By Michael Phillips
Recently, the Grammy-award winning musician Sturgill Simpson remarked on how Kentucky is “Musically speaking [Kentucky] is the most culturally rich pocket of American existence outside of jazz.” And from this rich culture, other modes of expression and creative opportunities have arisen from its inverse: counterculture. At the forefront of this turn in the visual arts is the Louisville native David Cook, aka Bonethrower, who actively subverses and pushes against pop cultural notions of artmaking and art consumption.
Cook would eventually relocate to Brooklyn and then to Los Angeles. But before his departure from the Kentucky, he molded an aesthetic that would enable him to push his work into unexpected places – like from popular touring bands like Mastadon to international brands like Adidas.
An Incubator of Counterculture
In an interview with Juxtapoz, he frames his upbringing and early influences as being centered on a punk / DIY aesthetic. Skateboarding was monumental to the formation of his early craft, where he would begin to see how many different places people could display their art — like on “griptape and shoes.”
Cook found these points of access to be immensely motivating, since he could start to think about the infinite possibilities of where his art could be displayed. Because he didn’t come from a privileged upbringing, he didn’t receive the same kinds of training that other burgeoning artists might receive. Instead, he “just decided one day that he would simply make his daydream into his day job,” according to writer Mark Brickley.
One way he would start to focus his creative energy would be through Louisville’s local independent music scene. Cook would contribute art to limited release EPs or fliers to help advertise shows for local bands. But as he honed his craft, he developed a new strategy to navigate one central challenge to his art production: his own colorblindness. Without having the natural ability to mix paints, Cook had to adapt his illustration and painting styles to negotiate his disability.
To navigate this major early hurdle in his craft, he put his head down during this period in the early 2000s and got to work. While still contributing to local musicians’ work, he would produce filled sketchbook after filled sketchbook, often focusing on the figure of the bird.
Leaving the Nest
After laying low for several years honing and refining his talent, Cook in the mid-2000s would decide to leave his Louisville home to venture to Brooklyn, NY, where the possibilities of working with more bands would inevitably arise.
According to an interview with amadeus, a publication that highlights the work of independent artists, Cook would channel his DIY upbringing with skating, punk, and making art to position himself as a successful artist in LA. He maintains how, above all, he still prefers the opportunity to work with musicians to help create a visual direction for a cover, tour, or merch project.
Even though he’d produced art for several local bands back home, Cook found his big break into that scene through a flier he did for the massively popular metal band Mastadon. The work he contributed to the band was a radical departure from their usual branding, which typically featured more overtly brutal subjects and figures.
Like Justin Kamerer aka Angryblue, Cook incorporates a level of camp into his art production. Cook’s work explores admittedly darker themes and subjects, but it transgresses these themes by approaching them through the lens of humor. Through the use of lighter pastel colors, he, in his own words, “uses no shortage of fine lines to design a world that is equal parts modern mysticism and memento mori—at the end of the day, it all sinks in like a psychotropic drug.”
As an artist who’s spent a good portion of his professional life making art for bands, he’s also created his own music. Through this approach, he’s been able to collaborate with major acts over the years. His project The Aasee Lake was featured on a split 7” with post-punk juggernauts At the Drive In when they were in their prime.
The Aasee Lake was hugely significant to the local hardcore and punk scene in the late 90s / early 2000s, and their legacy has helped create an environment in the city that cultivates a network of local projects that collaborate and support each other.
A Legacy of Art Production in the Commonwealth
David Cook owes some of his artistic inspiration and success to the ecosystem that helped cultivate his creativity. Kentucky has also served as the launchpad for a number of other artists because of its rich creative history. Tony Moore, a comic book and graphic novel artist who was born in Cynthiana, went to school in Louisville, the place that helped propel Cook to his success as an artist.
On October 23, Moore will sit down with University of Louisville professor Joe Turner to discuss what it means to be an artist from Kentucky, the role that art plays in the Commonwealth, and the future of art production in and coming out of the state. Join us for the Colonel of Comics: Zombies, Anti-Heroes and the Art of Tony Moore as we dive into the mind and creative process of a modern comic master.