Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Illustrated Man

The Illustrated Man

Birmingham’s Steve Lowery can’t help picking up a pencil and sketching.



Lowery (right) chats with author and boxing aficionado Norman Mailer at Madison Square Garden during the first Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier fight. (click for larger version)




September 29, 2011

Birmingham artist and musician (and frequent New Orleans resident) Steve Lowery is a fascinating individual. His passion for creating images and colors with pencils and brushes has taken him to Yankee Stadium to draw baseball players and to Madison Square Garden to photograph and sketch boxing matches and concerts. He considers himself one of the blessed. “I’ve had the greatest life in the whole world,” he says with a warm smile.

Born in 1950 in Birmingham, Lowery earned his living as a teen playing bass and singing in bands touring the South, which included stints at the Starlight Lounge in Birmingham in the 1960s. “I almost jumped off the Redmont Hotel over a 39-year-old go-go girl when I was 15,” Lowery recalls, laughing. “I bought her a ring at Lorch’s for $90 and then found out she knew every single guy that came in the club ‘in that special way.’”

Though his musical talents were a large part of his focus, it was his skill as a painter and illustrator that shaped his life and career. At age 18 he received a scholarship to attend the Art Students League of New York. Soon the New York Yankees were using his work. A 1988 Yankee yearbook features Lowery’s sketch of pitching great Catfish Hunter lounging in the dugout, and the late famed catcher Thurman Munson in action.

The two-minute sketch of Salvador Dali that Steve Lowery drew for the cover of The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali. (click for larger version)

“It was a dream job. I basically had a second studio in the first base dugout at Yankee Stadium,” Lowery says. “One of the greatest drawings I ever did was of Billy Martin. I went out drinking with him once. But only once, never again.”

Lowery began to pick up more illustration work, drawing the jacket cover of Chasin’ the Trane, a book on saxophonist John Coltrane that includes testimonies from friends, fellow musicians, and fans praising the jazz great. One of those fans whose praise of Coltrane was included in the book was a 17-year-old teen named Bart Grooms from Birmingham. Grooms has written about jazz for Black & White and laughs when he recalls that he had simply written a paragraph about what Coltrane meant to him after seeing a solicitation for such in DownBeat magazine. “I didn’t even realize they had published it until several years later when I was in college,” Grooms said in a recent conversation.

Steve Lowery’s talents took him to the White House in 1978 where he sketched Andrés Segovia as the famed classical guitarist entertained President Jimmy Carter and a roomful of guests. “I started drawing and Segovia looked at me,” Lowery remembers. “And what it was, he smelled the ink from my pen so I put my pen up and I did a pencil drawing. It took about 15 minutes. I drew two more sketches of him. Segovia was one of the absolute highlights of my life.”

Lowery also worked at the New York Times sports department when the paper preferred a rendering to a photograph. One of his first assignments was a Jets game at Shea Stadium where it was so cold his pen sometimes wouldn’t work. His love of New Orleans later led to friendships with the Neville Brothers, whose band portrait he painted one night after first seeing them at Tipitina’s. A boxing fanatic, Lowery had ringside seats at Madison Square Garden for the first Ali versus Frazier fight, where he chatted with artist LeRoy Neiman as they both complained about Frank Sinatra, who was shooting pictures of the bout for Life magazine. Sinatra kept blocking audience members’ views whenever he stood to snap pictures.

Lowery sketches Muhammad Ali at the champ’s Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, training camp where Ali was preparing for his 1978 rematch with Leon Spinks. (click for larger version)




“I was an artist with Madison Square Garden [and had illustrated] about 30 different title fights, which is what gave me access to get in to shoot bands,” he says, “which led to the Zeppelin tour and all this other stuff.” Lowery did his share of photography as well, making portraits of legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant. He also illustrated the jacket cover of Turn Around, a book about Bryant’s first year as coach at the University of Alabama.

However, perhaps his most memorable brush with fame was the day he met Salvador Dali. “I went to art school and I felt pretty hot but I knew nothing technically about art. I just knew I could draw and I’d been drawing since I was four,” Lowery recalls. (“The first drawings I remember making; I used to put tracing paper on my grandmother’s black and white TV and trace Cousin Cliff’s ‘Droodles.’”) “Eventually I went to work at Doubleday—Fifth Avenue and 57th Street—right across the street from Tiffany. Doubleday was the greatest bookstore in the world. There was a wealth of information that I had access to,” recalls Lowery. “I made $67 a week and I’d spend 40 bucks of it on books. And every great artist I ever met came in that store. Dali was the third or fourth one. Dali came in with his wife Gala one day, and he was staying part of the year at the St. Regis Hotel, three blocks down the street. So he came in and I walked up to him and I told him that I had been admiring his work and he looked at me and he said, ‘Do you know who Velázquez is?’ I told him no and he bought me a $200 Velázquez book.”

Lowery clowns around with legendary boxing promoter Don King and fighter Roberto Duran. (click for larger version)

Dali often showed up at the art school that Lowery was attending. He finally found the courage to approach the famed surrealist to ask if he could sketch him. “Dali came in one afternoon and I’d been getting my nerve up, so I walked over to him and asked if I could make a drawing of him. And he said, ‘Sure.’” He gave Lowery two minutes to draw the portrait. Once completed, Dali looked at the sketch but made no comment. A month later Dali’s agent came to the school and said to Lowery, “Dali wants to see you.” “So I went to the hotel and I brought the sketchbook. I went in and Dali is sitting there working on this incredible series of nudes. He says, ‘The book, the book!’ So I handed him the sketchbook that I had drawn him in, he opened it up and tears out the drawing of him and handed me a check for $5,000 and says, ‘This is for my autobiography.’ I bought an Armani jacket that afternoon, I swear. So it came out, it was the drawing for the cover of a book called The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali.” &

To inquire about artwork for purchase, contact Lowery on his Facebook page.

Brave Old World

Brave Old World

Singer and guitar ace Leon Redbone pines for days gone by.

September 15, 2011

Don’t bother asking Leon Redbone where he was born. He’ll probably say he was too young to remember. Some say Leon Redbone was born in Turkey in 1888, immigrating to the United States a couple of decades later. Others claim he hails from Canada. The usual story of his musical beginnings is that he began playing in Toronto in the early 1970s.

Regardless of his origins, Redbone’s masterful guitar playing and distinctive baritone voice crooning mostly jazz, blues, and pop from the early 20th century have established him as an odd cult figure who’s also a household name. New York Times writer Stephen Holder wrote, “Mr. Redbone doesn’t just dig up the past, he embodies it — by dressing himself in the clothes of an old-time traveling minstrel and singing in a voice that is a stylistic composite of early Southern blues and vaudeville performer.”

But it’s more than the music and clothes. It’s a genuine sentimental longing for the old days that he shared on a recent morning, including observations of Johnny Carson and surviving airplane crashes. He mumbles as he veers from topic to topic, making him at times difficult to understand.


Singer and guitar ace Leon Redbone plays Moonlight on the Mountain. (Photo: Nancy Depra.) (click for larger version)




Leon Redbone can also be difficult to follow. He’ll sort of answer a question and then go off on a tangent how the world just isn’t what it used to be. His dry wit and unique persona makes a listener wonder where the stage performer ends and the regular guy begins. As Bonnie Raitt once told Rolling Stone, “He’s just amazing. He’s probably the best combination singer/guitarist I’ve heard in years. I spent an afternoon with him in a hotel room and I was wondering when he was going to become normal. He never did.”

Black & White: What first attracted you to doing early 20th century and Tin Pan Alley-style music?
Leon Redbone: Well, I wanted to play Chopin but that didn’t sorta work. (laughs) So the next best thing was the music of the teens and ’20s.

You got your start in Toronto?
I’ve heard that. If there’s any truth to it, I don’t know. I’ve also heard that I moved to Canada. People want to know and I guess I’m supposed to somehow explain it.

How did audiences first react when you started playing such a unique style of music?
Well, I never took a survey. It would have been a good idea, I suppose. But if somebody started doing it now, it wouldn’t be unusual either because of all the reissued records which have come about. There’s so much information out there, by the time you sort it out, you’d be dead. So you just have to take whatever comes your way and deal with it. As far as (finding) the things that are in excess now, it’s certainly a lot easier than you could have 40 or 50 years ago. A lot of the 78s (rpm records) are available in antique stores, junk stores. You can buy just about anything. And now you can buy them, clean it up, and put it on a disk.

I read an article in Guitar Player magazine that referred to your music as “novelty.” Were you insulted?
Well, for every decade that you’re alive, a lot of things are lost. Sentiment is one of them . . . and the willingness to understand some kind of expression that it goes beyond the obvious words, which you’ll find in any song. Those qualities are quickly disappearing. Sentimentality is not considered really a necessary trait of a person of today. There’s the music of the 1900s and the 1930s, for instance. Aside from all the booze and everything and fun songs and everything else, there’s a lot of sentiment expressed which referred to an earlier time. Which is still valid today, except people have been bombarded with all kinds of rapid fads. You can buy this, you can buy that. Nobody can tell the difference, if it’s music from 1910 or if somebody wrote it yesterday. There’s a lot that’s missing in the general population because there’s so much desire to consume everything that’s put in front of them. It’s hard to tell who actually is generally moved by music or if they are just eating it. (laughs).

I was surprised that you played Saturday Night Live twice within four months back in 1976.
I guess they couldn’t find the person they wanted so they called me, I guess. (laughs)

I read that Mikhail Baryshnikov recommended your music for a ballet in 1996?
Yeah, he works with a choreographer I know. Assuming it was as you say—I didn’t verify it but I’m sure it was. But the fellow I know directly is Eliot Feld.

You did the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” quite a few times. Any particular memories from those days?
The drudgery of having to wait to do your numbers and everything. But it was a real pleasure to sit down with Johnny Carson. I found him to be a genuine individual in everything that he seemed to do. Then all that changed. Basically, after he died, everything changed. But it was a conversation, or at least a meeting, with a different time. Johnny Carson was very private in his endeavors, not only in his personal life but the recordings that he had (of his show). Everything was recorded, obviously, and he would give it to the artist stipulating that it can’t be used without permission. All that disappeared the day he died. I found [that] to be a pretty good indicator as to the sentiment of those who came after Johnny Carson. Obviously, they did not honor his request because all those things are available now. It’s just the old world going and the new world takes over.

Is it true that you survived a plane crash in 1979?
Well, yes. I had nothing to do with the plane coming down. There were a few unfortunate people who died on impact. One was, very sad to say, an elderly woman who was sitting right across from me. She had not put her seat belt on. The plane actually hit the end of the airport upside down. It was a full impact that broke the right wing and turning the thing completely over and slammed down onto the runway. It was one of those jet props. Sat about 30 plus, I’d say, something like that.

How do you travel these days?
Well, I prefer to drive. I take my time—well, sometimes I don’t take my time because I have to be there on time. Seems to suit me fine, quite frankly, I don’t have to wait for anything. Air travel now versus air travel in the ’70s. Surprisingly, few people know how the airport system worked in the ’70s—never mind 1870. Nobody seems to remember anything in the ’70s. Everybody is just completely “gaga”, I guess you’d call it, over the next and latest gizmo or whatever it is and nobody has a memory for anything else. People who should know, or should have remembered, don’t remember. One good example I give for this unique transformation is arriving at the airport, missing the flight, and then going to another counter with your ticket from Delta or whatever it was from. And having them write you a ticket through their airlines and taking care of the business for themselves afterwards. Most people don’t have any concept of that. Today if you miss your plane you’ll probably going to lose the money unless you get another in a short period of time on the same airline. You can’t do any of it any more. And it was done with a smile and courtesy.

You did jingles for Budweiser, right?
Yeah, I think that was in the ’70s. And the entire business, similar to the airline business, was restructured. The old timers in the advertising world and the agencies completely disappeared. I believe it was sometime in the late ’80s or ’90s. All the personality, just as in the music of the teens and ’20s, all the personality went out of it.”

What was your opinion of Judy Garland?
Miss Garland could be an extremely talented individual but very difficult to watch. Because of her nervous kind of appearance, and that kind if thing makes it a little difficult to listen to and watch.

What’s your cure for the blues these days?
Well, I try not to bother with it any more. (laughs) I’m indifferent to a lot of things and I think I enjoy it more in some ways, the way the music has lasted all these years. The sentiment doesn’t go away even though it seems to have. The androids may be taking over; maybe that’s what the analysis is. (laughs) People think the Martians are coming. No, the androids are here already . . . I hope you got something out of all that. (laughs) &

Leon Redbone will perform at Moonlight on the Mountain on September 30 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $50; the show is a benefit for the organization Hope Manifest. Go to for details.

Merry-Go-Round Menagerie

Merry-Go-Round Menagerie

A sculptor and master craftsman shares his skills.


September 15, 2011

Anyone driving through Five Points South in recent years has probably noticed exquisitely-crafted carousel horses in the windows of the apartments directly above Dave’s Pub. In recent months, the animals have migrated half a block across Highland Avenue to the basement of the Hassinger Daniels mansion located next to the new Chick-Fil-A. The carousel horses are created by master craftsman and sculptor Ira Chaffin and his students at the Chaffin Carousel Carving School.

Chaffin, a professional bronze sculptor whose commissioned work includes statues on campus of two of UAB’s first three presidents—S. Richardson Hill and Charles McCallum, began carving antique-style carousel animals in 2001 after a friend in Chattanooga taught him the old-fashioned method of gluing together blocks of wood from which a piece is to be carved (called a “carving blank”).

Sculptor and carving craftsman Ira Chaffin chisels a horse’s head. (Photos: Owen Stayner.) (click for larger version)

Soon after his introduction to carousel horses, Chaffin began teaching wood carving at the Woodcraft Store in Pelham. In 2009 he opened the Chaffin Carving School above Dave’s Pub. Four months ago, he and his wife—an architect for UAB—bought the Hassinger Daniels mansion, where his wife will operate a bed and breakfast while Ira will maintain his studio space in the large basement. (They are only the third owners of the home in over 100 years, according to Chaffin.)

Walking into Chaffin’s basement studio is to enter an enchanted land, where colorful creatures mounted on carousel poles capture the imagination. “We’re not really carving for the carousel industry. All of the students that come here are just doing it for themselves as projects that will probably end up in someone’s home,” he says. Though obviously a labor-intensive, skilled craft, Chaffin insists that sculpting a carousel animal is not as intimidating as one might think. “About half the people I work with have never carved before,” he says. “For instance, that little western-style pony is the first project carved by a local grandmother.”

This example of Ira Chaffin’s sculpting skills never fails to mesmerize observers. (click for larger version)






The gorgeous pony is quite elaborate and includes a carved rifle and pistol as separate pieces that are kept in holsters made into the carved saddle. The pony has a natural horse-hair tail, which Chaffin purchases from a supplier. Horse tails can also be carved from the wooden body instead of using real hair. “My job is to teach people how to use the tools, how to make good artistic decisions, and kind of keep an eye on their progress,” the sculptor explains. “People ask, ‘How long does it take to carve wood?’ And I jokingly say, ‘Well, about an hour!’ It doesn’t take long to use a chisel and hit it with a mallet. The hard part is making artistic decisions about what to carve, what to take away (with the tools) and so forth. So I kind of make that my job as the helper and instructor, to guide them along the way.”

His students can choose any animal to carve. “We’ve done carousel lions, giraffes, warthogs, bunny rabbits . . . but the most popular are horses.” The carousel bunny was carved by a semi-retired doctor at UAB, who has completed several different animals. “He has grandchildren, so you can bet that everybody is going to get an heirloom piece from Grandpa one day,” Chaffin says, laughing.

The carousel bunny was made by a UAB physician. (click for larger version)

The type of wood traditionally used in carving carousel animals is bass wood. “I buy two-inch thick timber from the supplier and glue up enough to make a large enough object for carving for what we want to do,” he explains. “It’s not a situation where we go out and find a gigantic tree. People sometimes assume that.” Creating a horse’s head is probably the most challenging task to master. “Well, I think doing the head study is probably the most intimidating part because you have to do the eyes, in the case of a horse you have to do the teeth. The head is somewhat detailed, although some of the students can get pretty extravagant with their saddles,” he says. The finished figures are painted with either acrylic or oil paint. “Some of the students, I think, sometimes struggle through the carving process just so they can have the fun of painting the animals,” says Chaffin with a laugh. “That’s when the animals really come alive, when they’re painted.”

For access to images as reference material so that students can choose the style animal they want to create, Chaffin has plenty of resources. “I have lots of books and I subscribe to a couple of magazines that cater to the carnival and carousel trade,” he says. “So we have lots of picture references. And we actually have plans that were drawn based on the old carousel animals from back around the 1900s.”

Some students come up with their own design from pictures they have at home, especially family horses. “What I really need is a side view of whatever animal they want to do,” explains Chaffin. The image is then blown up with an overhead projector onto the wall of the studio. A paper cutout of the animal is made so that the size of the wood blank from which the animal will be carved can then be determined. When asked how long it takes to carve a horse, Chaffin grins and replies, “Well, that’s the grand question, and I can never answer very easily. I can use myself as an example. I can produce a completed horse in about a month of hard work, if you think in terms of eight to ten hour days. I have students who putter around for a year or more getting something done because they don’t have the time to devote to it and it sort of drags on. So it depends on how much time someone can devote to the project.”

The joyous expression on the face of this carousel horse captures the magic of the Chaffin school’s carved creatures. (click for larger version)






A California native who studied sculpture at the University of Southern California, Chaffin has taught at the New York Academy of Art and Graduate School of Figurative Art in New York City as well as the 92nd Street YMCA on the Upper East Side; the Palm Springs Village Center for the Arts; and the California State University at San Marcos, among other schools. He also instructs during week-long stints at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina.

The hey-day of the carousel was between 1880 and 1930. Few antique carousels are left in the United States, says Chaffin. The nearest antique carousel to Alabama is located in Meridian, Mississippi. True antique carousels use wooden figures, while animals on modern machines are usually fiberglass or cast aluminum, which can be mass produced from molds. Antique carousels are much more popular in Europe. American carousels turn counter clockwise while European machines rotate clockwise. “There’s an interesting story behind that, which is probably a story I can’t verify but it’s a sensible story,” Chaffin says. “Most of the population is right-handed. And before everybody started suing each other right and left, here in America when you rode the carousel you played a game called ‘Going for the Brass Ring.’ There used to be a dispenser on carousels that would hold out rings, most of which were steel. You’d grab one as you came around and if you happened to get one of the few brass rings, you got a free ride. That’s where the term ‘going for the brass ring’ comes from.”

Coney Island used to have 20 antique carousels. Now the fabled amusement park has only one, which Chaffin not only got to ride alone on one visit, but also got to play Going for the Brass Ring. “Years ago they stopped playing that game because you could see drunk teenagers falling off the carousel and people getting sued,” he says. “A couple of years ago, I had the great fortune of being at Coney Island on a morning when no one was there except the carousel operator,” he recalls. “I told the operator of my interest in carousels and that I was very involved with carving animals. Suddenly he brought out an old brass ring machine!” says Chaffin, excitement rising in his voice. “It was a clown figure and his arm stuck out and it kept feeding me rings. It was great fun and I got to do that!”

(click for larger version)

He points at a magnificent hippogriff creature a student has just finished. “I’m told that it’s a figure in the Harry Potter books. I’m not really in tune to all that,” he admits. “But this hippogriff is a mythological figure. It’s kind of a horse’s body with wings and a bird’s head,” explains Chaffin. “It’s a nice piece but it’s not really a carousel piece because you can’t sit on it, the wings are in the way!” Chaffin Carousel Carving School is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Thursday evening hours are 6 to 9 p.m. On occasion he’ll open on a Saturday if his schedule permits. For prices and other information, go to &