Jeremy Townsend always thought his last name was cursed. Call him superstitious, but Townsend blames his paranoia on the family history.
“We have a bunch of crazy people and terrible stories, so I decided to go with ‘Jert,'” he says.
According to his bio, the Absurdist pop artist known as Jert hails from the “homemade Meth capitol of the United States.” That’s Jefferson County, Missouri to be exact. We’re sitting in Octane Coffee in West Midtown and Townsend tells me he “crunched the numbers” himself. With sunglasses on, a fitted cap, Air Jordan Spizike’s and a full beard, Jert’s attracting the attention of fellow patrons who probably think he’s a rapper.
13thflr introduced you to Jert last week. A Midwest transplant who landed in Atlanta with his wife in 2006, after stops in New Orleans (he and his wife evacuated after Katrina), Orlando, Austin and everywhere between, Jert seems to have found his niche in the “City Too Busy To Hate.” Here’s our full conversation with Jert about his early years, Atlanta’s growing art scene and America’s obsession with tragic stories.
How does a kid in the “Meth capitol” fall in love with art? Was that what you were first into?
I guess I was just really stubborn. It’s funny. I was being influenced, but I always loved the work of Jack Davis and Mort Drucker and Mad Magazine. I always got Mad from my dad. My father was a very anti-establishment type of guy. We always watched old Looney Tunes and read Mad Magazine. That’s kind of where it started – it was more about a love for that than it was a love of art. Through boredom, I spent a lot of time in the library and that’s where I discovered the paintings of the masters. The little art section every little dingus library has, I went through all them, took them all home and poured over them. It was a good way to look at naked girls. I really just got into it, the human figure especially.
So when did you start creating your own art?
14. That’s when it became a conscious decision. I graduated high school in 1996. All the feedback I was getting from teachers and people was, “Only really talented people get to make it as an artist, so you should probably try to be a welder. Or maybe you could work for Hallmark.” Wanting to be good and prove them wrong were equally part of what I was doing. As I’ve gotten older it’s become more about making myself happy. But that’s how I got started, trying to prove everyone wrong. Those damn rednecks (laughs).
So would you say your move to New Orleans kind of shaped you as an artist and as a person?
Absolutely. I moved there for the first time in 1999. I moved down with a roommate and he and I opened up a caricature stand in this inside mall. We wanted to go somewhere we weren’t going to get stabbed, ya know. I was about 22. That was the first time I moved away from Missouri, the St. Louis area. I spent a lot of time by myself. There’s really just no place like New Orleans. It’s the only place I’ve been where kids actually walk around playing trumpets outside. There’s so much culture and it’s a whole different world. It inspired my art visually just because you can walk everywhere and soak in hundreds of years of history; good, bad and different.
What were your first impressions of Atlanta when you got here?
When I first got here I ended up – and I don’t want to alienate anyone – in this terrible place called Lithia Springs. No offense to anyone who has to live out there still. What happened was they hired me to do all the hiring and training of the caricature artists out at Six Flags Over Georgia. I stayed out in Lithia Springs because we were done being refugees. We had lived in people’s guest closets and stuff. We found this apartment in Lithia Springs, which at the time it was like, “Oh my God this is the greatest thing ever! There’s a bathroom and two bedrooms.” Within two weeks we were like, “Oh my God this place sucks!” One thing about Atlanta is it does take a long time to figure out where the cool shit is and then figure out how to get around and navigate the cool shit.
Growing up in and around St. Louis, it was one of those cities that peaked in like the 1950’s and it’s been steadily declining since. It’s unfortunate, like Detroit without the media coverage. It was a city built on building cars and building shit and now none of that shit is built in America anymore. I was coming from a dying metropolis and living somewhere where it’s booming and expanding and growing, and growing outside of its boundaries. It’s interesting and kind of exciting too.
Did your art always veer towards absurdist or did that come to be once you got to Atlanta?
My work’s always leaned toward the absurd. I think my art now is starting to resemble what’s inside my brain. I don’t know if that’s from the city or just me getting older. As you get older I feel like you get more conscious with your goals. You go, “Hey, I’m only alive one time. I better start doing shit I enjoy.” Atlanta has something to do with it. I don’t think it’s the only thing to do with, but we were here at the same time together, me and Atlanta.
You tackle pop culture with your art, but with a piece like “American Death Cult,” (featured below) are you setting out to be political, make a statement?
That piece is interesting because I thought I’d get a lot more shit for it than I did. What I found that was really cool about it was a lot of people were ready for it. Now I have had some people go, “What the hell? Why the hell? What’s wrong with you? Why would you do that?” I have to remind them sometimes, like I didn’t do that. I didn’t make the planes go in. Its part of what being in America is right now. We all saw it, we all had it stuck in our brains. The whole point of that piece, and having Lincoln and Marilyn Monroe in the piece itself, is we look at these people as American icons, and I think what gets lost is the sadness. I think people immediately think, “Marilyn Monroe, sex symbol,” but it’s a tragic story and it’s just about how we’re obsessed with these tragic stories, with death in a way. The reason the space shuttle appears in it is because I was one of those kids in the third grade class that watched The Challenger explode. They brought us all into the library. We’re watching it go up and it explodes. I remember us all being like, “Is this real?” The teacher quickly turned it off, wheeled the TV to the corner and was like, “OK, quiet time.” That stuck in my head in a similar way that 911 did. I was just trying to reflect the nightmare, not necessarily the negativity, but just reflecting. I didn’t make it up, it’s a reflection.
Do you find that Atlanta is more accepting of you and other under the radar artists than say NYC or LA?
What I like about here is there’s a lot of energy going on right now. I think there are a lot of really smart people here. There’s always a, for a lack of a better word, nerd culture here, inside the city especially. I think they liked being challenged and they like something that’s a little different. They’re looking for it. They’re seeking it out. I’ve noticed that there’s a real desire to support local things and local artists.
Aside from initial reaction of, “What the hell,” what’s the legacy you hope to leave with your art?
I’ve always been self-directed with it. What I’m trying to do with my personal work is I’m trying to do things to make me happy. I do my best to not think about what other people are thinking. I guess what I would say to that question is I hope people get it, but it’s not important to me if they do or not. For me, it’s about as long as I can feel that sense of accomplishment, and because of that painting my next painting will be better. That’s pretty much what I’m going for, the top of my abilities.
Photography by Kelsey Ryan
Art by Jert