The artist, musician, poet and all-around Athens institution Vernon Thornsberry is ready to settle down. This may be hard to believe if you know him, as he is always in motion, whether delivering Jittery Joe’s coffee on his moped, chatting with folks on the street outside the Grit or cutting a rug at a late-night disco. He captures the most benevolent zeitgeist of Athens in his art and music but also in the way he occupies space. It is cheering to see him buzzing along on his scooter in his red striped helmet, or hear him whistling away or telling a story featuring the enigmatic “Your Boy” and “Your Girl.”
Thornsberry, who is originally from New Orleans, moved to town in 1986 after coming here on vacation. Then, Athens was sleepier, more bucolic. But he is not one to live in the past, and he keeps up with the changing and growing scene. In fact, his schedule would be hard for many younger folks to keep.
Thornsberry has always been a working man. These days you will find him slinging coffee and baking cakes, but he also finds time to make art and music. He is prolific, having recorded several CDs, where he plays every instrument, and produced a body of work including sculptures, paintings and poetry.
Largely self-taught, Thornsberry was mentored early on by notable photographer and artist George Dureau in New Orleans. Dureau, who rendered and photographed nudes from models of local drifters, amputees, dwarves and friends, encouraged Thornsberry and even ran electricity from his own studio to Thornsberry’s neighboring tin shack, where he was painting tirelessly by candlelight. Thornsberry learned from Dureau how to paint allegorical scenes and work with nudes. He also found someone who valued art and an artistic life as much as he did.
Dureau, much like his famous student Robert Mapplethorpe, is known for work that is carnal, erotic and unsettling, but Thornsberry works with the human form in a way that welcomes the viewer in with care and gentleness. His charcoal drawing “Rumble Scene,” recently pictured in Oxford American’s Georgia music issue alongside a host of other prominent Athenians, seems at first to have some of the brutality of Dureau, but on closer inspection, there are no weapons or blood among the heap of bodies. In fact, the people look pretty serene among the disorder.
Taking cues from masters like Michelangelo and Caravaggio, Thornsberry seeks out beauty. Many of his paintings look like they could be set in another era on another continent, but look closer and you may recognize the familiar faces of someone who served you a meal or played you a song. He softens the edges of life in his work, and his love of Athens and the people who occupy this place is evident in his depictions of them on canvas.
While Thornsberry could have stayed in New Orleans or gone on to New York City, he chose to make Athens his home. Recently, however, events forced him to leave his longtime living space and find a place of his own. His friends brainstormed about how to find him a sustainable and permanent living situation. Prisca Zaccaria, an artist and patron of Thornsberry’s work, suggested he have an art show to try to raise money to get established in a safe, healthy living situation where he can make art and still be close to the downtown where he works and plays. Thornsberry is sometimes reluctant about showing his paintings, but with his friend’s encouragement, he is ready to come out Saturday at Firehall No. 2, next to Avid Bookshop on Prince Avenue.
I sat down with Thornsberry on a recent Friday night before he headed out to the dance club. Here’s what we talked about.
Flagpole: It seems like whenever we go somewhere, everyone knows you, but how do you think most people have gotten acquainted with you over the years, Vernon?
Vernon Thornsberry: People know me different ways. Sometimes people know that I am a musician. Sometimes people know me as an artist. Sometimes people know me as a musician and an artist, and sometimes people know me as a writer, a poet. Sometimes people don’t know me as a sculptor. Sometimes people know me as a sculptor but not a writer, painter, a poet, a musician.
FP: So you are obviously multi-talented!
FP: And you are obviously so humble!
VT: [Laughs] Well, you’ve got to be these days. See what I’m saying?
FP: But seriously, Vernon, you really are humble, and I bet a lot of people don’t know the depth of your talent in large part because you don’t show your work that often. What has inspired you to show your paintings at the firehall?
VT: It’s Mardi Gras month! [Laughs] The reason I decided to do this was because Prisca Zaccaria bought me a lot of canvas. She likes my art. So, I knocked them all out and then I thought, “Well I can have a show.” I also have old pieces that no one has ever seen before.
FP: Where do you get your ideas for your paintings?
VT: My imagination. I like to tell stories. I like to take the foreground or the subject up front and make you look over it and when you look over it you are looking into a story.
FP: What do you find more interesting? The foreground or what is happening in the background?
VT: To have a story, you have to have the foreground to make the background.
FP: Your paintings often have really beautiful women in them, and at the dance club you are often seen dancing with lovely ladies.
VT: Doing the right thing.
FP: You have a lot of fans. Recently, you decided that people knew you because of your newfound Facebook fame. What is it like being a local celebrity?
VT: Yep. [Smiles]
FP: Do you get nervous about having a big show like this?
FP: This show is in part to help you find the funds to secure a home. Can you talk a little bit about your recent experience trying to find housing?
VT: We started by looking around Athens, but didn’t find anything that was in my price range. Then we decided to talk to the Athens Land Trust to see what was available close in town, where I could paint and walk to work. They said they would try to look for something like that and try to help me, because they had confidence in my art and what I do and want to help me continue to express my artistic goals.
FP: When did you begin that process?
VT: It was about a year ago that we sat down with David at the Athens Land Trust and filled out the paperwork.
FP: So where do you currently stand with housing?
VT: I live in an Athens Land Trust unit where I will paint and sculpt, but I haven’t started yet. I don’t know about music, because I have neighbors. I have to figure out how and where I am going to play my music.
FP: Speaking of music, you just released a new album and had a well-received show at the 40 Watt. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
VT: I did a CD called Jazz, Jazz, Jazz, and More Jazz! I will probably play out again, but I have been so busy getting ready for this art opening that music is on the back of the burner.
FP: Where can someone get a copy of that CD?
VT: Through me or over at the Jittery Joe’s Roasting Co. on Barber.
FP: That leads us to coffee! What is your coffee of choice these days?
VT: Double espresso, no milk, just sugar. I call it “double long,” with four packs of sugar. And I go toe to toe with anybody. Toe to Toe with the Mocking Bird, that’s one of my CDs. You’ve heard that CD? No? Wow!
FP: Is the coffee what makes you able to be so productive?
VT: I think it is all.
FP: What is all?
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