An artistic treasure hunt
Photo by Pauletta Tohonnie
Whenever painter James B. Hunt ventures out into the world, he carries a blank canvas with him. Inspiration will likely hit him when he's riding on his bike.
Riding the streets of Tempe late one Wednesday night, something strikes him: He hasn't yet hidden a painting that day. But he always plans ahead.
In his satchel, he carries with him a pack of black and white acrylic paints and watercolors, along with a handful of brushes. When it's daylight, he can even use the bicycle as a makeshift easel. He ducks into a quiet McDonald's near Rural Road and Apache Boulevard, situates himself into a booth and lays out his supplies across the table, converting it into a studio.
Nobody working behind the counter registers him taking over one of their tables, normally reserved for customers. If they did, they couldn't see him anyway, for he likes to make himself invisible to the world in these situations, like now where he stis in the booth that obscures his figure.
Soon, foot traffic slowly siphons into the establishment again and he moves his mobile studio to the patio outside. He doesn't like an audience that may be leering.
Photo by Pauletta Tohonnie
In time, an image begins forming on his canvas, a closeup of a crow — an image likely to frequent his paintings — and its curved beak. The bird itself doesn't interest him so much as what he sees them to be emblematic of: approaching danger or possibly the apocalypse. True to that, every curve of feature or hair is marked by a harsh line of various watercolors.
"There's something about them that I find particularly menacing, especially their beaks. They're like toddlers with X-Acto knives sticking out of their heads," Hunt says. In all, he finishes this sketch in about an hour, a quick turnaround for someone who usually takes a couple of days to work on a painting. At the top right-hand corner of his painting, he signs it "NXOEED," his moniker, in bold capital letters.
When asked what this alter ego means, his response doesn't betray any potential individual quirks about himself, yet it emphasizes a value to what his audience interprets it to mean (or how it's pronounced).
"The letters represent alphanumeric characters that spell out something different than what you see in the name. I won't go into detail about what that is, because I like to keep it a secret," he says. "I've come to all the mispronunciations. Some people pronounce it "Nockseed," or "Kthseed," but when I say it, I usually spell it out, like, N-X-O-E-E-D. It's as much my name to me as my real name."
He couriers the painting to its final resting place: a vacant lot near one of the lightrail stops off Apache Boulevard, where he hides the painting under a tree. A short time later, Hunt sees a potential customer who finds it. They put it back. Not interested. It doesn't fit their sensibilities.
"Person who found it didn't seem to want it. It's still out there. It's yours if you find it," he writes on Facebook after.
A Post-Modern Treasure Hunt This final act surmises what happens to the artwork that doesn't stay in Hunt's possession: It's hidden out in the ether and available for the taking by anyone whose eye it catches.
The painting represents just one of thousands he's deposited over the years. A decade ago, the artist hid his first painting and now his venture has expanded to a state enterprise.
Some years he's contributed more than others — above all else it provides a great therapeutic value for him, transferring whatever emotional turmoil onto the material. Like the crow, he never knows what image appears next.
"It's like a tunnel that runs excess waste straight through my head and out my left hand without infecting the rest of me. Until it's finished, of course," Hunt says.
Photo by Pauletta Tohonnie
Overall, just under 200 paintings lay unclaimed in various strategic locations all around the state, with 13 accounted for on the Tempe campus. Hunt acknowledges they may have been picked up since he first hid them.
Now, it's part of his daily routine, sometimes taking a few small paintings at once on his bike and hiding them where he sees fit.
But what causes an artist to continue to hide himself and his art more than ten years after he began? It's part compulsion and part rage-against-the-uniform-and-dull.
For him, it started decades ago when renovation and modernization came to Tempe and Mill Avenue and gradually enveloped the unique artistic voice incubated there. It was replaced with chain restaurants, increased consternation and crackdown from local government.
"Our artists and musicians are like a nomadic tribe. We do our best shows underground," Hunt says. "For this reason, I support the secret Phoenix. The best thing our city can do to help breathe life into the art community is to stay out of our way. They'll never do that, because we're not exactly what they had in mind." This war plays out in miniature on the ASU campus with his handful of artwork thoughtfully hidden throughout. The clues to find those paintings don't announce themselves, like on some reality show.
There isn't a cool map, with vague innuendos and clues to point the way. More often than not, people become involved in the hunt for the paintings almost by accident. For those who look, the clue comes in the form of stickers affixed to a few permanent structures.
If they see his clue, they do. If not, they will go on with their day.
Near the south entrance of the walkway that leads down Forest Mall — in the vicinity of one of his treasures — a 2-by-6 inch vertical sticker clings to one of the student bulletin boards, amongst touring schedules or advertisements seeking roommates. In addition, several more stick to the outside of the newspaper stands in the same area.
Photo by Taylor Costello
For those transfixed enough to stop for a moment, Hunt's sticker states the following:
"A painting has been hidden within 100 yards of this location. Go find it."This text alone, printed in black font against a white background, isn't sensational enough to pry someone from their smartphone momentarily, yet its artwork guarantees such an inevitability. The graphic attached to the sticker is simultaneously eye-catching and nightmarishly surreal. On the sticker, Hunt drew what looks like a hairless hamster, beaming a thousand-watt smile at the viewer. It's a character that he thinks of often and began to see more traction in public when his girlfriend took a shine to the bloated creature.
Despite whatever motives the artist might have for continually hiding paintings, there's a variable of intimacy in the hunt — and of the reward.
The Reward Since much of his work is therapeutic, there's evidence of such states of mind throughout the art — such as danger, loss, discomfort and missed opportunities — themes that Hunt readily admits to being on the canvas. Yet there's something obviously appealing in them.
It may take time, but there's an audience out there for his work, and in people like ASU graduate Tori Flint, Hunt finds them.
Photo by Pauletta Tohonnie
Flint found her prize in the Roosevelt District in 2011, during the monthly First Fridays in downtown Phoenix, directed by a flyer on the art walk. Hunt publicized the hunt for this painting on Facebook beforehand, something she recalled after seeing the flyer.
She can't remember exactly where she found it, yet she did, in spite of the handful of empty lots that sit in the area. The painting sat lying upside down on a wooden palette on the side of an abandoned building with a burnt palm tree beside it. It was painted directly onto discarded piece of wood, not a canvas. That surprised her.
"But if you love art, James' paintings would likely speak to you. They portray something that you can't quite put your finger on," Flint says.
Indeed, there's something almost haunting, yet undeniably breathtaking about his work that you can't pin down. On this piece, juxtaposed against the old pages from books pasted onto the board, there's something almost alien to the painting, with windblown powder blue hair and a narrow alien shape face and eyes.
"It took a lot of searching, but it was so worth it. It is beautiful and somehow, because I found it, it feels like it was made just for me," Flint says.
There are even perverse joys to be found in work, such as his bloated hamster, which illicit a smile not unlike the illustrations by Ralph Steadman in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."
Hunt takes pride in the literal hunt for the these paintings. He says that the paintings he doesn't publicize end up right where he left them years later, its characteristics depleted by the elements.
Paintings tucked into locations like these are the unfortunate victims of the neglect of people who are not adventurous enough to explore the landmarks out of their way. In fact, the initial idea to hide his "prized possessions" was inspired by a hobby of mineral hunting in uninhabited, unexplored locations.
"I spend a lot of time on my bicycle, and I get to see some amazing little crevices around town that most people just drive right past. I started saying things to myself like, 'What this dilapidated little fence needs is a painting hanging on that rusty nail over there.'" Hunt says.
Yet, for friends of Hunt like Lawrence Hearn, the art's appeal is solely instinctual and emotional, as the world continues to socialize more and more by text, email and other technology.
"It's the same reason people are putting music on cassette tapes again. Art and music have become somewhat disposable and we're all overwhelmed by it all the time thanks to new technology," Hearn says. "Anything you can do to try and immerse your audience in the experience, to make it a little more personal, I think goes a long way for both the artist and the audience." Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @TaylorFromPhx