I first met Jason Newsted 17 years ago at the University of Massachusetts, in a bustling backstage area slightly smaller than the 1,500-square-foot Micaëla Gallery on Geary Street, where the onetime Metallica bassist held the opening party last night for his first public art exhibit, which runs through July 27.
At that initial introduction, Newsted was disheveled, having spent nearly three hours on stage thrashing along to a thunderous soundtrack comprised largely of hits from Metallica's 1991 self-titled breakthrough album. He wore a dirty white t-shirt and ripped jeans, greeting every autograph-seeking fan with the disarming familiarity of an old friend.
He says he never thought about having an art show until 2006. At that time, he was working on Rock Star: Supernova for CBS, and the network wanted to decorate the contestants' house with his gold and platinum records. "The art director came to my home, saw my paintings, and asked who my influences were," Newsted explains. "I told him Hanna-Barbera - The Flintstones, The Jetsons. I'd never studied with anyone. He asked if I'd like the pictures to be featured on the TV show, at the house where all the karaoke kids stayed. I said sure. And people started offering me money for my pictures. So with that, and all the positive feedback I was getting, I started taking painting seriously."
On Thursday at the Micaëla, it was clear that few things have changed about Newsted, who left Metallica in 2001 and insists he has never regretted it. At 47, he's leaner now, and the lines on his angular face--so often contorted into a fierce scowl for the band's videos and photo shoots--are more clearly defined. There was no t-shirt, though. He wore a black sports jacket and striped button-down to match his ash-colored jeans.
Newsted began painting in 2005, after a series of shoulder injuries and subsequent surgeries left him unable to shred, and forced him to become ambidextrous. (He's naturally right-handed.) The work began as a hobby, a new creative outlet that allowed him the freedom of expression his body seemed to be perversely denying him. It wasn't until a year later that he considered showcasing the results.
"I started out figuring out what techniques would allow me to draw and paint while my arm was in a sling, so I threw things at the canvas using a spatula, with one hand," says Newsted, whose show features just six of his roughly 1,000 paintings. "It was purposeful. I wanted each piece to mean something, and I wanted to paint a picture each day, as a reflection of what I was living and breathing at that time. The mentality was the same as my approach to writing music."
At the gallery, people were paying attention to his work. The crowd at the Micaëla was an eclectic mix of high-art enthusiasts--sharply dressed and studiously poring over his Pollock- and Picasso-inspired paintings--and metal maniacs, one of whom wore a denim jacket bearing every Metallica patch ever sold and inscribed, unequivocally, "Birth, School, Metallica, Death."
The response in his guestbook was overwhelmingly positive. One fan, in an entry gallery director Micaëla Van Zwoll called "the love letter," wrote: "There's nothing I can say you haven't heard before. You are my number-one artistic influence. Can you cook, too?" Another entry came from his mother, who traveled from his native Michigan for the opening: "Always proud to call you my son."
"There are some people who are not going to like what I do, and they already made up their minds beforehand," he says. "They see another musician who paints, or another writer who paints. That's fine. I saw some people making fun of the paintings tonight, but it didn't bother me. I don't want everyone to like my stuff.
"It's just like the music. There are a lot of painters, and a lot of musicians. But you've got to be good. You have to be. I've convinced myself that this is a good idea, and the positive vibrations I've felt tell me I made the right decision."
Rossiter Drake writes for the SF Weekly. Follow him @SFAllShookDown.