artbeat (2006-37)

Brian Pittman’s cathedral drawings have generated a faithful following

Reaching Higher and Higher

by Kevin Crowe

A young, pretty girl takes our order at the Tomato Head. She seems a bit quiet—not actually shy, just a tad reserved. Or, better yet, just thoughtful.

“She bought one of my pieces,” says Brian Pittman, the artist whose works are currently on display at the Square’s healthiest eatery. “I love it when students buy my work. I hate taking their money, ’cause they’re poor. I would give all my drawings away. I don’t want them. They don’t do anything for me. Typically what I do, I buy other people’s artwork with the money I get from this.

“I love artwork. I’d rather have artwork on the walls and no furniture than the other way around. Just sit on the floor and have something interesting to look at. This is not interesting to me—” he points to his works on the walls—“It doesn’t affect me. Good artwork should either pull you in or repulse you, or both. If they can pull me in and repulse me, then, oh my God, I love it…. My brain tells me that what Asheville is to music, Knoxville will be to art. It’s just makes me giddy to think about it.”

Pittman uses short sentences, merrily bouncing through the conversation, never staying on one topic for very long. “I really like all architecture,” he continues. “I like anything—it doesn’t matter if it’s music, fashion, cars—if it’s done well, and designed well, then I like it.”

He may not be inspired by his drawings, but ever since his highly detailed doodles started popping up around town, they’ve been immediately popular, especially with his fellow artists. You’ve probably seen his seminal work on Wall Avenue, where the boarded up side of one of Market Square’s tallest buildings is covered with some keen political commentary and some of the most beautiful and decadent graffiti in town. (Scott and Bernadette West have owned the building.)

“It’s graffiti,” Pittman says, “and we were writing on other people’s property and we really shouldn’t have. Everybody was just doing it, and we were doing it kind of sneaky-like, and we found out that Scott and Bernadette loved it and wanted us to keep doing it. They did have some advertising there on the panels, but they took them off so the artists could keep going.

“I’d work about two hours every Sunday, which was really nice in the spring. I got done in a few days. It took eight hours. I drew cathedrals when I was in high school. When I went to architecture school, I thought, ‘This is stupid. This is juvenile. I don’t need to do these things anymore.’ And I completely stopped doing it.”

After 13 years, Pittman had a change of heart, “I just got bored. So I drew that thing [on Wall Avenue], and it was very popular. I thought, ‘If people like it that much, I’ll draw one on paper.’”

Shortly thereafter, at a Three Flights Up exhibition, Pittman showed 10 drawings. He sold nine of them. Years ago, at the Macaroni Grill and other restaurants that provide their patrons with paper tablecloth, intricate sketches began to appear from time to time. The manager at Macaroni Grill started saving Pittman’s sketches, preserving the works by hanging them in his office.

“I have a kit of parts in my brain, and I just fill in the pieces,” Pittman says, trying to explain his unorthodox approach to doodles. “I never know what it’s going to look like. All I know is if it’s going to be a front or a side or a back.” The rest—the shape of the spires, the designs in the rose windows, the shadows—are a product of pure happenstance.

Eventually, he hopes to take his cathedrals to greater heights, to graphically depict what a cathedral would look like if we were to mix modern construction methods and materials with the kind of passion that drove the pious to build cathedrals throughout Christendom in the Middle Ages.

Quite appropriately, Pittman tells us that the frames from paintings of the Last Supper usually work well for his larger sketches, because they are always long and skinny.

“I can’t decide if that’s perfect, to put a cathedral in place of a Last Supper ,” he jokes, “or if it’s sacrilegious by cutting the thing out and throwing it away.”

What keeps him going, in spite of his claims that he isn’t inspired by his own works? “I’m a really high-strung person,” he explains. “You can’t get me to keep still. Half the time I think I’m on drugs, that they put something in my water. I don’t know. I can’t stop…. Maybe this is my way to keep doing something while sitting still and relaxing, because I need it desperately.”

What: Brian Pittman: Brianzcathedrals