Standing in his apartment/studio overlooking Malcolm X Park, Scott Brooks explains that he’s resisting the dark side. “I’m trying to balance it out, get away from the really morbid stuff.” He glances down at one of his recent paintings—two boys standing in a driveway in front of a suburban home. The image looks like an impressionistic rendering of a sepia-toned still from a Citibank commercial until it becomes clear that one of the boys has four arms and his companion is a double-amputee. The painting is called Mother Always Liked You Best.
Brooks laughs. “Well, I’m not going to stop doing it,” he says. “I just don’t want to be known as the ‘amputation guy.’”
In a career that’s spanned more than two decades, amputation guy is just one of the labels that Brooks has had to dodge. The 46-year-old painter/illustrator has been the creepy artist, the queer artist, the political artist, the D.C. artist transplanted from broken-down Flint, Mich., and, for appreciators of his pop-surrealist resemblance to Dali, the artist as good at painting grotesque dog-faced girls as he is at inking the pages of children’s books.
“I identified myself as all of those things at one point,” Brooks says, discussing a portfolio that includes both Lady Liberty Takes a Holiday—a crucified Statue of Liberty draped in the American flag—and covers from the children’s magazine Cricket. He’s currently working on promoting literacy through an “educational science fiction” assignment titled Explore the Ice World. “I’m just trying to do what I do,” he says. “If it’s political or social or sexual or erotic, I’ll let it happen without really stopping myself as much as I really should sometimes.”
Paging through The Ring Bear, a book he illustrated and designed for children of divorce, Brooks grins and points to a subtly sexual portrait of a bear lounging in his underwear. “I try to get my style in there,” he says.
Increasing evidence of Brooks’ style is finding its way to the surface. He’s got a spot in Mid City Artists’ open studios Saturday, May 20, and Sunday, May 21, as well as upcoming shows in Seattle and Los Angeles.
But one opportunity for national exposure didn’t work out as well as Brooks might have hoped. In 1997, the USDA Forest Service commissioned the artist to create a series of fire-prevention illustrations featuring its iconic Smokey the Bear. Rendered in a retro style in keeping with the 1940s origin of the character, the 17 pieces displayed such messages as “Be sure campfires are out cold” and “Always give matches to an adult.”
Too bad his Smokey resembled a hairier Richard Hatch, with an endearing twinkle in his eye and a detectable brawniness to his chest. “Maybe it’s just really hard for me to cut that out,” Brooks says of his subconscious choice to induct Smokey into his queer subculture. “I did a couple of my own versions of Smokey that have never seen the light of day.”
Not even all of the commissioned versions have seen the light of day: As far as Brooks knows, the Forest Service has used only one. His Smokey, he admits, “may have been too gay for them.” —Justin Moyer