From Michael Jackson to Lucy Liu, did you know these 13 celebrities worked in the visual arts?
We know their faces, voices, performances and general fame, but what about their paintings, photographs, sketches and “Faberge-style eggs”? Whether brilliant or just…interesting, this work is well worth seeing. Here are 13 celebs you may not have known were so serious about the visual arts.
The King of Pop is often recognized as a polymath of sorts who excelled as a singer, dancer, composer and even inventor, but he was also an accomplished visual artist who created realistic sketches and fanciful cartoons, many of which can be viewed online.
One of his most-discussed works is an impressively mature rendering of Jackson’s idol Charlie Chaplin drawn when Jackson was only nine years old.
Some later works, like this caricature of the singer with musical collaborator Paul McCartney and this self-portrait of the artist as a child, made their way into album art, but most of Jackson’s drawings have largely gone unseen.
Of course James Franco paints. How could he not fit some studio time into his heterogeneously artistic (and no-doubt sleepless) schedule in between teaching high school film classes and getting nominated for Oscars? From re-creating Cindy Sherman’s famous Untitled Film Stills photo series (with Franco standing in for Sherman in each pose, natch) to his own original, colorful, text-laden paintings, to the tattoo designs he created for the film Why Him? Franco’s rep as a renaissance man definitely extends into the world of fine art.
This Elementary star has developed a lesser-known but quite impressive career in the visual arts. She began working with photography and collage in high school and has more recently moved into calligraphy, sculpture and painting, among other mediums. Liu says she has always been a visual artist and would sketch between takes on film sets, but took things to the next level when she returned to New York City in the aughts, bought a studio and enrolled in New York Studio School.
Since then, she has had numerous exhibitions and received praise from art critics for her skillful work, placing her in a coveted class of celebrity artists.
Liu’s art book, Seventy Two, reproduces a series of ink and acrylic black-and-white paintings inspired by the Kabbalistic take on a passage in the book of Exodus concerning the names of God. Liu often works under a pseudonym.
When not busy working as a producer, musician or one of the biggest (and most controversial) movie stars in the world, Johnny Depp likes to paint in his spare time. In 2009 he said that when bored or suffering from insomnia, he works on oil portraits of people he admires, including Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Nelson Algren, Marlon Brando, Patti Smith, Hunter S. Thompson, Keith Richards and his own family. “What I love to do is paint people’s faces, y’know, their eyes,” Depp said. “Because you want to find that emotion, see what’s going on behind their eyes.”
Depp also sketches, and his subjects have included Serge Gainsbourg as well as himself. Some of Depp’s work, like various portraits of his former wife, musician Vanessa Paradis, have ended up on album cover art. He has also donated sketches, plates and even a “Faberge-style egg” to charitable causes.
Perhaps the most iconic movie star of all time, the immensely talented Ms. Monroe held many talents besides acting before her life was cut short. She was an avid reader who constantly pushed herself to learn and develop new skills, including in the visual arts. A delicate image of a single red rose rendered in watercolors by Monroe in 1962 was auctioned off for £43,000 (about $56,000 US) in 2005. Originally intended as a birthday present for President John F. Kennedy, this gift was never delivered.
A collection of other paint and crayon sketches by the actress, most depicting the human form, were more recently auctioned in Los Angeles.
While the late actor is most famous for his portrayal of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock in film and television, Leonard Nimoy offered the world more than his iconic Vulcan performances. He was also a prolific and respected photographer who made vibrant contributions to the visual arts. His most well-known collection of photos may be The Full Body Project.
Nimoy’s series of lush, joyful nudes featuring larger women is often cited as an important touchstone by members of the fat-acceptance movement today. This series and several more have been released as art books. Much of Nimoy’s final photographic series, Secret Selves, can be seen online.
Noted actor, comedienne, author and television personality Rosie O’Donnell is less known for her work in the visual arts, but she is a prolific painter who works in abstract expressionism and realism. O’Donnell picked up a paintbrush in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and has barely put it down since. Alongside her frequent poems, O’Donnell branched out into painting as a regular outlet of expression.
O’Donnell’s work often takes a political bent and is frequently a direct response to current events. She makes art inspired by the news, often selling her work to benefit charity. She unveiled an exhibition of her work, Rosie O’Donnell: Solace, at New York City’s New World Stages in 2007.
Underground legend John Lurie is often cited for his contributions to music and film as well as his 1990s cult-favorite TV show Fishing with John. He is also a serious painter, though, and is increasingly recognized for his impressive work in the visual arts. Due to advanced Lyme disease, he has retreated from many other professional endeavors. Lurie had his first exhibition at NYC’s Anton Kern Gallery in 2004 and since then has had at least one exhibition each year ever since at museums and galleries across the globe, garnering praise for his surrealist style. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City have both acquired his work for their permanent collections, and he has published two art books — 2005’s Learn to Draw and 2007’s A Fine Example of Art.
His most celebrated painting, at least on the internet, may be Bear Surprise, a watercolor depicting a human couple interrupted while having sex by a bear throwing up its paws and saying “Surprise!” via cartoon speech bubble.
The painting took on new life in the mid-aughts as a popular Russian meme, a phenomenon about which Lurie said, “I don’t know. Some of the silly paintings are bad on purpose. That being one of them. So that it went viral was a little odd. I mostly just thought, ‘What the fuck…?’ And then I thought, ‘There are no copyright laws in Russia?’”
Billy Dee Williams
This acclaimed actor knows his way around an easel. Best known for his iconic roles in Star Wars and Lady Sings the Blues, Williams studied painting at the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts before his acting career took off. Generally working in acrylics using traditional brushwork and airbrushing but sometimes branching into mixed media, Williams has had numerous exhibitions of his work in the visual arts, with pieces selling for tens of thousands of dollars.
Williams’ paintings are in the permanent collections of the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture in New York, the African American Museum in New Orleans, and the Museum of Jazz in Kansas City. He also donated a self-portrait to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.
Celebrated hip-hop producer Swizz Beats is not only a dedicated patron of the visual arts as a serious collector and gallery curator; he’s also an emerging painter himself. Inspired in his youth by 1980s NYC graffiti artists, Swizz Beats has been publicly working with paint dating back at least as far as his days tagging the city with his crew as “Loco.”
While he generally prefers to spotlight other artists and keep his own work private, Swizz Beats’ paintings do surface from time to time. In 2013, Jay Z bought a Swizz Beats Portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat titled Holy Grail, and Swizz Beats often donates his paintings to charity.
“People tell me I should do a show, and when the time comes I’ll do it, but there are so many new artists I would rather support,” Swizz Beats said. “I want to bring awareness to artists like Cleon Peterson and Swoon, who are kicking ass. I get enjoyment from seeing them get recognition.”
Former White Zombie front man Rob Zombie has made a formidable second career for himself as a film director, helming a minor modern horror classic in The Devil’s Rejects and a successful reboot of the Halloween franchise, among his growing list of credits. But he is also a painter who has contributed album art for both his own releases and those of other musicians, such as John 5.
Zombie once studied painting at Parsons School of Design in New York City and in recent years has been increasingly recognized for his non-filmic visual work. “Drawing and painting are always one of my first loves,” said Zombie. “That’s always been the thing that’s fallen away. Now it’s something I’ve gotten back into. And I love it.
When he’s not starring in multi-part film epics by the likes of Lars Von Trier and Michael Bay or “freestyling” lyrics that were actually written by the Anomolies crew, Shia LaBeouf gets his visual arts on in a number of unconventional forms, often with quite interesting results.
LaBeouf has created a number of video and performance art pieces and made headlines for his He Will Not Divide Us participatory performance art at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. That installation was shuttered after it became a target of neo-Nazis and other fascists who objected to his message and saw an opportunity to spread their own ideology of hatred. The museum ended the exhibit ahead of schedule, citing it as a “flashpoint for violence.” You can still watch video footage of this resistance-turned-“Nazi party,” if you have the stomach for it.
“I think of myself as a visual artist first and have since I was a child,” Gordon told I-D last year. While she became famous as the bassist of noise-rock legends Sonic Youth and has historically been noted for her keen fashion sense (turned fashion-biz-acumen), Kim Gordon originally pursued a career in the visual arts. She had her first solo exhibition of paintings at the White Columns Gallery in New York City way back in 1981. She studied art at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles in the 1970s before moving to New York to become a conceptual artist, where she made friends with luminaries like Cindy Sherman and Jean-Michel Basquiat (and, eventually, the future lineup of Sonic Youth). When Sonic Youth broke up in 2013, Gordon began focusing more on painting and has exhibited her art in numerous galleries. She recently released an art book featuring some of her work, Kim Gordon: Noise Name Paintings and Sculptures of Rock Bands That Are Broken Up. “I actually don’t think of myself as a musician since I have no formal training,” Gordon told I-D. “It’s all different means of expression. I’ve never been a conventional artist or musician.”