's in. As a student at UNC Charlotte, he was a jock and artist, showing up late to in his intermediary painting class out of breath and hair still wet from swim practice.

As an arts teacher at Northwest School of the Arts, he was the "drill sergeant," who taught with an intensity that many students weren't ready for. Still, it would be hard to say he's not been effective. He once taught an arts class at Independence High School that included Hayley Moran, Will Puckett and John Hairston, Jr., all of whom have gone on to make huge impacts on Charlotte's arts scene.

Now at 48, as he focuses on pursuing his own arts career, Hester still doesn't fit the mold of what you'd imagine when you hear the word "artist."

"I don't put a lot of product in my hair or dread my hair out," Hester said, once we got to talking at Hawthorne's. "I don't wear skinny jeans or come off as this flashy guy with weird glasses. There are so many stereotypes about what an artist is supposed to look like, but I like riding that stereotype line."

Hester's commissioned piece now hanging in the taproom at NoDa Brewing.
  • Hester's commissioned piece now hanging in the taproom at NoDa Brewing.

Hester is also riding his own fly-fishing line, as his outdoorsman arts style mixes true-to-life depictions of fish and landscapes with a trippy surrealist touch — sometimes subtle, sometimes not so much.

The resulting work has been gaining Hester attention in the local scene lately. He was recently commissioned to create one of 15 paintings now hanging in the NoDa Brewing tap room, and on Saturday, April 14, Hester's work will be featured in his first gallery show at Coffey & Thompson art gallery in South End, where he'll also show his sculptures, most of which depict fish.

Before the show, we talked with Hester, now an arts teacher at Myers Park High School, about being a fly fisherman in an artist's world, and vice versa.

Creative Loafing: How long has art been a part of your life?

Brian Hester: I always knew, even out of kindergarten, that I had this thing — this tactile, this observational, this conceptual thing — going on up in here (points to head) that was just always working. The funny thing with me about the visual arts — in drawing and understanding color and color theory and being able to observe and understand proportions of what you're observing — as long as I can remember, those puzzle pieces were already in place.

Were outdoorsman activities, like fly fishing, always a part of your life, as well?

Growing up in Boone, first of all you become immune to the cold. I wasn't afraid to be in the creeks, always finding crawfish. My dad took me fly fishing and introduced me to fishing at a very early age. Right after kindergarten it was like, all of a sudden I had a fly rod in my hand. So the development and my evolution through fly fishing was just ingrained there. That was my thing. I was good at three things: I was good at swimming, I was good at the visual arts and I was really good at fly-fishing.

Hester's "Show Down"
  • Hester's "Show Down"

So it must have come naturally for you to start painting fish and nature scenes.

No. The funny thing is that I always fly-fished, but I was too stupid to do anything about putting the marriage of those entities together. Oddly enough, I didn't realize the symbiotic relationship between those two, i.e. the art of fly fishing as well as my art and my painting and the finesse and the poise and the precision and the articulation of all of them.

I remember one of my painting professors in college, his name was Ron Taylor, he told me, "You know, you could be somebody with this thing, but you're not painting your passion, so you're not doing anything." I turn 49 in May. It took me until three years ago to get my shit together. And then all of a sudden I said, "Ok, this is it. I'm going to do it."

So that's when you started working with landscapes and fishing scenes. What was that like?

It's like all the teeth lined up and you were just able to make the zip.

Some folks see this art and don't take you seriously, like it's just something for Bass Pro Shops. Is that something you've experienced?

  • "Pescanoir"

The outdoorsman style of painting and painting things that have to do with fish and that arena, it turns into a hack market where people go, "Oh, I see that, I know how to do that," so somebody is lifting an idea and putting their spin on it. Now, as for humans in art history, basically all of art history was built on that. Somebody did something really cool, somebody saw it and they put their own spin on it so it evolved into something else. That is the evolution of everything.

My biggest thing is concept within my work, and my delivery of it; like my scenes. I build my scenes without having a photograph in front of me or trying to play with things. I just have studied the anatomical structure of fish. I study landscapes. I study light sources. And I know enough to get me in trouble with water and water refraction and reflection and where light sources are coming from and drop shadows. I know just enough to make you walk up to my canvas — I think — and go, "I'll be damned." And if I can stump you, and I can engulf you in my work, and I can make you believe that I know what I'm doing, then that is the echelon, that is the apex of the pyramid for me. I'm still climbing that pyramid.

How has the feedback been?

Funny thing is, I'm doing all these beautiful sculptures that I'm actually digging, and all my paintings are coming together, and my wife, who knows how ridiculous of a fly fisherman I am, she goes, "Brian, you really think that people are going to buy this?" And after being pissed off for probably about a week, I kind of said, "You know what? I'm staying the course. I'm going to follow Ron Taylor's information that he gave me, and I'm going to continue with this."

Oddly enough, my wife has turned the corner, because people are slowly starting to recognize what's happening with my art.